An interview with the author Rachel Held Evans about her new book and searching for authenticity in the church
“I caution against the idea that the way to get young people into church is to be hip and cool and have a pastor who wears skinny jeans.” Rachel Held Evans could have been talking about any number of much-hyped contemporary evangelical congregations: the Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas, for example, whose pastor started a website called PastorFashion.com, or Mars Hill, the Seattle megachurch that dissolved amid controversy in 2014, but left behind a large network of congregations. Many of the fastest growing churches in America are exactly what Evans describes: Places with Sunday morning rock bands and chic websites and pastors who occasionally, yes, wear skinny jeans.
Evans is not a woman to back down from a good church fight, though. “I think there are some evangelicals who are eager for me to quit bothering them,” she said in an interview. As a popular blogger and the author of books about topics like sexuality in the church, she has gotten into many an Internet tussle. But perhaps no topic invites anxiety like Christianity’s decline in America—and lo and behold, her new book, Searching for Sunday, is all about “loving, leaving, and finding the church.” She was looking for a certain kind of message, which may resonate with others in a generation that came of age after 9/11, lived through two wars, and not-so-happily endured years of recession: a recognition that life is dark.
Her book comes at a challenging time for church life in America. Many denominations are steadily losing members. More and more people aren’t affiliating with any religion, including a third of those born between 1980 and 2000—”the single most common religious identity among this generation,” according to the Public Religion Research Institute.
But more importantly, “Christianity is losing a little bit of its death grip over the culture,” Evans said. Sliding numbers, along with cultural and political battles over issues like same-sex marriage, have helped cultivate a sense of persecution or defensiveness among some Christians. “There’s a sense that the culture is shifting,” she said. “That can be fearful for some people.”
The interesting thing about this, though, is that an overwhelming majority of Americans still identify as Christians—roughly 75 percent. Church life is still very much part of American life, which is why the frame of Evans’s book is so useful. She writes of growing up in an evangelical congregation in Tennessee, quitting church in her twenties, planting and closing a new church before she turned 30, and finally settling into an Episcopalian congregation—for now—at 33. Hers is a first-person account of what it’s like to struggle with the existence of God and hate church politics and still yearn, a little or a lot, for the kind of community that religious worship can bring. After she and her husband decided to leave Grace Bible Church, the congregation Held grew up in, over the issue of same-sex marriage, “I put my head in my hands and cried, startled to tears by the selfishness of my own thoughts,” she wrote. “Who will bring us casseroles when we have a baby?”
Many Millennials may not go to church, but like Evans, they have a church story. These stories don’t come out in demographic data, which obscures an experience that a lot of young Americans probably have: “No one really teaches you how to grieve the loss of your faith. You’re on your own for that,” Evans writes. For those who are trying to figure out where they fit, she just doesn’t believe that punk-rock Christianity will do the trick of getting people back in the pews.
“The reasons Millennials are leaving are more complex than a lack of cool,” she said in an interview. “We’ve been advertised to our entire lives. We can smell B.S. from a mile away. So if you’re just trying to sell us a product, we can tell.”
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