“I’m Kirkland An — I grew up in a nondenominational church, but now I attend an Evangelical Free church in Wheaton. How about you?”
Have you heard sentences like these injected into a dialogue before? I must have used them, 11, maybe 12 times. If you have too, you might — like me — go to school in Wheaton, Illinois, deemed the most “churched” town in the US.
Because of the high density of churches around my college campus, more often than not, the response I get is similar in form, and includes a denominational change. Sometimes it’s a very small shift.
“I went to a Presbyterian church and now my church is nondenominational.”
“I used to be Baptist, but I’d just call myself Calvinist now.”
But sometimes, it’s what some might call a big shift.
Joshua Knowlton, a sophomore at Wheaton College, is from Waupun, Wisconsin, and was raised at Edgewood Community Church, which ascribes to the Evangelical Free denomination. His father is the pastor there. When he arrived on Wheaton’s campus, he joined the herd of freshmen “church hopping” around town, and inspected Church of the Resurrection, a popular local Anglican church.
“I went with my family during the first week of college,” Knowlton said. “My youth pastor from home said that Church of the Rez would be an interesting church to check out.”
In fact, the sensory experience was overwhelming for a teenager who spent his entire life in a different denominational tradition.
“There was every sense you could have,” Knowlton told me, thinking back on his first attendance. “You’re standing at different times, like when they’re reading the Gospel, which focuses your mind on it. During times of confession, people like to kneel, which makes me feel penitent. There’s a fountain of holy water, which provides a peaceful background, and I always sit by the fountain. During the season of Lent, they have incense that they spread throughout the church, but because smell is closely tied with memories, smelling the incense focuses my mind on Lent last year and connects my experiences with God. The Eucharist is in the center of the service. We have communion every week, and I always take the real wine, which some would say is a mini rebellion to the Wheaton covenant, but I realize the specialness of the body and the blood.”
I knew what he meant. I visited St. John Cantius, a Catholic church in Chicago, and was stunned how little I knew about different church customs. From the soaring, golden ceiling to the velvet kneelers under each pew, my senses were gratified in a way that they’d never been before. As the altar boys passed by me, spreading the scent of incense throughout the room, I realized that I’d never smelled anything remotely as stimulating, especially not at my sterile nondenominational church which always carried a faint smell of hand sanitizer.
“Another thing is how the ministers are often dressed up,” Knowlton said. “Even though they’re very relatable in their messages, seeing the way they’re dressed up makes me realize the reverence I should have towards God.”
The austere black robes worn by the Church of the Resurrection clergy stirred something in Knowlton that turned sour in fellow sophomore Elliot Franklin, who attends Life Church in Wheaton.
“As someone who hasn’t been a part of the Anglican tradition, looking at Church of the Resurrection, I feel a barrier between me and the bishops based on their titles as well as what they wear,” Franklin told me. “They want the church to think that they are above the rest of the church in the sense that they are closer to God and less fallen as the rest of the church, which is what I sometimes perceive.”
The priestly garb, to me, also seemed like an unnecessary, extra-biblical extension of the fundamental Christian faith. What within the Bible necessitated the priests to distance themselves in high-church traditions? Regardless of what I thought, Wheaton students have been flocking to churches that ascribe to older denominations that are different than the ones that they grew up in.
A poll that surveyed 141 random students on Wheaton College’s campus said that only 57 percent of the students attended an evangelical church, despite the school’s obvious reputation as the flagship evangelical school of the country.
Knowlton said, “I think a lot of the friends I go with (to Church of the Resurrection) are not of an Anglican tradition and for them, I think it’s refreshing to engage in tradition other than the traditions from your home. When people (switch denominations) they’re making their faith their own by finding where they fit in the church.”
He estimated that around half of the people that he knew at his church had previously worshipped at churches other than Anglican churches.
One of those people is senior Adam Lindgren. When we sat down to talk about his church, I was surprised to find out that he wouldn’t consider himself Anglican even though he’d been attending for several years.
“I just enjoy the way their services are run,” he told me. “I also go to the Church of the Rez because of their theology. I haven’t yet decided whether or not to join the Anglican Church. I want to wait till after college to decide, because I want more time to think about my faith and invest in it after college because right now, I’m extremely busy and frankly, that’s a hindrance to my faith.”
What could be sending students to older faiths like Anglicanism? It’s my guess that students who are familiar with theology are also familiar with how much people can waver between points of view, and they gravitate towards older, more conservative faiths that adhere to the points of view that they ascribe to. The Church of the Resurrection seems to promise to stick to its beliefs, offering an anchor in the midst of a community like Wheaton’s that is often rocked by opposing theological viewpoints.
At the same time, Wheaton College freshman Luke Goodman, raised Baptist, wasn’t as enamored with the Anglican tradition as Knowlton was, and raised an eyebrow at the notion of dozens of Wheaton students flooding out of the usual evangelical denominations to pursue a more traditional faith.
“I think places like the Church of the Resurrection have becomes so popular that people check it out or go with a friend and stay for the camaraderie,” he said. “Or they stay because it’s popular and they have friends there rather than actually identifying with the church itself.”
He echoed Franklin’s confusion about the garb and rituals unique to Anglican churches.
