Searching For Sunday: A Review of Rachel Held Evans’s Book

Rachel Held Evans I’ll admit it; I’ve got a love/hate relationship with Rachel Held Evans. Not that she knows it – we’ve never met. But I read her blog and her stuff on social media.

Some of the questions she has for and about how the church behaves are right on. I’ve wrestled with some of the same issues myself. At the same time, she gets a lot of it wrong, goes too far on some issues, and completely misses it on other issues. She has a tendency to get tunnel vision – she’s got her couple core issues that get played on repeat over, and over, and over, and…well, you get it.

Searching for Sunday
So when I heard she had a new book out about “loving, leaving, and finding the church,” I thought I’d give it a read. Before even reading it I’d seen liberals praising it and conservative lambasting it. So I read it for myself.

Ms. Evans divides her book into a prologue and 7 sections, following the sacraments of the Church: Baptism, Confession, Holy Orders, Communion, Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, and Marriage. Since she wrote in this order, my review will take one section at a time in the same order. Here’s my take on it.

Prologue:

Ms. Evans begins laying the groundwork for the rest of the book, setting the stage for her own journey away from the evangelical church. As I expected, she starts right in by bringing up her pet peeves with evangelical faith: biblical interpretation, religious pluralism, sexuality (feminism and LGBTQ issues), racial reconciliation, and social justice. These issues come as no surprise, for they are the resounding gong of all of her work.

The problem for me comes a few pages into the prologue where she writes:

The truth is, I don’t even bother getting out of bed many Sunday mornings, especially on days when I’m not sure I believe in God or when there’s an interesting guest on Meet the Press.

She finishes the prologue with similar words:

It’s about why, even on days when I suspect all this talk of Jesus and resurrection and life everlasting is a bunch of bunk designed to coddle us through an essentially meaningless existence, I should still like to be buried with my feet facing the rising sun. Just in case.

This is the problem. The entire rest of the book isn’t coming from a place of faith. It’s coming from a place of un-faith (yes, I know that’s not a real word). I’m not against asking God questions – even difficult questions. I firmly believe that God is big enough to handle any questions we may have. But we’re not talking about mere questions here. We’re talking about lack of faith.

People like Ms. Evans like to use the example from the Gospels when a Jesus has a conversation with a man (see Mark 9):

Jesus: All things are possible to him who believes.
Man: Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!”

But this case is different. The man comes from a place of belief and is asking help to get the rest of the way. Ms. Evans admittedly approaches much of her life beginning with unbelief.

If you spend much time doubting the resurrection actually happened can you really consider yourself a Christian? Ms. Evans seems to like the IDEA of church when it works to serve people and the issues she cares about, but she doesn’t seem to like the faith that is the FOUNDATION of that church. While some of her criticisms may have validity, it is difficult for me to receive criticisms from someone who doubts in the resurrection or the existence of God.

I don’t judge her for her lack of faith. I don’t judge anyone who is a non-believer. But I think Ms. Evans is fooling herself to say she doubts the existence of God and the resurrection yet still makes a claim to be Christian. She seems to fit better in the category (I know she hates labels, but they help us make sense of the world) of agnostic.

My other problem with the prologue is that Ms. Evans claims:

My aim in employing these seven sacraments is not theological or ecclesiological, but rather literary.

Yet the book IS theological and ecclesiological. My problem is not that she claims not to but then does write on theology and ecclesiology (theology as applied to the nature and structure of the Christian Church) but that I think she gets some of the theology wrong. So here we go…

Baptism: Baptism

From the get-go I don’t think Ms. Evans has the right view of baptism. As she tells her own story she lists various baptism traditions that could have been had she not been born to an evangelical family. But among the list of baptismal traditions she mentions the Mormon tradition. It’s mixed right in there with evangelicals, Orthodox, Catholic, and Presbyterian.

But Mormonism is NOT a branch of Christianity. The fact that she includes Mormonism is another indicator that she falls under the agnostic column more than the Christian.

Mormonism notwithstanding, Ms. Evans and I disagree with the nature and significance of baptism. She writes:

In the ritual of baptism, our ancestors acted out the bizarre truth of the Christian identity: We are people who stand totally exposed before evil and death and declare then powerless against love.

While I agree that baptism is about identity, her language about love doesn’t sit right with me. Baptism ISN’T about declaring evil and death powerless against love. Baptism is about sin, repentance, death, and resurrection. John the Baptist was baptizing people before Jesus even came on the scene, preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins (see Mark 1:4). In our baptism we are putting to death our old identity and emerging from the water with a new identity. Love beating evil and death is too generic, too “new age-y.”

