--Sign outside Chestnut Street Community Church
It’s Sunday morning, actually early afternoon, at the Chestnut Street Community Church in Roselle, N.J. I walk in and see about 200 worshipers raising their hands in prayer and song. Above the sanctuary is a giant screen with the words of the hymn the congregation is singing at the moment.
I am here as the guest of my 24-year-old daughter, Audrey, a fact that startles me and on many levels pleases me. She is a cradle Catholic. From me, she experienced Catholicism, and was baptized and educated in the church. If you had told me five years ago that my daughter would be part of an evangelical congregation, I would have said she was more likely to fly to the moon. She is still a political liberal, college grad, occasional singer and dancer, and was even a star performer in a hip-hop group formed with chums from her high school days. This is not the stereotypical profile of the clean-scrubbed evangelical from the heartland. Yet she finds spiritual sustenance here at Chestnut Street Community on Sunday, and says “I never felt at home in the Catholic church.”
These days evangelicals have largely left the hymnal behind. It’s almost a defining quality. They use large screens to indicate the lyrics. Many of the lyrics, presented through upbeat popular melodies, are repeated over and over.
As a Catholic, one is struck by the personal tone of the lyrics. This particular one is about Jesus. Not the historical Jesus, the itinerant preacher who walked through Palestine twenty centuries ago, executed by the ruling authorities after he gathered together a small band of devoted followers who collected his sayings and teachings. No, this is the Jesus these people call upon as an intimate friend who helps them through the turmoil of life in New Jersey in the early 21st century.
“My Savior, my closest friend,
I will worship you until the very end.”
The words cascade through the tiny church as the people raise their hands. Audrey regularly attended Catholic Mass until she was 14, only sporadically thereafter. She grumbled about attending, and her indulgent father—me—figured the development of her faith life was not something he wanted to argue about with a strong-willed teenage daughter every Sunday morning.
After adamantly refusing the opportunity to attend Catholic high school, she was admitted to and attended New York City’s renowned La Guardia High School for the Performing Arts—the “Fame” school—where she majored in voice. She sang jazz and was part of a school Gospel choir. Through her college years, she rarely attended church of any kind.
She is like many of her generation. Her involvement with Chestnut Street, a place she came to with a former boyfriend when she moved to New Jersey in early 2004, is, in her mind, not a break with Catholicism. It is, rather, a way for her to join a community based upon the Christianity she was imbued with as a child. Denominational labels don’t mean that much to her or many in her generation.
Paradoxically, the church she now belongs to is a Foursquare church. “Foursquare” applies to four aspects of Jesus’ ministry as savior, baptizer, healer, and coming king. A Foursquare church generally eschews churchy symbols; its services are laid-back, emphasizing personal service. Its services emphasize the role of Jesus in the here and now. Its statements of beliefs reaffirm standard evangelical formulations about hell (it exists), about evangelizing (it’s a duty for all Christians), and salvation (it comes through Christ alone). Audrey, however, like many of her contemporaries, does not believe that there is a hierarchy of religions, with Christianity more valid than others. She doesn’t know if she believes in the divinity of Jesus. She is what social theorists describe as a modern American religious searcher. She’s the kind of seeker that the Foursquare congregation is made for and welcomes, even if its doctrinal statements tend towards the absolute side. Even Pope Benedict XVI might be proud of that: there is no cultural relativism promoted here.
To more conservative Catholic commentators, Audrey’s presence at Chestnut Community Church can be explained by the failure of lukewarm liberal Catholics, like me, to share their faith to a different generation seeking rock-solid answers in a changing world. Audrey, they would say, is seeking that old-time religion because she never really picked up a religious viewpoint at home. They would look at the sign outside the door promising answers, not questions. Many post-Vatican II Catholics, they say, are too much in love with the questions. Humans, especially young people starting out, seek answers.
I have wondered if I’ve failed to communicate the beauty that I feel Catholicism has to offer. I wonder if all the grumblings I had brought home about the Church—grumblings that are a natural part of my role as a religious journalist—had an impact on her. In our household, the scandals of the Church that were thrust in front of the public in the late 90s were old news by then. I had a tendency to tell tales (details and names omitted) of what was happening behind the scenes—churchy gossip that inflates those who indulge in it and at the same time can deflate those hearing it for the first time. On some level, I wondered if I had failed. How traditional of me, I think to myself, who as a true Blue Stater usually lives by the creed of letting people decide vital moral and religious issues in their own way. I always wanted to give my daughter space, and she has taken it.
Yet at the same time I can’t help thinking that these are good people at Chestnut Street Church. They study the same Bible, much more intensely than many Catholics. They believe in a Jesus that works in their lives today. You can hear it as they repeat the mantra in that hymn. Jesus is their companion along the way, not an abstract Palestinian prophet in the history books. He is as concerned for them as he was for those who touched his garment and for those he healed back when he walked the earth. It is the kind of Jesus the great mystics in the Catholic tradition know, but relatively few Catholics in the pew feel comfortable talking about, even if they may feel his presence.
I wonder, then, if my daughter hasn’t managed to find the same divine beauty and power I cherished from Catholicism.