The long and arid strip of land we live in isn’t what it used to be. Once home to the Puritans, the Pilgrims and two Great Awakenings, New England is now commonly regarded as one of the least religious regions of the United States — according to Gallup polling, it holds the distinction of lowest church attendance. Many of the once-proud Gothic churches and cathedrals stand empty, often struggling to maintain a stable population.
Still, Yellow Pages lists 815 names under “Churches in New Haven, CT.” I had seen dozens of these locations in and around the downtown area my freshman fall, but it wasn’t until I went to Toad’s Place that I felt like a part of a church. As a Christian, I had been floating around among various churches, looking for one that was right. A few months into the semester, I visited the notorious nightclub to attend a service of City Church, a nondenominational congregation which I had heard about from some friends. There, in the place where I had first borne witness to dance floor make outs and the spectacle of collegiate carousing, I saw people being baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
A young and growing church was congregating in New Haven’s most garish meeting place. That day, I watched as people clad in Walmart V-necks and synthetic flip-flops professed their faith onstage, before being submerged in a makeshift washbasin in the middle of the dance hall.
I later learned I was just one of 153 Yale students who have passed through City Church’s doors since its opening in 2011. (This number is based on yale.edu email addresses in City Church’s system; there may well be more.) Around 50 of us regular attendees are also members of Yale Faith and Action (YFA), a nondenominational, on-campus ministry that hosts Bible courses and prayer meetings for Christian students.
YFA and City Church of New Haven, both just shy of four years old, have emerged to move the region’s young people, a group statistically known to be irreligious and spiritually detached.
Ketlie Guerrin, 27, has attended Connecticut churches her entire life, but none like City Church. “I’ve visited lots of different churches,” she says. “They’re all really similar — lovely people who love Jesus — but they’re just not growing … the ones that I’ve been to are just dead.”
Guerrin says City Church is on to something different: “I’ve never been to a church like this — [one] that’s growing because of people getting saved. Ever.”
City of God
Justin Kendrick, 31, founder of City Church, grew up in Connecticut as a non-practicing Catholic, which, he says, “for New Englanders makes sense.” He embodied the stereotype of the cultural Christian, going to Mass on Christmas and Easter, but otherwise receiving little in the way of spiritual teaching.
At age 13, Kendrick’s dad took him to New Haven’s Church on the Rock of the Apostolic Faith. He describes the non-denominational church as “charismatic” — referring to a Christian movement that embraces gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as speaking in tongues and prophesying.
I went to Church on the Rock on the first Sunday of my freshman year. There, I saw women dancing around the church with their eyes closed and choristers onstage belting the same words over and over in elation. Everyone was standing up. The preacher bellowed.
“It was at Church on the Rock,” Kendrick recalls, “that I experienced the power of Jesus, his forgiveness and salvation. Until then I didn’t really have any spiritual attentiveness.”
Kendrick’s faith deepened from there. As a teenager, he helped start Frontline Christian Church in Hamden, Conn., which later became the home base of an itinerant music ministry called Holyfire Ministries. The group of young musicians traveled across the country and Europe singing, testifying and evangelizing. Kendrick and his bandmates played all sorts of venues, performing their own music and covering popular Christian songs. They had long hours. They were on the road most of the time. Their lives were a blur of fatigue, worship and sharing the gospel with non-Christians.
While on tour in June of 2007, the band’s RV was acting up. They pulled over at a pit stop and got out of the vehicle. It turned out the engine had caught fire, and soon the band trailer went up in flames. They lost everything — instruments, musical equipment, clothes, personal belongings. Kendrick prayed. He said he heard God tell him that this was a “promotion” to bigger and better things. Within a month, money had come in from donors and their band was able to buy back everything. They acquired Bon Jovi’s old tour bus and got back to work.
But the band’s tenure was to be short-lived. Holyfire Ministries, for all intents and purposes now defunct, only toured for a few more years. By 2010, Kendrick and his crew had their sights set on a different form of evangelism. They wanted to found a church.
The same day there were added to their number about 200
On a summer afternoon I take a cab to City Church’s office in the Amity neighborhood of New Haven, a residential area that is home to parks, waterways and a CVS. The path there is anything but straight and narrow — winding suburban roads clogged with traffic eventually bring me to a house little different from its neighbors.