Baptism says, “I have a new life as a follower of the risen Christ.”

Of course, nothing from Ms. Evans would be complete without vocal support of the LGBTQ community, so she includes a chapter dedicated to the baptism story of a gay young man. She concludes the section with the statement:

…baptism is done at the beginning of your faith journey, not the middle or the end. You don’t have to have everything together to be baptized.

She is absolutely right on this point. You DON’T have to have it together to be baptized. The problem with many who fall in the liberal camp is that they have no expectation of spiritual growth and development post-baptism. God accepts us the way we are. That doesn’t mean God is content we STAY the way we are.

Finally, Ms. Evans uses this section to blast evangelicals on a couple points. She presents her criticisms as though they are universally representative of evangelical churches, but they are not. I was raised in the Assemblies of God my entire life (though I am now non-denominational). Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) was never banned in my church or home. The King James Version was not the only allowed Bible. I was allowed to watch movies and television. I never once heard women’s breasts referred to as “stumbling blocks” (an expression Ms. Evans uses a couple of times). My church tradition ordains women (my own mother is ordained) and recognizes their place in ministry.

Since my evangelical story is vastly different from hers, I suggest Ms. Evans refine her definitions and terminology and stop leveling generic accusations that don’t hold water across the evangelical spectrum.

Confession: Confession

In the section on confession, Ms. Evans seems to be confessing her own story – why she really started turning away from the Christian Church. Part of her split is due to the role of women in the church. Her background is in a church where she felt relegated to baby showers and ladies’ teas when she wanted to be leading a Bible study or theological discussion. Not to beat a dead horse, but she levels accusations at evangelicalism that aren’t true across the board. My wife has led Bible studies and has NEVER constructed a diaper cake. But these peripheral issues seem to be simply excuses for the real issue – a loss of faith. She writes:

I couldn’t pretend to believe things I didn’t believe anymore.

So she talks about singing “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” with an unraveled faith (even though the “shadow of turning” line in the song isn’t about OUR faith but about GOD’S faithfulness through it all). Still, she gets it right when she talks about the practice of confession.

The practice of confession gives us the chance to admit to one another that we’re not okay, and then to seek healing and reconciliation together, in community.

The contemporary American evangelical church does NOT do a good job with confession. We’re too busy pretending we’ve got it all together. Heaven forbid we admit to each other that we’re struggling with something. Heave forbid our pastors show flaws or weaknesses! Ms. Evans is right when she notes that our churches feel more like country clubs than Alcoholics Anonymous. Church ought to be the place where we are free to be broken with one another.

But then she devolves from a good conversation about confession into a litany of historical grievances against Christians, beginning with the Crusades and including Western empire building (although that was political behavior behind a veneer of religion, not religious behavior). I don’t agree with the liberal re-interpretation of the history, and I won’t spend time arguing about that here. It just seems out of place in this book and wasn’t tied into the larger story being developed.

She ends the section with the liberal call to stop judging people and to love them instead. Not surprising. I happen to think the Bible calls us to love people AND to judge them. We can point out sin without being unloving. And just because we wrestle with our own sin doesn’t mean we must shut up about talking about other sins.

Holy Orders: Holy Orders

Ms. Evans uses the sacrament of holy orders to talk about her experience being part of a church plant. Most of the section is personal narrative of her experience with planting a church. It’s tough to be part of a church plant, which she and her husband experienced first-hand. Ministry is difficult in ANY setting.

She is right that all Christians share the same calling. We are kingdom of priests and should be serving and ministering to one another. What amazes me is that she would even attempt to be part of a ministry team and a faith leader when she admittedly lacks faith.

Communion: Communion

Ms. Evans is big on doing as opposed to believing. The mainstay of evangelical churches is belief. She believes we miss the mark because we prefer to believe rather than do. When it comes to communion writes:

‘Do this,’ he said–not believe this but do this–in remembrance of me.

But what she misses is that the doing was a result OF the believing. Jesus said DO this to remember me. Without the believing communion is simply shared meal time. Even in the early church gatherings, the communal meal wasn’t the totality of the gathering. They gathered for the apostles’ teaching (doctrine and belief) and to prayer (elements of faith and belief). It was BECAUSE of their belief that they continued to meet together. You cannot separate believing and doing. Indeed, believing must precede the doing, or else we’re just Boy Scouts looking to do good deeds for others.

