Oakbrook Church

FULL HOUSE: The congregation at Oakbrook Church takes in an Easter Sunday service in 2015. Photo provided

A merger is underway that will combine two of the area’s largest churches and rebrand one of Kokomo’s most influential religious institutions.

Northview Church, which opened a Kokomo site on Easter Sunday in 2018, is in the midst of a merger with Oakbrook Church that will be finalized by mid-October and turn Oakbrook’s three locations into Northview churches.

It’s a move that affects hundreds of churchgoers across north-central Indiana and grows the influence of the nondenominational, multi-site Northview Church, which by the end of the merger will encompass 13 locations in Indiana.

Oakbrook leaders have said the decision was based on what they believe will be an increased community reach and the ability to more effectively impact the places the already serve: Kokomo, Peru and Flora.

But it is also a move they acknowledge comes with significant changes, questions and uncertainty for a church that has been present in Kokomo since 1985.

At the forefront has been Mark Malin, who started Oakbrook and is its lead pastor. Malin, who referred the Tribune to Northview when asked for interview, announced in June that he had accepted the job as Northview’s multisite director; he will start in that role in September.

It was in conversations about that role when Northview presented the idea of adopting Oakbrook “into its congregation to form one united church,” said Eric McCoy, who works as the Peru campus pastor and handles communications for Oakbrook.

McCoy said the church's board of directors later voted unanimously to explore the merger potential. Oakbrook leaders have emphasized the merger was not necessitated by finances, although they have acknowledged it will be an economic advantage to merge with Northview.

“With respect to why this is happening, both Oakbrook’s board of directors and Northview’s board of directors discerned through two guiding questions: ‘Could our churches be better together?’ and ‘Could we have greater influence for the Kingdom of God if we joined together?’” said McCoy.

“Both boards voted unanimously in favor of the merger after deciding the answer to both of those questions was yes,” added McCoy, who said the two churches’ board of directors met several times to discuss doctrinal issues and found “there were no divergence of faith issues … that would cause a rift between” congregations.

Both churches, it's worth noting, utilize high-energy, modern worship services that rely heavily on music and attractive stage setups.

“Oakbrook congregants were invited to express concerns regarding the merger by emailing directly to the Oakbrook Board of Directors. No concerns were expressed regarding differences in beliefs through this method," noted McCoy.

Oakbrook has three campuses, in Kokomo, Peru and Flora, each of which have started the process toward being rebranded as Northview sites.

The merger formally began on Aug. 4, kicking off a process this month during which Oakbrook congregants will continue to meet at the three sites but “begin to experience Northview’s DNA, vision and values” through a video sermon series, according to a Northview letter.  

In September, all Oakbrook locations will begin meeting at Northview’s Kokomo campus on East Markland Avenue; by the end of September, both Flora and Peru will have returned to their existing campuses.

And on Oct. 20, following small-group and service-project campaigns, a grand reopening celebration will be held at what will then be the three permanent Northview campuses.

Oakbrook’s largest campus, its Emerald Lake facility in Kokomo, will by that time have a combined congregation and be a Northview church.

It is unclear what Northview will do with its existing Kokomo church, in the former HHGregg building, although an FAQ page online says Northview “may explore opportunities for another local church to inhabit” the building.

Northview Kokomo campus pastor Joe Smith said the church is “looking into multiple options for future usage of the building but we don’t have any further details at this time.” Smith will oversee the combined Kokomo congregation at the Emerald Lake site.

HH Gregg

The building that formerly housed HHGregg, which closed in 2017 after filing bankruptcy, will soon be empty once Northview Church merges with Oakbrook Church. This photo shows HHGregg in August 2017. Kelly Lafferty Gerber | Kokomo Tribune

“I believe Oakbrook congregants are excited for the chance to see God do something new within the community and we believe that every person has a role to play within the church,” added Smith.

“Northview’s mission statement is Connecting people with God, and people with people. You’ll notice the word people is mentioned 3 times in that short statement. Every person matters in our church and I think everyone is excited to see what this next season brings.”

