Plenty of people didn’t realize the church was a church, even when they drove past it on Algonquin Road, even when the sign was put out front with enormous lettering, even when Christmas came. They thought it was a community college, maybe, or they didn’t think about it all other than when they got stuck in traffic at the corner of Algonquin and Barrington Roads. It was big enough to be a community college. I learned to drive on its generous parking lot. I met my best friends in its walls, which were adorned neither with religious art nor a single cross. It looked like a community college. It was one of the largest megachurches in America.
I had two homes growing up, and Willow Creek Community Church was one of them. It was large but I knew it well and felt for it the kind of affection that grow in time and youth. I grew up evangelical, and good things happened, and this is the story of that.
The house I grew up in was warm. Literally—our California-native mother never let the heat drop below 70 during Chicago winters—but also metaphorically. It was the kind of house that made me feel welcome in my fears and failures, like I belonged to people who knew me and loved me too. That house had the qualities of God in that sense, and I knew that God was real and active and good just as much as I knew that house on Eisenhower Circle would be a blast of heat on a cold day.
Some of my friends had strict parents; some didn’t. Some weren’t allowed to watch television that didn’t have a positive or wholesome message, and we three kids always gave them shit over that. Some could only listen to Christian radio stations or Christian albums. I watched Psycho when I was nine, and my younger sister had most of The Simpsons memorized by the time she was in sixth grade, and our younger brother loved Jimi Hendrix’s electric guitar version of the national anthem. We were weird kids, but we weren’t weird in the way that people think of when they think of evangelicals. Just regular weird.
There are gifts that come with being raised evangelical. They are strange and specific gifts, often marked by their inverse in ways I could only see later: The strong sense of community, when beheld from another angle, was exclusive. The inclusion of women at the highest levels of the church never went far enough. Self-awareness was valued in a way that prized the individual over the community. These were the gifts of the evangelical church, and I received them with open hands because that is what any child does and also because I wanted them, and they were there for the taking.
My dad was finishing seminary when I was born and brought home to a bungalow on Madison Street in Pasadena, in southern California. We moved to suburban Chicago when I was nine; my sister, seven; my brother, five. We went to school for a little while without the right coats because no one in southern California knew that you needed more than a warm jacket for Chicago winters. During those long winters, those weeks when playing outside wasn’t an option for three young kids because the temperatures were in the single digits, you could find us in one of two places: in our red-roofed home on Eisenhower Circle, or at church. When we were at home, we read books and ate Beef Stroganoff Hamburger Helper for dinner and played pranks on each other. When we were at church, we played with our friends and ate in the food court—a church with 17,000 weekly attendees has to have a place to feed them—and made prank phone calls from our dad’s office.
You can’t go to a big evangelical church for too long—more than a couple of weeks—without being asked to join a small group, or a Bible study, or a life group. The names are slightly different according to the churches, but the idea remains the same, that it is better to go through life’s peaks and valleys together than alone. I have been in some form of a small group since I was nine years old. Then, it was a group of fourth-graders who called themselves the Orange Team and tried to memorize Bible verses; now, it is a group of women who live in San Francisco and are married and talk about work and children. There is a verse in Psalm 133 that says, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” Doesn’t that sound good?
It is easy to be cynical about in-group dynamics and communities; cynical is something I have been about the church. Underneath that cynicism, though, I give my assent: It IS good and pleasant—very good, even—when people who love each other live in unity. It is good that God thought people should not live alone, and that God created more than one kind of person, and even good that God created people who annoy me because how else would I ever get to grow in compassion or kindness? Small group people were some of the first friends I ever made. They came to play at my parent’s house in Illinois, and we brought food to them when they delivered their babies in San Francisco. They are not my best friends, but they are dear to me, and they are dear both because we share our faith in common and because we share our doubts. From a young age I have struggled with often severe anxiety, and fear that God does not much care for me. When I have needed others to believe for me, or to pray me back to belief, they have. I was never made to feel bad for my doubts. Others have been made to feel that way, though. Their stories are true, too; their gifts less uncomplicated.
Evangelical Christianity has relationships at its core in a way that other branches of the Christian faith do not. Not only is there the relationship between the individual and God, but there is the relationship between the individual and other individuals who do not yet know God. That’s what it means to be an evangelical—to ascribe importance to sharing the “good news” (euangelion) of the gospel of Jesus.
