The new christians
by Monica Black
A month after arriving at Colorado College, first-year Calla Langton conducted an experiment. She started recording what people said to her when she told them she was a Christian. It wasn’t that she had hid her faith before, but she had come to school not thinking she would ever need to tell anyone.
“I decided to just kinda feel it out, like, how would it be if I just brought it up in random conversations, with people I’m not necessarily the best of friends with?” Langton told me. Langton is a sort of Christianity guru at CC – everyone I spoke with directed me back to her, like a compass pointing home. She’s a devoted member of REVs (Revolution Ministries, an on-campus religious organization) and is known for inviting her non-religious friends into conversation about faith. When her own knowledge fails her, she invites them to Wednesday night Apologetics (a question and answer session using scripture) in upstairs Worner to continue the conversation. The experiment was not an assignment—it was borne out of her curiosity about what she had perceived as an aversion to religion among the student body.
“I wrote down people’s responses. Some of ‘em are really nasty.” She pulled up the note on her computer and swiveled it around toward me to read.
The crude data gathered from her month-long study was unsurprising. “You’re adorable,” said one. “It’s a shame you’re Christian.” Another said: “Christianity is okay, but have you heard of Buddhism?” Someone else responded, “I had a bad experience with the church. Does yours marginalize you for your choices?” Perhaps “nasty” is too tough a descriptor, but the attitude in most of the comments was, at the very least, subtly disrespectful.
This is not just unique to Colorado College. Liberal arts college campuses are known, for better or for worse, as hubs of criticism against organized religion, and especially of that dominating strain, Christianity. Pastors everywhere began biting their fingernails as Pew Research reported early last year that fewer and fewer young Americans were identifying themselves as Christians, and more and more as religiously “nothing.” But like a lone dandelion in a field of grass, CC’s secular identity seems to be intentionally asserted in the hyper-religious Colorado Springs.
That’s not to say that the campus never talks about Christianity. One notable exception was last fall when a group of picketers came to protest, ostensibly, college culture itself, calling uninvolved passersby “hussies,” “slobs” and “alcoholics.” They openly dangled bloody tampons as a metaphor for the depreciation of the soul upon succumbing to sin. One Christian student spent the entire afternoon on the sidewalk in front of the picketers, counter-preaching what he considered to be the truth about the moderate Christianity he practices. Over Thanksgiving weekend, dilaouge erupted amongst CC students when Robert Lewis Dear threatened patrons of the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood at gunpoint, killing three and injuring nine. He plastered the news for weeks with his pro-life rhetoric. When the most visible expressions of Christianity are instances of violent extremism, the understandable conclusion—the conclusion that many students draw—is that Christianity has no place on a campus, and that the Springs, along with its religious identity, runs counter to the goals of the liberal arts.
We have collectively forgotten that Christianity, like any religion, is an entity composed not just of ideology, but also of people—and billions of people at that. They are three women at Fifty-Fifty Coffee House drinking tea and talking about which Protestant school to send their kids; they are five elderly people gardening in the courtyard of St. Mary’s on a Sunday morning; they are the believers at the protest against the Sit-Lie Ordinance at Acacia Park. They are also the people who use Focus on the Family as a resource. They are the people who run controversial Crisis Pregnancy Centers. Who are the Christians of the Springs, and by extension, who are the Christians on campus?
The relationship of the hyper-secular liberal arts college world to the larger one of Colorado Springs, the world of megachurches, Pentecostalism and religious conservatism, is one of ogling, like humans at zoo animals. I saw a CC student this spring accept the small green Bible that a street preacher outside the student center was handing out, giggling with her friends as they walked away. Some students, like Langton, identify as Christian, but their numbers are few. The external clash between their world and ours is a standing joke.
* * *
I went right to the butt of the joke, the megachurch on Voyager Parkway east of the Airforce Academy called New Life Church. The institution is integral in the modern history of the Springs as the Christian capital of the United States when in the ‘80s now-defamed New Life pastor Ted Haggard attracted evangelicals in droves to his charismatic, apostolic preaching at the church he built from the ground up.
