By Gordon Govier

A Church with InterVarsity Roots

Contemporary Christian music can be found in Sunday morning services at many evangelical churches today. Many churches also encourage their members to fellowship in smaller home groups during the week. Such was not the case back in the seventies when Bill Hanawalt and Steve Nicholson were looking for a church that reflected their InterVarsity fellowship experiences in college and the spirit of renewal that was growing around the country at that time.

Bill, who was involved with InterVarsity at Yale University, moved to Chicago to go to seminary. Steve, who was in InterVarsity at Carleton College in Minnesota, moved to Chicago for his first job after graduation. They had some extended family ties but got better acquainted when they started to attend the same church.

“It was 1974, the tail end of the Jesus movement,” Steve said. “It was all about not wearing ties and using guitars in worship.”

“We had had an experience of contemporary worship from InterVarsity, as well as small groups, conversational prayer, that type of thing,” Bill recalled. “Those were hard to find in the evangelical church culture in Chicago in the early seventies. We felt that those were things that we highly valued: relevancy plus an intimate and informal style of prayer and worship.”

Starting a New Church
They decided to design a church on this model and began a fellowship that eventually became known as Vineyard Christian Church of Evanston. Within months attendance was up to several hundred. “The church was heavily populated by people who had InterVarsity backgrounds in college, or were currently in InterVarsity local chapters,” Bill said. “The worship style helped us to attract young people who were looking for a teaching and preaching style that was biblically rooted but was relevant to contemporary life and issues.”

As the church grew to a Sunday attendance of around 1,000, and planted 15 other Vineyard churches around Chicago and in other large cities, it retained its InterVarsity connections. “We have always had InterVarsity staff members that we support financially, attending our church,” Bill said. “We currently have three present or former staff members who we support in our missions budget.”

“We regularly give personal support to student leaders,” Steve added. “Student leaders are considered leaders of the church, and we invest in them, as well as with other leaders.” He said that students from a half dozen different colleges and up to ten different campus fellowships attend Evanston Vineyard Church.

The church’s missions vision has also been shaped by InterVarsity’s Urbana Student Missions Convention. The convention is held every three years, and Evanston Vineyard Church often sends a delegation of students and adults. “We have seven full-time missionary families serving overseas, supported by this church,” Bill said. “Most of them are in the Muslim world.”

The Trials of Expansion
As the Evanston Vineyard Church has grown it has faced two challenges in the last decade: a relocation battle with city hall and changing demographics.

The city of Evanston refused to let the church hold worship services in a building that the church purchased about ten years ago. Evanston is landlocked and therefore city officials are concerned over the conversion of taxable commercial property to tax-exempt status.

“We unsuccessfully tried to negotiate with the city and it left us with no other choice but to sue the city,” Bill said. “We do believe, like Paul, we have citizen’s rights. We can ask that they be respected, and we can go to the courts to protect them, just like Paul did.”

It was a trying experience for the congregation and its leaders but it did have unexpected benefits. One of the least visible congregations in the city suddenly became a major news story and their struggle became a rallying point for other faith communities.

“When it came time to go to the city council, every church of every stripe, including Catholics and Unitarians who weren’t theologically compatible with us, showed up to testify on our behalf,” Bill said. “All of the pastors got much better acquainted because I think every other church felt threatened by how we were treated.”

At the time they were meeting in a high school. When the high school renovated its auditorium, the congregation needed a different place to meet for a couple of months. A local synagogue volunteered the use of its building on Sundays. “It never would’ve happened if we hadn’t had that resistance from the city,” Bill said.

Five years ago the final court decision upheld Evanston Vineyard Church’s right to meet for worship at the location they chose. Following that they were able to successfully negotiate with the city to move to an even larger builder that became available.

Diversity Bring Changes
The distinctive that might make Evanston Vineyard Church stand out from other churches today would not be its contemporary worship as much as its ethnically diverse congregation.

About a decade ago minority attendance began to increase. “One day God spoke to me and said he was going to do it,” Steve recalled. “I said to God, ‘I don’t know how but I’m in for it.’ It just started happening. God brought people to us. It was how we responded, that allowed more to happen.”

The minority portion of the congregation has grown by about five percent per year. It’s now at 41-percent. “A lot of people come now because of the ethnic diversity of our congregation,” Steve said.

InterVarsity encourages students to stay active in their church during college. One of the benefits of InterVarsity participation is trained leaders for the church following college.

Read more
InterVarsity students have been serving others through the food pantry operated by Vineyard Christian Church of Evanston. The story is on InterVarsity’s website for students,

photo: Steve Nicholson (left) and Bill Hanawalt