Sharing the good news has also, of course, turned out to be bad news. The church has wielded the gospel like a club instead of an invitation. When it gets this wrong—when people are made to feel excluded, or when Christianity looks like an old boys’ club, or when the poor and oppressed remain that way—the church has failed at its job, and the good news of the gospel is not good. The good news has to be good news for everyone if it is really good, and even as it has been very good to me, that wasn’t so difficult: I am white, and straight, and from the upper middle class. Even though 11 percent of evangelical Protestants in America are Latino and 6 percent are black, the church I grew up in was mostly white.
When you look like everyone in a group, it is easy to belong to that group, and for a church that purports to follow a Jewish carpenter who abolished ethnic divisions, we sure have done a terrible job at integrating our places of worship. But even that ability to see clearly is a legacy of my evangelical upbringing. Evangelicals like feedback more than any other group of people I’ve come across, and they follow Biblical models for confronting one another: First in person, then with a few other people, then the issue goes to the whole church, and only then can you turn your back on the person who was your brother or sister. The evangelicals I know are ready to hear when they have wronged or hurt you, ready to incorporate your feedback into their daily lives, to pray together over coffee, to ask for forgiveness. Evangelicals know—at least the ones who are not running for president—that they are not perfect.
It was at the big church outside of Chicago that my mom became a pastor for the first time. There were five teaching pastors, and two of them were my parents, and two of them were women. Women were elders and deacons and worked in the sports ministry and the homeless ministry that turned a basement meeting room into a place for local homeless men and women to sleep, part of a rotation that local churches each hosted for one night of the week. Women were part of every level of the church, and although in practice we heard more preaching from men than women, I knew that I could take on any role in the church when my time came to volunteer or work, if I wanted to. I knew that no door was closed to me because of my gender, and that God gave the gifts of teaching and leadership to women just as he did to men. I was baptized by my mother in the morning by sprinkling and by my father in the afternoon by immersion in the man-made lake. Evangelicals are good at baptism, too. It takes.
When I was 15, I spent almost every weekend night in the basement of my best friend’s house, which was painted white and which we were allowed to draw on with Sharpies in between rounds of pool. We went to different high schools, but we all attended the same church, and one night we started talking about immigration. “It’s ridiculous,” Trevor said. “They come over the border and take our jobs and then expect to live here forever.” No one else said anything, just kept shooting pool or drawing the MxPx logo on the wall. I was seething. “What jobs?” I tried to keep my voice calm. “You mean picking strawberries? Or washing dishes?” I don’t remember what happened after that, or who won the argument, or whether anyone turned from their normal teenaged activities to watch the two of us argue immigration policy. In hindsight, we were two kids parroting our parents’ beliefs. What else could we be? We were 15. We both believed we were right. I still believe I was right, even if I could have been nicer about it.
But I didn’t have to be nice all the time, because even though many people mistake niceness for Christianity, I was lucky to be raised in a family that allowed for rough edges. The house on Eisenhower Circle had everything to do with why I am grateful I was raised evangelical. There was an understanding that our family was a safe place, that we were loved and cared for, and that we would not hide ourselves from each other. There was also an understanding that our belief in God translated into actionable knowledge, and that if you ever talked to anyone else about God, it was because God was your bedrock reality, not because you had to make them believe. Our mom especially is passionate about issues of justice, and we spent many Thanksgiving dinners and Sunday afternoons serving at homeless shelters and food banks. She reminded us that we didn’t deserve better than anyone else; that much of life is luck and chance; that God doesn’t play favorites. Our dad read Lord of the Rings out loud and did voices and occasionally made things up about Frodo farting just to get us to giggle and tell him to stop. Our parents had gay friends and family members, and there was never any question about whether God loved them or if they belonged at church. God loved everyone. Justice mattered to God. God loved laughter, and we watched The Simpsons, and so I thought that God must love The Simpsons, too.
It is rare to hear someone in mainstream media acknowledge that they are glad to be or have been evangelical, even though about a quarter of Americans are evangelical. It’s a bit like having an embarrassing aunt who says weird things, things you disagree with, but you love the smell of her perfume when she hugs you. You want to distance yourself from her because she is sometimes unkind or overly zealous. I wish we could talk about both things more, and that’s what this essay is, a kind of attempt to say: yes, there are bad things, but good things happened, too.
It is very hard not to make this essay into an apology for the ways the evangelical church has failed. It has failed, but I love it. It made me who I am.
Laura Turner is a writer and editor living in San Francisco.
Illustration by Angelica Alzona