New Life has a reputation, partially because of Haggard’s forced resignation after a scandal implicating him in the purchase of both sex with a male prostitute and methamphetamine, and partially because it has become a symbol for Springs-brand evangelism. When I first started asking around, looking for a church companion, a slew of students taken by perverse fascination disguised as oblique academic interest courted me for a ride. Others looked at me like I was crazy. One student initially didn’t want to come because of the 2007 shooting at New Life. One student was excited—she grew up in Houston, the home of televangelist Joel Osteen’s megachurch, the largest in the United States. She belongs to that camp of Americans who resent their religious upbringing but still can’t seem to stop chasing it. Another, native to Colorado Springs, weary of out-of-towners’ somewhat offensive fascination with the megachurch phenomenon, told us to enjoy ourselves. “I grew up here,” she said, “so I’m not freaking out about megachurches.” Others like Langton regularly participate with megachurches. “I love megachurches!” said Langton. She goes to Woodman Valley, another megachurch in the Springs area.
The iconic image of the community church on the corner, with a modest steeple and stained-glass windows in stone walls, has mutated. The Protestant church has moved into a new age. The movement that emerged from a desire to detach from the decadence and indulgence of incense, arches and organs that birthed the Mennonites and the Puritans, those bulwarks of simplicity and modesty, has supersized itself. Where once they separated themselves from the gaudier Catholics by simple services and by church buildings so stripped-down they look like storefronts, the American evangelists have reimagined the house of God.
Megachurches, those behemoths that have more than 2,000 weekly visitors, dream big. They have proliferated in number since the 1950s and dotted the landscape of the holiest places in America: the suburbs of sprawling cities in the Sun Belt. New Life, one of a few megachurches in the Springs, is, first and foremost, enormous. It rises like a castle out of the suburban housing developments that surround it.
We didn’t even know what entrance to walk in through. Should we go through the one under the “Worship Center” sign, or the “Main Entrance”? There was a confounding sign for a “Tent” on the other side of the three-acre lot.
The New Life Friday Night service is the more subdued of the weekend services. It’s in the Theatre, a space that seats about one thousand people. The Worship Center, though they didn’t let us inside, resembled a stadium on the map and according to the scale had five times the seating capacity of the theatre. We were running late and the official, with the collectedness of a flight attendant, directed us toward the Theatre. “That way for Friday Night, ladies!” We followed the flood of rush hour traffic into the Theatre, a boxy room with a high ceiling dotted with vents, and a stage at the front. Folding chairs were set up into hundreds of rows and we each settled into one, not sure what to do with our arms or whether to sing along.
Desperation Band, a crew of nine musicians formed in 2002, is the official band of New Life. Christian Rock anthems seem to be the nouveau hymnal in the megachurches of America. The services largely center on Desperation Band’s playing of run-of-the-mill contemporary Christian music enhanced by purple lights and a Technicolor Jesus sign. The lyrics are projected onto a screen on either side of the stage.
The music had the same structure as any alt pop song, excessive repeats of the catchy refrain lyrics, until it became a moving meditation and then I, too, was rocking back and forth. I looked around and people had their arms in the air and slowly waving them back and forth, a communal dance move. Some sang with their eyes closed, the lyrics so familiar they didn’t even need to look up at the screens. A little girl spun around and around, staring at the ceiling, delighted by the music. I wondered how many newcomers like us there were, but I knew we wouldn’t be able to spot them. We all knew how to act, instinctively; we just followed the cultural script of the rock concert: nod your head, sing along, enjoy yourself. The message is clear: Jesus is made for this world of screens and rock music and performances. Jesus is cool.
“I’m like ‘Aw, yeah! Jesus!’ and I have so many people around me being like ‘Aw, yeah! Jesus!’” said Langton, who’s been to New Life Church a number of times. Though it is not her church, she loves their worship music. “It’s so motivating, and encouraging. You know how when you go to a Justin Bieber concert and it’s like, ‘Wow, now I’m in love with Justin Bieber’? Well, for me it’s like ‘Wow, now I’m in love with Jesus.’”