Inside, the place’s look is more startup than church office. The oldest person working there, Jon Wisecarver, is 31 years old. (Kendrick, also 31, is a close second.) A volunteer sits at a makeshift workspace in the kitchen, while Kendrick kills a wasp by the fridge. The living room upstairs functions as a recording studio and a lounge for composing music.
Kendrick’s office is more traditional — desk, telephone, armchair. Pinned to a bulletin board by his desk is a list of cities, next to each of them a number. “Boston — 539K … New Haven — 126K”: the populations of various New England cities. It serves as a reminder and an exhortation of their mission: to plant a City Church in the 10 most populous cities of New England, so that 50 percent of New Englanders are within a 15-minute drive of a City Church. Guerrin describes this to me as “a 25–year goal to see thriving churches in every city in New England.”
What came to be known as City Church of New Haven grew out of a fledgling network of houses affiliated with Holyfire Ministries. In 2010, a group of 20, led by Justin and his wife Chrisy, decided to open a church proper.
The way Kendrick tells it, God spoke to him, saying, “You want to change the world, but you don’t know your neighbors’ names.” He felt a calling to convene the church “right in the middle of the city, right where students could walk to, [in] the hub of the life of the city.”
The idea for a church in downtown New Haven soon took shape. On Easter Sunday in 2011, City Church held its first official service at Toad’s Place. The venue didn’t faze the launch team, which was used to playing nightclubs and bars back in Europe. Some of the musicians were friends with the sound technician at Toad’s, and its location made it accessible to students and residents alike. Things fell into place.
On that morning a troupe of traveling musicians, short on money and experience, opened the doors of Toad’s to hundreds of people waiting outside. The spectacle might have brought to mind the words of an original City Church worship song, adapted from the Psalms: “Lift up your heads, O ye gates / Open up, ye ancient doors / Yeah.”
Reporters had shown up. The New Haven Register ran a cover story on City Church the next day. Christian Broadcasting Network picked up the story, then CNN, then USA Today. Everyone was spreading the word.
“That was a moment when we realized that God was doing something,” Kendrick says. “God was breathing on our meager efforts, and He was doing something profound, that was far beyond what we could’ve orchestrated or planned.”
City Church, which usually meets at Co-Op Arts and Humanities High School just a few blocks from Old Campus, has seen hundreds of members join since then. Last year, they opened a new location in Bridgeport, Conn. On Oct. 5, they will hold a launch service for City Church of Meriden, a town just 20 minutes away by car. City Church plans to open two new congregations next year. The pace of growth shows no signs of abating.
Kendrick is something of a Christian Johnny Appleseed. “I’m more optimistic than ever,” he says. “I think this region is primed for a real move of God’s Spirit.”
The Spirit moved Sinclair Williams ’17 to be baptized at Toad’s three days after first arriving on campus. He had been putting it off and never got around to it over the summer, which he had been “kind of bummed about.”
That day, Kendrick explained to the congregation that many people were signed up to be baptized, although everyone was invited to take the literal plunge, whether they were prepared to or not.
Williams was unfazed by the baptismal venue. “People feel like God doesn’t belong in certain places,” he says, “But that’s just not true. God doesn’t care where we decide to put Him; He doesn’t care where we decide to keep him out of. He does what He wants. If God’s gonna show up in Toad’s, He’s gonna show up in Toad’s, and He definitely did that day.”
Staying the Course
“What’s up guys! We’re going to stand up and worship God in all of His glory.” Ryan Campbell ’16, dressed in jeans and a tee, begins strumming a guitar and singing into the mic.
Around 100 people rise to their feet inside of LC 101, the pedestrian lecture room transformed into a place of worship. A band plays onstage, backlit by golden Christmas lights. Song lyrics are projected onto a screen with a sunset background: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain / Worthy is the King who conquered the grave.” The music ceases and Campbell says a prayer. People mumble amens as his voice becomes excited; some snap in affirmation. When Campbell closes, the lights come on, and the Yale students who have assembled are invited to stay afterwards for refreshments and schmoozing.
I have come to Rooted, Yale Faith and Action’s weekly prayer meeting. Once held in a seminar room, it’s since moved to a lecture hall to accommodate the growing number of attendees. More people than usual have shown up to their first meeting of the year, many of them freshmen having their first taste of religious life at Yale. The message delivered by YFA ministry fellow Chris Matthews doesn’t beat around the bush.
