“The watershed question before us is this: Is God saying that we’ve completed our mission as a congregation, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant?’ Or is God calling us now to a new ministry and to being a new kind of church for the 21st century?” This was the question presented by Reverend George Hartzog in late 2016 to the people of Fairview United Methodist Church at a critical time in their history. In 2017, through prayer, discussion and reflection upon the scriptures, they discerned that God was calling them into a new season of ministry and to be a new kind of church for the new century ahead. Thus, the seeds of the Wesley Learning Living Community were sown.
Fairview UMC was planted in the late 1800s by a few members of First Methodist Church in Bloomington. New industries were moving into the Near West Side, and the neighborhood was beginning to develop, particularly, for the working class. The population and the new church boomed. Late Christmas Eve in 1922, the large limestone church the congregation had recently built caught fire, irreparably damaged. Undaunted, the congregation constructed a temporary tabernacle and built a new church in 1924, complete with a large sanctuary, full-size gym, a fellowship hall and classrooms. They eventually built an education wing in 1957 to accommodate the growing size of the congregation.
Like many churches, Fairview UMC’s membership had dwindled during the last recent decades. From a membership of over a thousand members, the church had less than 100 members when Reverend Hartzog was appointed in late 2016. His past work as a pastor in Los Angeles and Chicago with churches in transition was an asset while Fairview chartered its next steps.
The Wesley Learning Living Center is based on the experience of John and Charles Wesley and George Whitfield while students at Oxford University in the 1700’s. They lived in a poor neighborhood and gathered a few other students to share their “life together.” As they did their academic studies, they engaged in prayer and Bible study and served the neighborhood in which they lived, establishing a literacy program with the children, a community kitchen and even a loan program to help keep families from “debtors’ prison.” They also traveled to America on a mission trip. This was the beginning of the “Methodist” movement.
The new Wesley Learning Living Center at Fairview will house a small group of university students on the church’s campus. These student-participants, in addition to their academic classes, will daily study the scriptures, pray together and share meals together. They will go out into the community for 6-10 hours a week working with the neighborhood residents.
Pastor George said, “The Wesley Learning Living Center is an experiment in Christian living. The goal is to deepen discipleship and being the body of Christ as a covenant community. The student-participants will learn how to be in conversation with the surrounding neighborhood and discerning with the residents the way by which God’s mission of which Jesus spoke in Luke 4:18-19 can fulfilled.”
After making that watershed decision in 2017, Fairview UMC encountered a number of obstacles. In order to do the construction on the education wing to make it into a student residence, other areas of the church needed to be remodeled and brought up to code. The church needed a new roof, a new foundation, new windows, and more.
Over $325,000 has been raised mostly through donations from members and other persons beyond the church supplemented by some grants from the Indiana Conference, the Indiana United Methodist Foundation and the Lily Endowment’s Center for Congregations for the necessary design, planning and construction. The renovations and remodeling started in 2018. Then in 2019, with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, construction was delayed, but the church pressed on.
Construction and remodeling now are nearly finished. All the major projects have been completed. As the rooms are trimmed and furnished, the vision for the Wesley Learning Living Center is being realized.
“Every time we ran up against a problem, where it looked like there was no way to proceed, we prayed together that God would open the door and we would follow where God would lead us.” said Pastor George. As the Fairview UMC congregation heeded God’s fresh call, they continued to proceed by faith.
The Center will house up to six students and a director. A new Board of Directors has been created to oversee this new ministry and they have established the Center as a new non-profit corporation. Currently, the Board and the church are actively recruiting and earnestly praying for God to bring the first residents and director to the Center. The academic year 2022-2023 will be a transition year for welcoming new students and the new Director. They hope to fully launch in the Fall of 2023.
During these past years, Reverend Hartzog often would preach about the Israelites sojourning in the wilderness as God led God’s people “by stages” to a new land with a new promise (Exodus 17:1). “God’s people, in those days, needed to learn how to trust God, to discern and receive a grace sufficient. We, at Fairview have discovered that as we follow God’s leading, seeking to do God’s will, God is faithful to God’s promises for a new beginning and a new life. Indeed, we have experienced that God is leading us ‘by stages,’ too.”
The Wesley Learning Living Center endeavors to be a new paradigm for ministry with students at Indiana University-Bloomington and Ivey Tech Community College, complementing and connecting with the other student ministries of the Bloomington UM congregations as well as the other faith communities and churches in Bloomington, such as their neighboring AME congregation. As the students and the Fairview congregation grow in their faith and communal life, God is undoubtedly leading them, as the congregation envisages, “to be a radical church and a revolutionary movement” for our time.