Oakbrook's previous Kokomo campus pastor, Joel Larison, has left the church, saying in a letter posted online that "God was leading to something new outside of the Oakbrook family." 

Larison said his decision was not motivated by the merger.

McCoy, meanwhile, said that in addition to Oakbrook’s online audience there are roughly 1,000 people between the three campuses that call Oakbrook their “church home.”

Northview, meanwhile, sports a weekly average attendance of around 10,000 people between its 11 current campuses.

Northview, whose other sites in part include Anderson, Carmel, Fishers, Lafayette, northern Indianapolis and Westfield, began in 1980 and opened its current Carmel campus in 1995. It was named the 50th largest church in the nation by Outreach Magazine in 2018. 

The church also operates locations out of Miami County and New Castle correctional facilities and the Indiana Women's Prison.

“I expect our campus to grow in spiritual depth, in impact of our community and in numerical growth,” said Flora campus pastor Morgan Young about the merger. “With so much support and direction from a central Northview location, it frees us up at the campus level to take new ground for Christ.”

When asked whether attendance played a role in the merger, Young remarked: “Church in America is changing, meaning physical attendance is less consistent yet our online views can be 1,000-2,000 a week.

“That’s a new wrinkle for all of us,” he continued. “Being part of a larger more developed church will help us better navigate that cultural reality.”

Video viewing, in fact, is set to become commonplace even for people attending Oakbook’s churches, a shift that will substitute live preaching to preaching “delivered via video on Sunday mornings,” according to McCoy.

Weekly video teaching is a practice embraced by all Northview locations, except Carmel, he said.

Video teaching has received skepticism from some in the Christian community worried about the impersonal nature of video and the possibility for disconnect between the person delivering Sunday sermons and the locals whose lives are affected by them.

Others have embraced the model, saying it creates a competent, consistent message without sacrificing the individuality of each specific campus.

“Most people don’t realize that a teaching pastor spends 10-20 hours a week putting together a weekly talk,” said Young.

“Video teaching has several benefits for a church of Northview’s size. It ensures unity in teaching across what will now be thirteen campuses. It also allows campus pastors to focus more on the impact of their local campus in their community and their local congregation.”

Young pushed back against the idea that the merger could eliminate the local flavor and focus so often embraced and preached by Oakbrook’s leadership, saying: “Northview’s paradigm is not to be a central hub controlling locations throughout the state.”

“Campus pastors and staff are empowered to make decisions that make sense for their communities. Insight from central staff frees up the campus staff to focus more on people and how God is working in each unique location,” he remarked.

Young, who has been the campus pastor in Flora since leading a merger there four years ago, said Northview “doesn’t feel big and cold, even at the largest campus location,” saying instead “it feels warm and inviting.”

“Big doesn’t mean bad: look at how big Chick-fil-A is, yet it’s one of the warmest fast food chains. So, Northview will continue to love and reach-out to all people, and that’s what we’ll continue to be known for,” he said.

Emerging as another question about the merger is the employment of Oakbrook’s existing staff.

The FAQ page on Oakbrook’s website says: “All Oakbrook employees who fully support the merger will be kept on for one year,” but notes too that Northview “will look to employ everyone who desires to go forward beyond that time period.”

McCoy said in the case of duplicate roles Northview will work with staff members individually to “discern what employment opportunities are available beyond the initial year” and “desires to find employment opportunities within the church” based on each person’s talents and interests.

“No one will lose their job as a result of this merger, however they may personally choose to pursue other opportunities,” he remarked, saying the page intended to clarify that no one would be forced into employment with Northview.

McCoy said that while “any change brings with it questions and uncertainty” the majority of feedback he’s received from Oakbrook congregants has been neutral or positive following the initial surprise. Young said the feedback he’s received has been “very positive.”

George Myers can be reached at 765-454-8585, by email at george.myers@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @gmyerskt.

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George Myers covers city and county government. He joined the Kokomo Tribune on November 18, 2014.