The goal, it seems, beyond making the churchgoer fall for Jesus, is making everyone feel comfortable. There’s a table of free bagels and cream cheese at the entrance and people come and go from the Theatre as they please. “It is very ‘come as you are,’” said Langton, of the atmosphere at New Life. “If you come in late, sit down! If you bring your Burger King breakfast in, eat it.” In stark contrast to the Carmelite Monastery I visited during block break with my LLC, where the non-Catholics took Communion confusedly, one girl dipping the wafer into the wine and slipping it pseudo-casually into her pocket, the script at New Life is easy to follow. And people were so nice; I approached a musician about an interview and she invited me to sit next to her for the sermon portion of the service, whenthe attractive young pastor Daniel Grothe sat on the stage and spoke for an hour, with stand-up style humor, about a 10-line passage from the Gospel. And yet, I still felt uncomfortable, I still felt that the world of these megachurches was impenetrably alien and that even the supposedly universal, updated, modern message that the rock musicians were singing was a world removed from anything I could ever believe or want to be a part of. When we got back into the car, we couldn’t stop talking. Every sentence started, “Could you believe it when—?”
* * *
While CC largely views itself as the harbinger of sanity in a city gone awry, the community may just as soon view CC as a festering pimple on the face of the Evangelical Mecca. The mutual caricatures that we—the Christians in the Springs and the students of CC —paint of each other beg the question: who’s ogling at who behind the glass? And are we really seeing anything when we look?
It’s easy to condemn—even laugh at—the picketers who view our secular bubble as a breeding ground for godlessness and sinfulness. They don’t get it, we say. They have no idea. They are so caught up in their own ideology that they have not even bothered to look around them. And while we don’t normally picket at New Life, our own indifference reflects an unwillingness to even attempt to understand where the hundreds of thousands of Christians in this city are coming from, and why they live the way they do.
The students that embrace both identities, to varying degrees, are caught in the middle. I chatted with another CC student who spent some time at churches in the Springs. “I haven’t really told too many people,” said Jordan Hollard about his Christianity. He chuckled. “Most people don’t believe me. Most people are like, ‘No, you’re not. Shut up.’ Because they have a view of what a [Christian] person would be, and I don’t necessarily fit that view.”
Hollard is a member of the ORC. He’s active on campus, friendly and everyone seems to know him. There’s nothing about him that strikes one as definitively “not-Christian”: he’s kind, and he really seems to listen when you speak. We both struggled to put our finger on what exactly people viewed Christianity as, and why it was so hard to embrace as an identity. Maybe it’s that faith, like sexuality, feels important but too personal and too plagued by stereotypes to reveal outright.
“There’s an association that you don’t necessarily want to associate with,” said Hollard. He recounted how he teared up at the sight of the picketers outside of Worner.
Within this impermeable bubble of a college, the exchange between inside and outside has dwindled to virtually nothing. Students who were raised Christian or who have a more nuanced relationship with religion feel alienated on campus. It’s still possible on CC’s campus for students like Langton to commit fully to the cause and actively seek a collegiate community to share their faith. Yet casual dialogue on matters of faith is rare—leaving students not fully comitted to drift in the purgatory of existing between CC Christianity and Colorado Springs Christianity. “That’s something I’ve been trying to wrestle with. I’m in a kind of identity crisis,” said Hollard. “Am I Christian, or am I not? I’ve been kind of cruising by, throughout my life. Here, you choose. And I haven’t really chosen.”
In the end, both Christian students I spoke with—Hollard, who intentionally tells few about his faith background, and Langton, who “lives her life for God” and isn’t shy about it—decided to withdraw permission to use their names in this article. Requests for anonymity hint at the subtext of the more poignant comments Langton recorded during that month of informal research. These comments weren’t the ignorant ones. They’re the ones that reflect a desire to belong to a community of Christians. “I’m scared to be a Christian here,” one said. Another: “Don’t tell anyone, but I believe in God too.”