Ms. Evans seems to relegate communion to the act of feeding one another and table fellowship. She writes:

Certainly nonbelievers can care for one another and make one another food. But it is Christians who recognize this act as sacrament, as holy.

NO! Communion isn’t about caring for one another and making food for each other. It’s about the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross, giving up his body and blood to pay a price we couldn’t afford to pay. She de-theologizes communion when she makes it about food rather than the work of Christ on the cross. Because she makes it about table fellowship rather than Christ’s substitutionary work, she can talk about welcoming all to the table.

“Welcome! There’s bread and wine. Come eat with us and talk.” This isn’t a kingdom for the worthy; it’s a kingdom for the hungry.

While we will never be worthy (which is why we couldn’t pay the price for our sins ourselves), communion is about Jesus paying the price for us. When we come to faith we begin a shift, though, and cannot remain the same. The Church that should be welcoming to all still needs to be the Church that quotes God, “Be holy as I am holy.”

Confirmation: Confirmation

Now addressing the issue of denominations within Protestantism, Ms. Evans notes:

…our various traditions seem a sweet and necessary grace.

Well…not ALL of them. Not the denominations that go against what she holds near and dear to her heart, namely women’s ordination and exclusion of the LGBTQ community from communion. But other than those groups, a sweet and necessary grace.

And so Ms. Evans clings to the Apostles’ Creed as the end-all of Christianity. To an extent, I agree. I think that there are more things that unite Christians than divide us. We like to get bogged down in the differences, but the basic elements of faith are identical from group to group.

But there is more to faith than the ancient creeds – things like sin lists and virtue lists (both in the Bible in multiple places). Christianity is more than reciting a creed. It’s about a faith that leads us to be more Christ-like. But what happens when you don’t have that faith? As she puts it, when you’re

swallowing down the bread and wine, not believing a word of it.

Not a word.

Then all you have is a creed. Dead words that mean nothing in the grand scheme of eternity.

Anointing of the Sick: Anointing of the Sick

This is another point where I think Ms. Evans gets it completely wrong. She makes a distinction between healing and curing. We’re called to heal, not to cure. She says:

The thing about healing, as opposed to curing, is that it is relationship. It takes time.

I don’t know where she’s coming up with this stuff, but it isn’t biblical. When Jesus sends his disciples out with his authority to preach and heal, the disciples HEALED THE SICK and cast out demons. It wasn’t relationship. It was about the power of God breaking through to our reality. It was a sign that the kingdom of God is HERE! In the New Testament we see other examples of the church laying on hands and praying for healing – for people to be cured of what ailed them. It is dishonest to the Bible to pretend that there is a difference between healing and curing.

While God doesn’t always answer prayer the way we’d like, we cannot pretend that biblical healing is anything other than God changing and repairing physical bodies. Can healing take place emotionally and relationally? Yes. But don’t downplay the power of God and what the Bible says about healing. Otherwise you turn God’s healing power into one big Kumbaya sing-along where we end up crying and hugging each other.

Marriage: Marriage

Here again I find myself agreeing with Ms. Evans. Following Jesus is a group activity and wasn’t ever intended to be a solo event. But it goes beyond that. The Church is called the Bride of Christ. Turning from Jesus is infidelity. There is no other way to the Father. The Church is His, and those who believe are called to be a part of it.

She gets it right when she says:

And the church universal is sacramental when it knows no geographic boundaries, no political parties, no single language or culture, and when it advances not through power and might, but through acts of love, joy, and peace and missions of mercy, kindness, humility.

So, yes.

THIS is what the church is supposed to look like in the world.

All said and done, the book can give you a good insight into what a lot of young people go through when they realize that the faith of their parents is not their own. The book will help you see Christianity from a liberal vantage point. In the end, I think the vantage point is hollow, substituting social action for genuine faith.

The local church will always be flawed because humans are flawed. That doesn’t mean the institution is flawed or that faith is lost. The Church belongs to Jesus, and we should do our best to be faithful to him and His Church.

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It has not been my intention to misrepresent the views or writings of Rachel Held Evans in any way. This has simply been my interpretation and response to what I read.

I welcome all discussion, just keep it civil and polite. If this post resonates with you in any way, please share it on Facebook, Twitter, or email!

