“What’s a Jehovah’s Witness?” asked one of the sixth grade students when I was working as a catchiest for a CCD class on Monday night. She was curious because one of her friends said they were a Jehovah’s Witness, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses had knocked at her family’s home a few times, trying to convert them. I explained to the girl that they are actually a rather small but very visible Christian denomination that believes they have to convert everyone to their church in order for the people to experience salvation. Most Christian groups don’t do that, I told her, and Jehovah’s witnesses are actually much smaller compared to mainstream Christian denominations like Lutherans. “What’s a Lutheran?” she asked. “They’re a large Protestant denomination – the first protestant church ever started, actually” “What’s a Protestant?” she continued.
Growing up Catholic, it seems many of us don’t become familiar with other movements in Christianity until we’re well into adulthood. We have some neighbors and friends who are other types of Christians, to be sure, but we don’t ever ask about their religion or visit non-Catholic churches. The reverse may be true of many Protestant children growing up. They’re not well versed in Catholicism, are often hear from other Protestants that Catholics “don’t believe in the Bible” and “worship the Virgin Mary”. Although it is less common to hear today, some of the more overzealous Protestant denominations would traditionally argue that “Catholics aren’t Christians”, as if Christianity didn’t exist until the 1600s. To understand the confusion, we have to realize that Catholics and Protestants often have different outlooks. To a Catholic, for example, most would define Christianity as following the tenants of the faith as laid down by the early Christians – someone who believes in Nicene Creed, for example. To many Protestants, they define Christianity as “having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ”. To be certain, there are many baptized Catholics are not active in practicing their faith and do not “have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ” Thus, they would not be Christian in the eyes of your average protestant. Protestants also use terms like “I’m a confessing Lutheran” and “Has he been saved yet?” to define the Christian faith, terminology which is alien to Catholicism – which believes salvation is a lifelong process and does not distinguish between a practicing Catholic and a “confessing Catholic”.
Now, one man who grew up around Chicago and has been part of both sides of Christianity is going to examine it. His name is Chris Haw, and in his new book “From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart”, he talks about growing up Catholic, converting to evangelical Protestantism at age 14, and then returning to the Catholic Church as an adult after “an intense spiritual experience on Good Friday”. Haw, a “middle-class white guy from the Chicago suburbs” now works as a carpenter, living with his wife and son in a former abandoned crack house in inner-city Camden, N.J. Like Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, Haw undertook a very long strange journey, there and back again, until he rediscovered Catholicism at Sacred Heart parish in New Jersey. He says his new book is not so much a “spiritual story”, as it a part of a “theological memoir” that examines the beliefs and outlook of Protestants and Catholics. He drew upon other Catholic authors and converts – such as Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton and G.K. Chesterton – as inspiration for his book.
Still, Haw’s story is something that most readers can probably relate to, even if they know next to nothing about religious doctrines or theological disputes. Haw was baptized Catholic as a baby, and attended Mass with his parents as a child, never quite connecting with his faith. Many times, Mass was boring, and Haw was turned off by “stuffy, ritualistic requirements from worship” His devout Catholic mother, a CCD teacher, was scolded for suggesting her Crystal Lake parish adapt some practices from the area’s popular Protestant youth groups to “liven up” things. Then his family found Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. It’s a non-denominational evangelical protestant megachurch, the third largest such parish in the United States. Many of the parishioners are people of faith who believe in Jesus and the Bible, but no longer feel inspired by the religious institutions that raised them, including ex-Catholics rocked by the sex abuse scandal in the Church.
Haw and his family were drawn to Willow Creek because of the simple, no-frills worship and active lively community that bore no resemblance to the family’s former parish. Volunteers largely ran Willow, which Haw thought at the time democratized Christianity – there was no need to go to a Bishop to get permission to do anything, or wait on the Pope to make an announcement. Everything was done at the local level. There was also little doubt the local community could provide assistance to meet just about any need of its parishioners. The church has three weekend services averaging 24,000 attendees, and Willow Creek’s state-of-the-art Worship Center (completed in 2004 at an estimated cost of $73 million) seats 7,095 people, making it over twice as large as the Kodak Theater in Hollywood and one of the largest theaters in the United States.
One of the reasons why non-denominational Evangelical Christianity is growing as opposed to historic protestant denominations (you rarely see a Catholic convert to become a Quaker or Mennonite) is because these churches make it very simple to practice Christianity and “follow Jesus” without the need for complex theological doctrines. The message that “you can get to Jesus direct” by yourself – without any need for Monsignors, Bishops, Archbishops, Cardinals, Popes, or endless material about hundreds of saints and the Virgin Mary — Is a very appealing idea for the average American Christian. And there is little doubt that when it comes to being entertained while learning about Jesus, a megachruch with giant TV screens, rock music, dazzling effects, and crowds of thousands, far surpasses the awe of even the largest Catholic Cathedral.