“I don’t understand all the traditions,” Goodman said. “It feels to me to be fairly works-based, and that they’re adding things that are not necessary and not laid out in the Bible, like trying to add to the Gospel. I think their hearts are fairly in the right place, and they’re doing it for the right reasons, but it’s dangerous to do things that aren’t laid out in the Bible.”
A Pastor and Parent
Reverend Benjamin Tam is the head pastor at the Chinese Baptist Church of the Northwest Suburbs, which is about 40 minutes away from Wheaton’s campus. Upon visiting the church, I was struck by the intimate and humble sanctuary, the friendliness of the staff and the hospitality of its pastor.
Tam went from worshipping in a Lutheran church to leading his Baptist congregation in the Chicago suburbs. Despite the fact that during our conversations he put forth very clear theological stances on various topics, he surprisingly placed no emphasis on the fact that his church is Baptist.
“Denominational tradition or loyalty is not important to me,” he said. “We (the Tam family) went to the Lutheran church when we were in Hong Kong in the 1950s and ’60s because it was the Lutherans who led us to Christ. We go to the churches we are in now because we believe it was God who planted us there and because we believe they are faithful to God’s work and the Gospel, and God has planted us there to serve his calling and purpose.”
I thought that perhaps, as a father, he would appreciate if his daughters and son also went to a Baptist church when they moved away from home.
On the contrary, Tam thought that children should not need to follow directly in their parents’ footsteps when it comes to denomination. “What church you go to should not be based on denominational loyalty or family tradition,” he said. “If the denomination we have been in turns away from the word of God and away from the Gospel, stay in it for the purpose of stemming the tide. But if you cannot, leave.”
Joseph Tam, his son, now attends a nondenominational church.
College is a time when young adults explore and utilize their sometimes newfound freedom in order to pursue things that are important to them — and maybe to rebel against their parents a tiny bit.
Knowlton admitted, “At first, I wanted to just be adventurous and try out different churches. Growing up in the same type of church for over 14 years, you don’t really experience what’s outside of that. Eventually my curiosity led me to a church where I felt really connected. I loved the combination of various church traditions in Church of the Resurrection.”
In spite of his recent criticism of the Church of the Resurrection, Goodman would have agreed with Knowlton on this topic, saying, “My dad’s a pastor of a Baptist church, and I grew up Baptist. But probably around junior year of high school, when I was evaluating my faith, I realized I was more reformed than my father is. Frequently, I looked to my father as an authority on theology, but later, I would challenge him and discuss. Now when I approach him, we talk about theological issues, but I don’t always agree with him. Making a transition and having the freedom to not go to a church my father is at helps.”
Unlike Goodman, students who grew up in a reformed household and moved to an older tradition like Anglicanism may have found themselves thinking like many young, restless churchgoers. Christianity Today’s Collin Hansen’s book, “Young, Restless, Reformed,” argued in 2008 that young Christians are attracted to reformed traditions because it engages their entire minds — but today, it looks like Christian millennials are turning to Anglicanism.
Young people may choose an older, aesthetic-focused faith that enforces reverence for God — by kneeling, receiving Eucharist every Sunday and strictly observing the Church calendar — in favor of a cerebral tradition that they feel focuses on having correct theology.
Additionally, millennials as a generation tend to feel called to something bigger than themselves. More ancient, high-church traditions without a doubt provide a sense of that, with their vaulted ceilings, golden apses and robed priests.
Not only are Christian college students stepping away from their original denominational affiliations, they also gravitate towards churches with multi-generational congregations and churches with a diverse demographic of worshippers.
Lindgren attends the Church of the Resurrection because “there are everywhere from young children to the elderly, and there isn’t really an age group that’s not present at Church of the Rez. I appreciate the perspectives you can get from all of the age groups. I like having some students from my college there, but I also like having young adults to guide me and children to inspire me to be more filled with awe and wonder of the world.”
Likewise, Joey Kietzman ’14 attends College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, but has formed an idea of his ideal church in his mind, and shared it with me.
“At the hypothetical church I want to go to,” he said, “I don’t want to conform with the way I think the world works, but I want it to force me to think differently or see the world differently. At College Church, there are a ton of Wheaton graduates, a ton of people who grew up in suburban white America. If you homogenize an entire people group then you won’t see holes — even glaring holes — that are there.”
When you’re in college, you see a lot of people just like yourself, and if you’re not careful, you can forget what it’s like to interact with people outside of our age group and background. Committing to a church with a demographically diverse congregation can help you relate to others more easily, not just to scratch the itch of nostalgia.
A Final Word
Christian students across the nation find homes at churches vastly different than the ones that they grew up in. Be it the people, the pastor, the music or the theology, different denominations offer different things that appeal to different people.
Before committing to Wheaton Evangelical Free Church, I found myself church hopping from one group to another, sampling each different flavor of Christianity and finding strengths and weaknesses of each. I think that with every one I tried, I learned something valuable. Conducting my interviews and learning about their experiences affirmed more and more my notion that the denomination switch and search is something very particular and situational.
Reverend Tam reminded me, “There are values and good reasons for denominations to exist. I will be loyal to the Southern Baptists as long as I am a pastor in my church and as long as the Southern Baptists remain faithful to God.”
“Remember,” he said. “God never calls us to be loyal to a denomination; God has called us to be loyal to Him and to His word and truth.”
Photo credits to the Chinese Baptist Church of Northwest Suburbs’ and St. John Cantius websites.