Anja Eltgroth was raised in an Episcopal home. Before she entered Eastern, she had left that more traditional church and “trended fundamentalist-like,” she said, even somewhat anti-Catholic. But now, as a senior, she has done more than just convert to Catholicism. When she graduates, she plans to become a nun.
Her turn toward the higher churches came from outside Eastern: her parents. They – in particular her father – began studying church history, and as they learned about the early church they became convinced that they should be Catholics.
“Intending to win my parents back and show them what they were into, I started on this escapade of reading and studying about Catholicism,” Eltgroth said. But instead of her convincing them, she became convinced that they were right.
Eltgroth stressed that becoming Catholic was not an abandonment of her personal beliefs but an affirmation of them.
“When you take a personal relationship with Christ and a deep knowledge of the Bible and add sacramentalism, it deepens you,” she said.
Nationwide, Christians are abandoning their evangelical Protestant traditions and returning to the ones their spiritual forebears rejected. It happens at Eastern too. According to statistics from the Institutional Research department, Catholic and Orthodox students here make up only about three percent of the student body.
But those numbers reflect only information gathered through the application process, before students entered Eastern, said Tom Dahlstrom, director of the department. There are no figures available to track students as they change denominations during college, he said.
While this means that there is no statistical evidence to prove or disprove a trend at Eastern itself, the impulses that would lead people to make that sort of decision are worth looking at.
Senior Miranda Clemens converted to Catholicism last year while studying abroad in Chile. For her, the decision was based on the Catholic Eucharist.
“I somehow became convinced that there was a very real presence of Christ there that I had never experienced before,” she said.
It wasn’t because of theological doubts, Clemens said, although she did follow-up theological research.
Her parents, who baptized her Catholic, changed denominations repeatedly while she grew up. She made a personal decision for Christ at a Lutheran church in high school.
But Chile changed her when she visited churches there and found the friendliest people at the Catholic church.
“I started going to mass every day because my friends were going and I had nothing else to do, and God spoke to me there,” she said.
“The practices of my faith have changed,” Clemens said. Now she goes to morning mass instead of doing morning devotionals, and prays the rosary.
Jonathan Barker strongly considered joining the Catholic Church for theological reasons. But now, he goes to Circle of Hope East, very much not a high-church setting.
“The Catholic Church could say they have this real apostolic succession, so you can trust that there’s a miracle going on at the altar, that we’re participating in the worship of heaven,” he said. “But it was only intellectually satisfying.”
Real worship at the little church down the street is just as miraculous, he said, and it’s “something you can feel.”
“I don’t think that God discriminates along denominational lines,” he said. “The Protestant church, right now, is where you can believe that.”
Converting to higher churches is something which many students consider even if they don’t end up doing so, professors say.
“For some people, I think the draw is romantic,” said Gary Jenkins, a history professor who himself converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. “For some people, I think it’s rejection of the instability of Protestantism or evangelicalism. For some, it’s the theater.
“For a number, I think it’s part of the same general consumerism.”
People jump on like any other cause, he said. But with Orthodoxy or Catholicism, the ride demands “something more than going to a Vineyard or Calvary Chapel,” something many students aren’t willing to do, he said. His own journey into Orthodoxy started at age 25 and took 15 years.
Bible professor Kent Sparks believes the motivations behind students’ changes are often good.
“Consumers go to things for reasons, superficial or intelligent,” he said.
And the consideration of history and theology is often what drives students toward Catholicism or Orthodoxy.
“What they begin to realize is that you cannot start from scratch to get at truth,” Sparks said.
“I see myself as part of the church universal, the catholic church,” said Sparks, who attends the Church of the Saviour in Wayne. But he could not become Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, he said, because he believes the church is a human institution and therefore fallible.
If there is anything in common among these few examples, it is the lack of a common reason for people’s decisions. The question of what churches they are allied to has become immense and life-long, because of the earlier Protestant rejection of hierarchy and tradition and the absolute claims both the Catholic and Orthodox churches make.
In other words, if Eastern were not Protestant, this would not be such a big issue.