GREENFIELD — The applause continued in the little white church in the woods. Some of those gathered for the annual service at Beech Church reached over to shake the Rev. Markus Dennis’ hand.
The ovation touched his heart as well. It’s a moment that has stood out to him on the path to launching a new Friends church in Greenfield.
Dennis also is pastor at Walnut Ridge Friends Church in Carthage. Walnut Ridge had supported the Beech Settlement when black settlers came to the Carthage area from North Carolina in the 1820s. They were free people seeking new opportunities, and they found a warm welcome from the nearby congregation.
We loved you then, and we love you now, Dennis told Beech Settlement descendants and others gathered to remember on that Sunday in September. His words resonated deeply. But in that moment, a big-picture view of Walnut Ridge history flashed through his mind.
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The church had sponsored the settlement and 10 other meetings in the past, including Westland Friends Church in Blue River Township. Why had that support for starting new congregations stopped?
“Why did we stop planting meetings?” Dennis said. “I don’t have an answer except Riley Friends.”
Riley Friends Church met for its first service at 5 p.m. Feb. 10 at 20 W. South St. in Greenfield. It takes its name from poet James Whitcomb Riley. Dennis, a Greenfield-Central High School graduate, thought the name appropriate for a church in the poet’s hometown.
The service included congregational songs sung from a songbook, prayer, special music, a time of “open worship” when those who felt led by God to share a Bible verse or another thought are welcomed spontaneously to do so, and a sermon by Dennis.
The desire to start a new church reaches back further than the Beech service in September. Dennis, who had been a pastor in Seattle, returned to the area and interviewed at Walnut Ridge some three and a half years ago. He told leaders of Walnut Ridge — the church he attended as a boy, the church his father once pastored — of that desire.
“It seems that’s been on his heart early on,” Doug Shoemaker said. As general superintendent of the Indiana Yearly Meeting for 13 years, Shoemaker has seen an interest in starting new churches grow in the association of Friends churches. He cites a 2017 pastors’ summit in Knightstown that featured a church-planter speaking and was well-attended, as well as several pastors who have expressed interest.
“There are many Friends who have a heart and vision for reaching more people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” Shoemaker said. “There are many pastors who are curious and hungry to be part of a disciple-making movement.”
Dennis said Riley Friends has sought no financial backing from the Indiana Yearly Meeting but appreciates its support and enthusiasm. He said the worship space is furnished largely by donations. Those launching the church prayed for 80 chairs; someone donated 90 matching ones with padding. Someone donated six months’ rent. A neighbor who’s a welder helped fashion the pulpit.
“There are so many stories we could tell about how the Lord has led from the very beginning of this,” said Susan Kirkpatrick Dennis (no relation to Markus Dennis). “It’s just been a really exciting time for us.”
She and her husband, Randy Dennis, are part of the leadership team for launching the church.
“The more we heard (Markus Dennis’) vision, the more we were convinced this was something the Lord was leading us into,” she said.
Open houses Jan. 27 and Feb. 3 drew 134 people. They included community leaders, representatives from other Friends churches, and people “who wanted to come and see what we were about,” Kirkpatrick Dennis said. “We were pleased with the turnout, with the conversations that went on through the night.”
Dennis said more than 20 attended the first service Feb. 10, and emails and calls he’s received suggest more plan to come on future Saturday evenings.
The pastor said a conversation with a friend, in which the friend said Christians need look for ways to love people, has helped shape a vision and mission statement for the church.
“‘Looking’ is a proactive perspective of expressing our faith, rather than just waiting for people to come to us,” Dennis said. He also appreciates the word, “love,” is a verb, not a noun, in that sentence.
“We’re going to be looking for ways to love people, one at a time,” he said. “We want to be the church instead of just do the church talk.”