A millennial’s reasons for staying, leaving and returning to church are as rich and complex as the generation itself. Ashley Thompson speaks with New York Times best-selling author Rachel Held Evans about why Generation Y isn’t as shallow as you might think.
A self-described introvert and “doubt-filled believer” from the small town of Dayton, Tennessee, Rachel Held Evans writes with courage and humour, airing her sometimes unpopular opinions like “red bras on clotheslines” while voicing the “quiet misgivings most Christians keep hidden in the dark corner of their hearts and would rather not name”.
“Me too!” echoes back her online community, exchanging stories about church scars and the relief they’re not alone. Yet it would be a mistake to read Rachel’s third and latest book Searching for Sunday as a negative critique of the church. It is a spiritual memoir detailing the evolution of a faith from “intoxicated with certainty” to “ugly doubt” and an inside look into how one millennial loved, left and came back to church. It is a celebration of the sacraments, around which the book is based, and an advocate for the value of church.
“What finally brought me back, after years of running away, wasn’t lattes or skinny jeans; it was the sacraments,” writes Rachel in her latest guest blog for The Washington Post.
“They don’t need to be repackaged or rebranded; they just need to be practised, offered and explained in the context of a loving, authentic and inclusive community.”
Stop trying to make church “cool”
“Bass reverberates through the auditorium floor as a heavily bearded worship leader pauses to invite the congregation, bathed in the light of two giant screens, to tweet using #JesusLives. The scent of freshly brewed coffee wafts in from the lobby, where you can order macchiatos and purchase mugs boasting a sleek church logo. The chairs are comfortable and the music sounds like something from the top of the charts. At the end of the service, someone will win an iPad,” writes Rachel.
“This, in the view of many churches, is what millennials like me want.”
As a member of the generation whose childhood was saturated by unregulated mass marketing and digital technology, Rachel argues millennials are more media critical and less shallow than you think; able to “sniff out” inauthenticity and style without substance—something they despise.
New United States research from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life confirms the trend churches everywhere are obsessed with: “Among those of us who came of age around the year 2000, a solid quarter claim no religious affiliation at all.” A significant disconnection from previous generations.
As the number of young people dwindles from the pews, church leaders are freaking out—jumping to conclusions as to the reasons they left and attempting to lure them back with flashier, concert-style stage performances.
Yet according to Barna Group and the Cornerstone Knowledge Network, 67 per cent of millennials prefer a “classic” church over a “trendy” one and 77 per cent would choose a “sanctuary” over an “auditorium”.
So if style isn’t the catalyst for millennial attendance, what is? And why did they leave in the first place?
Who do you think you are?
“You’re a young woman without a seminary education, who do you think you are?”
The first to confess to her lack of theological training Rachel says this is the biggest prejudice she faces in sharing her story. “And I’ll be completely honest that does sometimes tap into an insecurity of mine,” she says, “that I don’t have any right to be writing what I write.”
In a recent blog post titled Why a Seminary Degree Doesn’t Have to Make You a Jerk, Rachel describes an awkward dinner party put-down from a “young, seminary-trained man” and that she is “intensely aware of my lack of theological qualifications” but on her better days is “of the conviction that regular people can talk about God too and perhaps even prophesy”.
She says, “I think people need to know that the folks in your pews care about this stuff and want to engage with it on a personal level, want to think it through and wrestle with it, read the text for themselves and study the text—and that should be a good thing because we’ve got something to bring to the table.”
And to the table she has brought it.
Rachel’s first book Evolving in Monkey Town (2010), re-released in 2014 as Faith Unraveled, cemented her mark as the voice of progressive “doubt-filled believers” in the American Christian space, after years of blogging on the topic. Much like her close friend and Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, Rachel found she could no longer reconcile her issues of conscience with the political framing of her fundamentalist Christian upbringing, particularly around the areas of women’s ordination and LGBT inclusion.
For many years Rachel struggled with conflicting feelings she had for the church she loved but which also made her feel completely alone in her questions, culminating with her and her husband Dan’s heartbreaking decision to leave.
“It became increasingly clear that my fellow Christians didn’t want to listen to me, or grieve with me, or walk down this frightening road with me. They wanted to fix me,” Rachel writes of her doubt in Searching for Sunday.
“But all I really wanted was just for the questions I had to be taken seriously,” says Rachel. “I didn’t need any more apologetics books to try and answer them, I didn’t need any more prayers of intervention or anything like that, I just wanted people to say ‘Oh, Rachel that makes sense, I understand and I’m here, I’m here no matter what happens’.”
Rachel’s next book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood (2012), in which she recounted how she spent an entire year of literally living a Biblical lifestyle, garnered her national media attention as a New York Times best-seller and landed her on NBC’s The Today Show.
The outspokenness that draws in her readers also causes friction between Rachel and the fervent Protestant fundamentalism of the Bible Belt states surrounding her. Nashville-based Christian retailer Lifeway, helmed by the Southern Baptists, decided not to carry Biblical Womanhood and did not provide any explanation for the decision.
Why I returned
Yet despite all these misgivings, Rachel loves the church and believes in its value, finding home in an Episcopal church that embraces the “inclusivity so many millennials long for in their churches”.
But as Rachel writes in Searching for Sunday, a millennial’s reasons for “staying, leaving and returning to church are as complex and layered as we are. They don’t fit in the boxes we check in the surveys or the hurried responses we deliver at dinner parties” and generalising it any other way would be denying them their humanity.
“I want to acknowledge that a lot of people have left the church because it has deeply wounded them and I grieve with them on that and it’s not okay; it’s not okay when people get kicked out of their churches because of divorce or because they’re gay. It’s not okay when churches sideline people for asking questions or having doubts about their faith,” she says.
“The trick isn’t to make church cool; it’s to keep worship weird,” Rachel writes, “[A church] whose doors are open to all—conservatives, liberals, rich, poor, gay, straight and even perpetual doubters like me.”
Searching for Sunday is available in print or eBook from Trinity Theological Library’s website library.trinity.qld.edu.au