So what led Haw back to Catholicism? He was certainly getting his fill every Sunday, and satisfied wholly with the experience he had at Willow Creek. But eventually, Haw, realized it was the religious equivalent of empty calories. In short, Doritos and Pepsi may taste great, but you need to have meat and potatoes as well. As a college student at Eastern University (a Christian college in Philadelphia) Haw was shocked to see what many of his fellow evangelical Christian brethren didn’t hold beliefs consistent with their faith. He noted that they eagerly rallied around the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but were complacent about poverty. “They didn’t just intellectually consider their faith. They went on some adventure and found themselves having to retool their lives along the way” he notes in his book. The pattern is similar with many “non-denominational Evangelical Christians” in America today. As opposed to Catholics who do not practice their faith and hold positions contrary to what the Church teaches, there are people like Carrie Underwood – who attends church weekly and says she was saved by Jesus (even writing songs like “Jesus, take the Wheel”), yet she recently came in favor of gay marriage, directly contradicting what scripture and Christian tradition teaches about the sanctity of marriage. (Underwood says it’s okay because there are plenty of openly gay men and women who attend her “non denominational” Church. Haw’s book contrasts the megachurch experience to the depth and richness of Catholicism’s 2000 years old history — drawing on the Church’s timeless social teachings, monastic practices, intentional worldwide community, and emphasis on solidarity with the poor and marginalized.
Likewise, Haw has a surprising message for Catholics about what really goes on at Protestant Churches that scorn the idea of “unwritten tradition” in Catholicism and claim they operate on “Bible alone” principals and cut out the middle man so there are no superfluous rituals. “I didn’t see this at the time, but no matter how much a Christian community tries to remove, new forms and structures of ritual come to fill the void” he writes in his book. Haw adds “Evangelical worship is still a ritual. It still has history and a form and an expected mode of engagement. Even though we’re praying spontaneously, it’s still socially conditioned.” He further noted in an interview “What I thought was a direct relationship with Jesus was a protest of the [Catholic] Church saying they had handed Jesus to me.” He has since realized no direct relationship exists, and adds that even the Gospels guiding Protestants have been heavily edited and revised by church tradition over the centuries.
After sitting in the pews of Sacred Heart parish in New Jersey, Haw found himself worshiping with Catholics again, in an intimate smaller setting. He came to realize that while the Catholic Church was not perfect, it was family. “There is something really deep about people loving something that isn’t too lovable,” he writes “We do that with families. We do that with parents and friends. The better among us try to push through the ugliness that we get out of each other and keep loving the deeper person”. It fits in well with the theme that megachurches are more concerned with entertainment than religion
Still, Haw’s book shouldn’t be mistaken an anti-Protestant rant from some Catholic who got seduced and now has an ax to grind with his former faith. He says his return to Catholicism was more of a choice “for” something rather than a choice “against” something else. In his book, he notes the success of these booming evangelical protestant movements, and says Catholicism could learn a thing or two about evangelical Christianity, and vice versa. “Perhaps Willow Creek is a gift to the Catholic Church” he says, “and perhaps the Catholic Church can be a gift to Willow Creek too”
For example, a recent study showed that Evangelical Hispanics in the United States tended to be much more socially conservative and follow traditional Church teachings than their Catholic counterparts. Why is that? Perhaps much of it is due to the fact that despite the rhetoric about Latinos being “devout Catholics”, many Latinos were baptized Catholic but do not take their faith seriously in the United States and connect with it, nor do Hispanic Catholic parishes make much an effort to discuss Catholic theology and its relevance to their lives. Indeed, a recent pew study about Catholic parishes found that Latinos are least likely to report that their clergy speak out about candidates and elections (29%). This perhaps examples why Latino Catholics overwhelmingly support candidates who positions are totally at odds with their faith. A recent internet post summed it up nicely “it’s not that Catholics are more liberal, it’s that the evangelical Hispanics actively sought out their church and chose to join it, so they take their faith seriously, whereas Catholic Hispanics were born in that Church and call themselves Catholic, but take little interest in upholding what it teaches”
In countries where generic protestant Christianity is on the wane and active Catholicism is the booming, the reverse is often true. Look no further than the country that gave birth to the United States: the United Kingdom. There, “British culture” was traditionally defined as upholding three British social institutions: the Church of England, the Monarchy, and the British family. But despite England’s Anglican heritage and status as the “official state religion”, the increasing liberalism in the Church of England and the lack of practicing members has made Catholicism the defacto growing religious faith for those who want to uphold traditional values. Those who oppose unjust war, want to repair broken society in the U.K, restore traditional two parent family structures, support traditional marriage, and so on, are increasingly looking towards Catholicism, including Owen Paterson and Edward Leigh—himself a prominent Roman Catholic. They are members of the “Cornerstone Group” in U.K. politics, known for its focus on “Flag, Faith, and Family”. Indeed, Catholics have now overtaken Anglicans as the country’s dominant religious group and a study from The Sunday Telegraph last year showed that more Britons attend Catholic Mass every Sunday than worship with the Church of England.
In short, Chris Haw’s book could be a refresher course for both Catholics and evangelical Protestants on what we need to do to understand each other and revitalize our faith. Certainly, while the raw number of Catholics in the United States is growing, the number of people who actively practice Catholicism is not. If we need to change our marketing strategy to reflect that the growing evangelical “tent revival” groups are doing, perhaps it’s time we do so. Likewise, evangelical protestant Christianity could learn a lot from committing themselves to learning historic Christian traditions, expressing more solidarity with the poor and needy, and having a richer understanding of the role of social justice and moral values. Take it from Chris Haw; he’s been there and back again.