I’m just guessing here and I don’t think that an official survey has ever been taken, but I have a notion that on a typical Sunday morning, Jacksonville has more folks attending church than most communities our size. I have nothing to base this on, but the 12:15 Sunday noon crowd at the restaurants is a bit of an indication that we tend to be a church-going community.
When I was an Illinois College freshman a group of us decided that we’d explore the churches of Jacksonville one Sunday at a time. We were all some miles distant from our home churches and thought that perhaps this “tasting menu” of ecumenism might be the way to go. We had no idea how many churches Jacksonville hosted when we set out upon our cross-town church hop, but we lasted for maybe a couple of months. Of course it pleased most congregations mightily to see four fresh-faced young men enter their sanctuary on the Sabbath. Since we didn’t know the dress codes of the various places of worship we always showed up on shirts and ties.
Our general consensus was that the Jacksonville congregations were welcoming as churches should be. Only once were we slighted a bit as we walked into an unnamed church’s sanctuary, sat down, then were advised by an usher that visitors were to sit several rows back. The rest of the service was equally welcoming. There was a stained-glass window depicted Christ with his arms open wide. I guess He was just visiting, too.
Just to get our church legs under us, we began with the mainline congregations since one member of our roving quartet didn’t attend church regularly and we didn’t want to scare him. After the first couple of weeks I asked him what difference he saw between Presbyterians and Methodists. He thought a moment then said, “Well, Presbyterians are taller.” I told him that sitting beside Dr. Chet Bone and his son was pleasant, but perhaps not the most accurate way to judge theology or demographics. He thought a moment then said, “Well, the Methodists seemed looser.” I’ll leave that comment just where I found it.
One bright winter morning, we visited a church in which we were the only congregants of our color. The look on the faces of the worshippers as we three WASP’s walked in the door was priceless, and I must say that we’d never been treated so well. Instead of being shuffled to the visitors’ pews in the rear, they insisted that we sit right up front. Note: never sit up front in a church you’ve never visited. You have no one from whom to take your cues. We spent the entire service turning around to see what we were supposed to do next. 2nd Note: by the time the service was over they’d stopped serving lunch at IC’s Baxter Dining Hall.
Somewhere near the end of our weekly sojourn we attended church that I’d been warned about, an acquaintance telling me that this worship experience was “a real trip.” I’ll admit it … I’m a Presbyterian and therefore I spook easily. When we entered the sanctuary the place was rocking. This was the late sixties when praise bands were rare, and I thought it was pretty cool to have a set of drums right beside the pulpit. My little group of tenuous visitors really had no idea when the service began. The welcoming music sort of blended into the fifteen-minute prelude, which melded seamlessly into the half hour of praise time, which at some point became the sermon. It was hard to tell since the drums accompanied each of these segments. Then when the aging minister took the pulpit, things really began to pop. At least I think he started out in the pulpit. Actually, it was more like a cockpit that launched him out into the auditorium. Instead of standing preacher-ly behind his podium, this man was a roving lion, roaring up and down the aisles, at one point actually entering a row of pews and speaking directly into the face of a worshipper who seemed to be in on the program since he kept shouting “Amen!” back into the lion’s face. This was Jacksonville after all, so there was no snake handling and no one was levitated through the ceiling, but it was raucous enough to scare the ecumenism right out of our little band of IC visitors. At certain points in the sermon, the assembled musicians onstage were inspired to kick into a bit of music to which the roving minister would respond with quick dance steps. While most of the congregation were transported into the spirit I was fearful for the minister’s life. The veins in his forehead would bulge with each fevered “Halleluiah!” and I didn’t want to be there on the Sunday he entered glory.
We didn’t keep score on the various worship services, but years later when my college classmates meet for a reunion we often remember this most memorable part of our college experience … then, we take up an offering.