“Odds are,” he tells the freshmen, “You’ve encountered something in the past few days that was a compromise of what you knew to be right.”
He refers students to the example of Daniel, who never deviated from Jewish custom in spite of Babylonian captivity, extracting seven points from the famous Old Testament story. “Point #6: We must labor to impact the culture around us.”
That may as well be an abbreviated mission statement for YFA. The organization’s tag line is “Developing Christian leaders to transform culture.” The group, one of eight Ivy League iterations of parent organization Christian Union, aims not only to forge Christian community but also to encourage students to impact culture at large.
Matthews describes YFA’s approach as “strategic.” The placement of the ministry strictly within the Ivy League is strategic. The messages delivered to YFA members are strategic. For example, students in Bible courses divided by class year and gender receive a course packet outlining Christian views of sex and sexuality freshman year and another on vocation senior year to help them adjust to and prepare to leave college, respectively. Tori Campbell ’16, Ryan’s sister and a member of YFA, points out that these more practical studies are “the exception rather than the rule.” The lifeblood of the Bible course program are comprehensive analyses of individual books of the Bible.
YFA’s approach is tailored to the presumed intellectualism and hunger for rigor among Yale students. There’s homework and a hefty amount of theology. “They call them Bible courses,” says Jessica Hernandez ’16, a student leader in YFA. “You’re studying at a high level of intellectual rigor — why not take the same approach to the Bible? You’re no less smart when reading the Bible than when you’re reading your Orgo textbook.”
God and Men at Yale
According to the Yale Chaplain’s Office, roughly 25 percent of incoming Yale freshmen from 2013 to 2017 self-report as Catholic, another 25 percent as Protestant of some sort, and 5 percent as “Other” (including Pentecostal, Charismatic, Orthodox, Mormon, among others). But before YFA arrived on campus, Matthews says, only 5 percent of all students were actively involved in any Christian ministry on campus. Now that number is closer to 7 to 8 percent. He adds that these are rough estimates: To be exact, YFA has grown from eight members in Fall 2010 to over 150 currently.
These numbers can’t capture the full nuance of students’ religious persuasions or track any changes of heart they experience midway through college.
University Chaplain Sharon Kugler, after conferring with Senior Associate Chaplain for Protestant Life Ian Oliver, commented on these statistics. “The numbers gathered by the Chaplain’s Office about Yale College include a wide range of students,” she told me over email, “From those who are very active in high school in a religious group to those whose affiliation is purely nominal. It would be interesting to know how many were religiously active through their high school years — it might be much smaller.” She raises a good point: It may not be that so many Christians drop off in college — some of them may never have been all that involved to begin with.
Additional problems beset the gathering of quantified stats. According to Kugler, the current survey of student religious affiliations is completely voluntary, and just 50 percent of incoming students respond.
Raised in a Methodist household, Cathy Brock ’16 is inclined to list her religious affiliation as Methodist. But if you asked her what religion she currently practices, her answer would be “none.” Save for church services she attends back in Cobb County, Ga. — often nicknamed “the buckle of the Bible belt,” she says — Brock is no longer involved with Christian life.
“It’s not like I’m too lazy or too busy or I haven’t found a church. I have made the conscious decision that I do not want to be a part of the church anymore,” she says.
She adds that her case is the exception to the rule. Many students may not necessarily have made a conscious decision like her to stop practicing Christianity, citing the demands of the college environment instead.
Some of them, like Hall Rockefeller ’16, may still be religious without seeking involvement in on-campus ministries. She attends Compline, a brief time of chant, worship and meditation housed in a church near campus. While Rockefeller is actively religious in anyone’s book, she doesn’t fall into the 7 or 8 percent that Matthews talks about.
Outside of YFA, Christian life in general appears to be thriving at Yale. “Currently, there are about 19 Christian ministries on campus, with probably more than 30 full-time (or near full-time) staff,” Kugler says. “Yale probably has more resources in Christian group staff and organizations than most other private non-religiously affiliated colleges or universities of similar size and composition.”
