Rachel Held Evans has grown into a powerful voice in American Christianity, first as the author of “Evolving in Monkey Town” and later with the New York Times best-seller “A Year of Biblical Womanhood.” Those who follow her writings often note that her thinking has become increasingly progressive, especially on hot-button theological issues such as gender and sexuality. That shift culminated in her leaving evangelicalism for the Episcopal Church.
Next month, Evans will release “Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church,” a book that oscillates between stinging critiques of American Christianity and prescriptions for how she believes believers can more faithfully participate in church life. In an interview with Religion News Service, she talked about the key to revitalizing the church and defended her exit from evangelicalism. Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You say that the way to stop the exodus of millennials from churches isn’t cosmetic changes like better music, sleeker logos and more relevant programming. Why are these methods ineffective?
A: These aren’t inherently bad strategies, and some churches would be wise to employ them. But many church leaders make the mistake of thinking millennials are shallow consumers who are leaving church because they aren’t being entertained. I think our reasons for leaving church are more complicated, more related to social changes and deep questions of faith than worship style or image.
If you try to woo us back with skinny jeans and coffee shops, it may actually backfire. Millennials have finely tuned B.S. meters that can detect when someone’s just trying to sell us something. We’re not looking for a hipper Christianity. We’re looking for a truer Christianity.
Q: If these aren’t the answer, what is?
A: Sharing Communion. Baptizing sinners. Preaching the Word. Anointing the sick. Practicing confession. You know, the stuff the church has been doing for the last 2,000 years. We need to creatively re-articulate the significance of the traditional teachings and sacraments of the church in a modern context. That’s what I see happening in churches, big and small, that are making multigenerational disciples of Jesus.
Q: You talk about seven sacraments in your book that you think are critical for the church. Which of these will surprise people the most?
A: The one that surprised me the most was anointing of the sick. I used to think such a practice involved superstition and false hope, but that was before I learned the difference between curing and healing. We may not be able to cure what ails our friends and neighbors, but as Christians we are called to the work of healing — of entering into one another’s pain, anointing it as holy and sticking around no matter the outcome. An anointing is an acknowledgment. In a culture of cure-alls and quick fixes, the sacrament of anointing the suffering is a powerful, countercultural gift the church offers the world.
Q: You left evangelicalism for the Episcopal Church. Much of the Episcopal Church has failed to embrace the cosmetic changes you critique, and they practice the things you say will draw millennials back. Yet Episcopalians in America have been in steady decline and are rapidly aging. How do you reconcile this with your thesis?
A: Just about every denomination in the American church — including many evangelical denominations — is seeing a decline in numbers, so if it’s a competition, then we’re all losing, just at different rates. I felt drawn to the Episcopal Church because it offered some practices I felt were missing in my evangelical experience, like space for silence and reflection, a focus on Christ’s presence at the Communion table as the climax and center of every worship service, opportunities for women in leadership and the inclusion of LGBT people.
But I know plenty of folks who were raised as Episcopalians who have become evangelical, drawn by the exciting and energetic worship or the emphasis on personal testimony and connection to Scripture. It’s common in young adulthood, I think, to seek out faith traditions that complement the one in which you were raised. It’s not about rejecting your background, just about finding your own way. I don’t want to project my experience onto all millennials.
Q: Many evangelicals criticize the liberal theology of the Episcopal Church, even claiming that it is now outside of orthodox Christianity. What say you?
A: Every Sunday morning, I stand in my Episcopal church and join in a chorus of voices publicly affirming the Apostle’s Creed. Together, we declare that there is a good and almighty God who is the creative force behind all things seen and unseen; that this God is One, yet exists as three persons; that God loved the world enough to become flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, who lived, taught, fed, healed and suffered among us as both fully God and fully human; that Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born to Mary; that he was crucified on a Roman cross and buried in the ground; that after three days dead, Jesus came back to life; that he ascended into heaven and reigns with God; that he will return to bring justice and restoration to our broken world; that God continues to work through the Holy Spirit, the church and God’s people; that forgiveness is possible, resurrection is possible and eternal life is possible.
If that’s not Christian orthodoxy, I don’t know what is.
Q: Related to this, you say the American church shouldn’t be afraid to die. What does this mean?
A: G.K. Chesterton said, “Christianity has had a series of revolutions, and in each one of them Christianity has died. Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.” Lately I’ve been wondering if a little death and resurrection is exactly what the American church needs.
Q: Some of your critics might point to the explosive growth of the church in the New Testament. Shouldn’t the church be concerned if it is not making disciples or, as you say, if it dies?
A: The New Testament church grew when Christians were in the minority, not the majority. We’re still a long way from that in the U.S., but now may be a good time to remind ourselves that ours is a kingdom that grows not by might or power but by the Spirit, whose presence is identified by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Plus, I’m not convinced discipleship is something we measure best in numbers. A church might produce thousands of attendees without producing any disciples.