Life After the Pulpit
John Caldwell continues to invest in the community he calls home
Writer / Ruth Schenk
Avon was a tiny community in the middle of nowhere when John Caldwell visited for the first time in 1974. He drove down Highway 36, then a two-lane road. Cornfields everywhere. A few stores. A junk yard. A Dairy Queen. A supermarket, two gas stations and the Avon schools.
But John saw something beautiful there — a place to plant deep roots. He was a 30-year-old preacher then who had been traveling around the country as an evangelist with his wife Jan and their young son, Shan. Jan was pregnant with Jennifer and they saw Avon as the perfect place to settle in.
He had choices.
Another church had already offered John a position as senior pastor when a group from the Avon area asked him to consider becoming the first pastor of an infant congregation. John chose Avon, not as a stepping stone to another, bigger church, not as a stopping point on the way to something somewhere else. He chose Avon for the rest of his life.
That’s rare in a world where preachers stay an average of six years in one church.
As Avon became part of the fabric of their lives, so the Caldwells became part of life in Avon. In the next 36 years, John and Jan raised their children and saw Kingsway Christian Church grow from 72 the first Sunday they met in the gymnasium at Avon High School to a megachurch of well over 2,000 each weekend. They went through six building programs to make room for more and expanded outreach as well as a growing Christian school.
Yet another facility was purchased to house a community care center offering medical and dental services to those without access to such services.
John never stopped learning. His undergraduate degree is from Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri. However, he also earned an M.Div. from Cincinnati Bible Seminary and a D.Min degree from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, though he rarely uses the Dr. before his name.
In addition to preaching, teaching, counseling and visiting hospitals and nursing homes, John has written five books and numerous articles. He served the fellowship of churches of which Kingsway is a part in many capacities, including the presidency of both The North American Christian Convention and The International Conference on Missions.
He often traveled to the mission field, having preached in 30 countries and having visited more than 100. One of his favorite destinations has been the southern states of India, where he has worked with a ministry that has planted more than 100 churches. In one service he’ll never forget, John baptized 95 people.
Over the years, other churches tried to entice John to leave Avon. He turned them all down.
“This is where I’m supposed to be,” he says.
The church grew one family at a time. Few came from other churches. In fact, most had little experience with church.
That, John said, was a bonus. They were open to new ideas and leadership. He rarely heard, ”We didn’t do it that way.”
No one knows how many funerals or weddings he officiated or how many doors he knocked on as he visited those who came through church doors.
People knew he cared. He was voted one of the top 20 influencers in Avon and honored with only the fourth key to the city.
John decided early on to be transparent. What people saw on Sunday was the same preacher they saw at the local coffee shop on Monday or the ball field on Saturday. They knew they could count on him.
“People in Avon knew my strengths and weaknesses as well as my interests,” he says. “I’m a huge St.Louis Cardinals fan and an IU fan. There was always lots of teasing that went on with our Purdue and Reds fans.”
John said grace was a two-way street.
“I never tried to be anything different than I was,” he says. “And the people at Kingsway never asked us as a family to be anything other than who we were. As a result, our kids grew up loving the church.”
Though John and Jan were at church “all the time,” they never missed a ballgame or event that involved Jennifer or Shan. Over the years, when difficult things happened, they refused to hold a grudge.
From time to time, they recharged in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, still their favorite vacation spot.
There are always bad days in ministry. September 11, 2001 left many Americans shocked and grief stricken. John opened the church for prayer.
“An amazing number of people came to worship and pray at a makeshift altar,” he says. “We had pastors available for those who wanted to talk with someone. That Wednesday night, the building was packed to capacity with standing-room only for an incredible service.”
In another service he’ll never forget, a few weeks before retirement, John baptized 86 people.
“That was special because many of the people I baptized that day I had prayed for and worked with for years before they decided to give their lives to Christ,” John says.
The Caldwells’ son Shan is now the associate pastor at Indian Creek Christian Church in Indianapolis and Jennifer Boston and her husband Darren still live and work in Avon. The Caldwells have two grandsons, Jack and Will.
John retired in June, 2010, but he never looked at that as a permanent vacation. In fact, life has been anything but quiet. He founded John Caldwell Ministries, still preaches often, consults for churches on a wide variety of issues, travels to the mission field, is working on a new book, visits those in nursing homes and hospitals and does funerals and weddings.
“Being a preacher is a calling,” John says. “It wasn’t just what I did to provide for my family. You never really retire from a calling.”
John still reads 70 to 80 books a year. That’s right, more than a book a week.
A favorite day is watching his grandsons play baseball or soccer, then getting together with the whole family for dinner at Cracker Barrel.
As he looks back, it’s hard to describe what life in Avon and at Kingsway Christian Church has meant to the Caldwells. However, it is easy to see what they have meant to the community.
They are recognized everywhere. You’ll still find him at the Big Apple Bagel coffee shop or with Jan at one of the many restaurants in town.
Meals are interrupted with one conversation after another. The Caldwells don’t mind. In fact, they wouldn’t have it any other way.