Tori Campbell shares Kugler’s opinion and feels a great deal of excitement. “I’ve looked a little bit at this for a paper I wrote on Christianity at Yale last year,” she says. “This is unprecedented, to have this many Christians at Yale, since the ’30s — people who actively make faith a part of their life.”
But YFA had only a handful of members in its inaugural year. Four years ago, eight Yale freshmen enrolled in the first Bible study taught by YFA ministry fellows. Seminary-trained fellows Chad Warren and Chris Matthews systematically led the eight men (there were no women that year) through weekly Bible courses that tackled everything from theology to relationships.
Matthews believes that YFA’s structure and approach have resonated with Christian students at Yale. “How we grew?” he asks. “We have a different model.” He explains: “The Bible course is a new thing. The fact that you could come and have effectively a seminar with a seminary-trained Bible teacher was a new opportunity for people, [which] many students were drawn to.”
Matthews estimates that around 150 Yalies will enroll in YFA Bible courses this semester. This number has not arisen from a vacuum — there’s precedent.
Before Yale Faith and Action there was Harvard College Faith and Action, before that Princeton Faith and Action. YFA’s parent organization, Christian Union, was started in 2002 by Matt Bennett, who was at the time working at Princeton for Campus Crusade for Christ, now known as Cru. (The Yale chapter is called Yale Students for Christ). Bennett saw the need for a ministry more specifically tailored to the Ivy League atmosphere and student. After pitching the idea to Campus Crusade, Bennett struck out on his own. (The specificity of his ministry did not align with Campus Crusade’s national model, according to Matthews.)
From a handful of undergrads at Princeton in 2002, Christian Union has gone on to enroll hundreds of students across the Ivy League in Bible courses. Bennett has dispatched ministry fellows to every Ivy League campus, reaching Yale third in 2010 and culminating with Brown in 2014.
Outside of YFA, there are older student-led ministries on campus, such as Yale Students for Christ, Yale Christian Fellowship, Athletes in Action and Black Church at Yale, among others. Matthews stresses that YFA is not competing with these ministries, but merely enriching spiritual life on campus.
City Church has done much the same thing, reaching a region considered to be irreligious and targeting a specific cohort within it. The plan for a multi-site church is new to the region. Although similar church brands have arisen elsewhere, none has set down roots and flourished in New England the way City Church has. Just like YFA, it has devised a model that is thriving in just the place it shouldn’t be.
Doing It Different
City Church and YFA, one in downtown New Haven and the other at Yale, are tapping into under-reached populations: the modern university and the Northeast. Matthews and Kendrick both stress that they have not come to barren regions, that they are not the first, that there is a vibrant array of spiritual options that long preceded them. They are simply bringing in people who otherwise wouldn’t be brought in.
The groups complement each other. “[The] Sunday morning experience City Church provides is part of the reason it grew so much among students,” Matthews says. “It’s vibrant. They have amazing musicians, a passionate pastor.” City Church provides something like a counterbalance to the intellectual intensity of YFA.
Two ministries show signs of life late in 2010. Since then, both have grown far faster than they had reason to expect. Behind the dimmed lights and dulcet strains of Christian pop rock is a message uniting them both: that a man named Jesus who lived and died 2,000 ago can matter to young people today.
Two ministries diverge. One uses loud music, snappy videos and social media to reach out to the 18–35 year-old cohort. The other offers a dose of rigor and self-discipline; it demands academic investment, encourages fasting, holds morning prayers, promotes the study of theology.
There is much talk of “revival” in and around these two ministries. One month ago, I received an email from Christian Union’s Matt Bennett inviting me to join him in a 40-day fast to promote revivalist efforts across the nation (I will not be joining him.)
I hesitate to use the word; it’s loaded. Tori Campbell rightly tells me that it has “baggage.” Revival means something definitively dead is now coming back to life. A better word might be “awakening” — stripped of any historical connotations, the capital A’s of the First and Second Great Awakenings. These two ministries are part of an effort not to bring back to life what was dead; rather, they are part of a movement that is touching what lay dormant, rousing what was half-asleep. If what has been happening in and around Yale’s campus is not a Great Awakening, perhaps it is a stirring from half-consciousness — a fluttering of just-closed eyes, a crossing of the hands in prayer, a population of students swaying, singing and studying the Bible on the floors of lecture halls and dance clubs.