15 Reasons I Left the Church: A Response to Rachel Held Evans

The local church I attend in Mattoon, IL

Recently I read a post from Rachel Held Evans called “15 Reason I Left the Church.” I don’t know Ms. Evans, but her post seems to be intended to reflect a common experience (and thus motivations?) of all 18-29 year olds who have left the church. To be fair, in much contemporary usage “leaving the church” does not mean abandoning faith but rather  walking away from “organized religion” – traditional Christianity as known and practiced by Evangelicals world-wide.

I love the church. I don’t love the church just because I’m a pastor. I love the church for what it is and what it does. I love the church because of WHOSE it is – not mine (though we often refer to a building as “that’s my church”) but God’s.

In the Bible the word “church” is ekklesia which quite literally means “called out”. The church is the group that God has called out of the world to be different; to be HIS. That being said, church is never about us. It’s always about HIM. Too often we get caught up in personal desires and wants when it comes to the local church. I believe this to be one of the primary errors of the generation Ms. Evans claims to represent – their focus is directed in the wrong direction. There is too much focus on the self instead of on the One who established and called out this group.

But I do want to look at the reasons she gives for walking away:

1.      I’m better at planning Bible studies than baby showers…but they only wanted me to plan baby showers. Bible

I’m not exactly sure what Ms. Evans means by this reason. Perhaps she’s trying to make a point about gender roles in the church? Without her explaining we’re left to guess, but my guess seems reasonable. I’m not sure why her church didn’t want her to plan Bible studies. I would encourage all Christians with the words of Paul:

Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? (1 Corinthians 12:14-17)

Paul’s point is this – there are many parts and roles within the body of believers, the church. One part is not better or worse than the others. Each must fulfill its role to have a healthy and fully functioning body. We can’t always have our ideal role – sometimes we fill roles that don’t fulfill our personal desires. That’s when we have to remember that it’s not about us – it’s about the body. Sometimes we are called to put ourselves on the back burner for the benefit of the group.

2.      When we talked about sin, we mostly talked about sex.
Sin

Some churches do this, I’m sure, but not all. The Bible talks about all sorts of sin. Here’s the thing, when the Bible does talk about sin lists, i.e. here are things to avoid (as in Ephesians 5:3-5), sexual sins are always on the list. Our sexuality is a big part of who we are, and it keeps coming up in the Bible. So, while churches should talk about all the different ways sin destroys our connection with God, young people shouldn’t be surprised when sexual sin becomes part of the conversation.

My question is this: is the problem that churches are mostly talking about sexual sin or is the problem that sexuality is not an area where young people want to be told that God has an ideal right and wrong?

3.      My questions were seen as liabilities.

I can imagine that there are churches that try to quash questions. I know there are some road-sign-63983_1920churches and pastors who embrace questions. It means people are thinking! Since I know there are churches and pastors where questions are encouraged I have a hard time accepting this sweeping generalization as a legitimate complaint against The Church. One church’s behavior doesn’t mean The Church worldwide has the same attitude.

4.      Sometimes it felt like a cult, or a country club, and I wasn’t sure which was worse.

There’s really nothing to say about this complaint. It’s about a feeling, and you can’t argue with feelings. I would ask why she felt that way, but feelings are subjective. It’s dangerous to judge people or organizations on subjective grounds rather than objective. Feelings change. “I don’t like the music there. I don’t like the pastor here. I don’t like the color of the carpet.” The subjective complaints could go on and on and on. Rather than merely leveling complaints, what is it Ms. Evans is looking for? What feeling would be acceptable?

5.      I believe the earth is 4.5 billion years old and that humans share a common ancestor with apes, which I was told was incompatible with my faith.

There are churches where this is not an issue. I agree with the idea of an “old earth”. As for the humans and apes bit, I tend to believe that the commonality reflects a common creator rather than a common ancestor, but I can still worship with people who disagree. The Bible is not a science book – it is a book of faith. Our relationship with God is not based on science but on faith. Christians around the globe can agree on the basics of faith and choose to lovingly disagree on non-essential issues. Again, Ms. Evans is making broad generalizations based on limited (or singular) church experiences.

6.      Sometimes I doubt, and church can be the worst place to doubt.

Yes, some churches frown on doubt. But an honest reading of the Bible shows that even some of the “greats” go through times of doubt. Will you turn your back on what God has instituted based on some who cannot allow an expression of doubt? You discredit those churches that would express it with you.

7.      I didn’t want to be anyone’s “project.”

Without further explanation from Ms. Evans I really don’t know what she’s talking about other than to say that she seems to have a specific example in mind. There are people in the church who will try to make others into projects. Sometimes those people are well-intentioned. Sometimes they are not. But the church is not a perfect place – it is a group of sinners who are part of a new community – a kingdom community. That means that our humanity is sometimes going to get in the way. It means that church and church relationships can get messy. It’s not a reason to walk away.

8.      It was often assumed that everyone in the congregation voted for Republicans.

This excuse amuses me. I think the voting record of a church changes based on geographic location. While some churches are largely Republican, I know of congregations that are largely Democrat. Then there are some churches that hold to neither side but try to preach Jesus and the Gospel regardless of politics. As a pastor I firmly believe that neither party has it all right. Sometimes the Bible will side with one and other times it will side with the other.

9.      I felt like I was the only one troubled by stories of violence and misogyny and genocide found in the Bible, and I was tired of people telling me not to worry about it because “God’s ways are higher than our ways.”

Again with the “feeling.” It’s impossible to argue against subjective criticisms. You felt that way but were you really the only one? There’s no one else?

10.  My own selfishness and pride.

I think a lot of these 15 reasons could actually be subcategories of #10…

11.  I knew I would never see a woman behind the pulpit, at least not in the congregation in which I grew up.

There are Christian traditions that frown on women in ministry. There are other traditions that do not. Why walk away from the Church because you are unhappy with a single tradition? I am the son of an educated (Ph.D) and ordained woman. I grew up in a home and church where mom was a contributor to the theological discussion and service. I am married to a woman who has a graduate degree in Biblical Studies and has preached the gospel on multiple continents. Your sweeping complaints do not represent the whole of American Christianity.

12.  I wanted to help people in my community without feeling pressure to convert them to Christianity.

I agree that the church should be involved in helping the community! And we should offer help with no strings attached. At some point, however, we have to come to a realization that physical help has limits if we never tell people about the gospel. It’s saying, “I care about your well-being but I don’t care about your eternity.” While we may not be balanced, the Church (even 18-29 year olds) needs to know that telling people about eternity is important.

13.  I had learned more from Oprah about addressing poverty and injustice than I had learned from 25 years of Sunday school.

True, many churches do not really approach the subject of poverty and injustice. But you’re really talking about a political endeavor rather than a spiritual one. I agree that Christians ought to be concerned with poverty and injustice, but many people seem to want these elements to be the sole mission of the Church. They are not. The mission of the Church is Jesus and disciple-making – helping people grow in their own faith and worship of Him. The Bible says that when the early church got together:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. (Acts 2:43-46)

While helping to assist other believers was part of what they did it was not their primary raison d’etre. They were there for prayer, worship, spiritual growth, and fellowship. Taking care of each other was a natural expression of the love they developed for each other. Please don’t mistake the Church for a political or social activism group. Oprah is great on the poverty and justice issues – she’s not so hot on promoting worship of the One True God. The Church is not supposed to be Oprah – it’s supposed to be the Church.

14.  There are days when I’m not sure I believe in God, and no one told me that “dark nights of the soul” can be part of the faith experience.

Dark nights of the soul can be part of the faith experience. Now you can come back to us.

15.  One day, they put out signs in the church lawn that said, “Marriage = 1 Man + 1 Woman: Vote Yes on Prop 1,” and I knew the moment I saw them that I never wanted to come back.

It grieves me to see the church get involved in politics. Ed Stetzer writes, “When you mix politics and religion you get politics.” I believe that churches ought to stick to preaching Jesus and the gospel and not promote any particular political measure. I don’t know if your church put up those signs or if others in the community put them up, but the church shouldn’t promote any political activity. That being said, the Bible DOES address issues that come up in politics. There are good Christians who differ in politics.

Well, there you have it. Probably not the most eloquent response to your 15 reasons, but I wanted to give another perspective to all of the 18-29 year olds who have walked away from the church. The church is not perfect because it is filled with flawed humans. Nevertheless, God has instituted the church – it’s about His kingdom here on earth.

Perfect? No.

Growing in God’s grace? I pray so.

p.s. I don’t really imagine this ever getting around to Ms. Evans, but if you do know her shoot a copy of this over to her, would you?  😉

How about you? Have you had positive experiences with the Church?

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I welcome all discussion, just keep it civil and polite. If this post resonates with you in any way, please share it on Facebook, Twitter, or email!