Rachel Held Evans just released her latest book, Searching For Sunday, with Thomas Nelson. It's an excellent foray into the church's current cultural moment, seen through the lens of Rachel's own journey from evangelicalism, to doubt, to church planting, to the Episcopal church. In this interview we dig a bit deeper into the author's motivations, insights, and hopes as Searching For Sunday hits store shelves:
Z: Rachel, wow. What a timely, important book you've written here. It deeply resonated with me all the way through, made me cry (and laugh) at several points, and provided insight that I really needed in this season of my life. So first and foremost, thank you! And to kick things off - why (beyond the prodding of your editors) did you write this book?
RHE: I keep in close contact with my readers through my blog and social media, and in my conversations with them have repeatedly found one question to be front and center of their minds: What do I do about church? Many have been deeply wounded by the churches in which they grew up, or alienated when their questions and doubts weren't welcomed, or even kicked out when they they told the truth about their sexuality. There are so many people of faith who, like me, want to follow Jesus but who are understandably reluctant to follow him through the church doors. So I wrote this book for them, not to glorify church on the one hand or bash it on the other, but to tell the truth about it -- the good the bad and the ugly -- and to offer something of a way forward, using seven sacraments (baptism, confession, communion, holy orders, marriage, anointing of the sick, and confirmation) as guides.
Z: So apparently you've rejected the evangelical church of your youth and apostatized to the mainline, huh? (Tongue firmly in cheek.) Care to explain yourself?
RHE: Ha! It was funny to see some of the pre-release buzz assume this is a story about ditching one denomination for another when it's most certainly not. We get so caught up in categories and labels we forget most people don't fit quite so neatly into them but are rather unique amalgams of many faith experiences, both past and present, good and bad. And I'm the same. I grew up evangelical and am deeply appreciative of those evangelical roots, but lately I've been drawn to the more liturgical tradition and inclusive posture of the Episcopal Church. This doesn't mean I have rejected evangelicalism; it just means I carry elements of both traditions on the journey.
Z: Absolutely. And in all seriousness, Searching For Sunday eloquently describes a shift so many of us are experiencing. In fact, I think this is a "moment" the Western church is having in general when our question about church is changing from "who's right?" to "where's home?" Tell me about your experience of this shift and how you found "home" in the Episcopal church:
RHE: For much of my life, being a Christian was all about believing the right things, finding the right denomination, living the right life. My faith had, in many ways, been reduced to intellectual assent to a set of propositions. It took watching that faith completely unravel in the midst of the doubts, questions, and frustrations of my young adulthood to realize that you never really arrive at "right." "Right is not the point. What I longed for with church, and what I think a lot of people long for, is not an exclusive club of like-minded individuals, but a community of broken and beloved people, telling one another the truth and taking it all a day at a time. What I longed for was sanctuary -- a place to breathe, to be myself, to wrestle with the mystery, to confess my sins and explore my doubts, to experience God rather than simply believe in God. The liturgical church, and especially the sacraments, have offered me that sanctuary, but I also believe sanctuary can be present in any number of traditions, including evangelicalism. One need not attend a church that uses sacramental language to experience the power of the sacraments -- to break bread with one another, to baptize, to confess sins, to offer healing and support. But I have found that it is in those moments when we recognize God's presence in ordinary, tangible things -- bread, wine, water, words, suffering, singing, a gentle touch, a casserole on the doorstep -- that we create church, we create sanctuary.
Z: I think the central message of your book comes into sharp focus toward the end, when you confess to sensationally citing numbers on church decline in the past (we all do it), but now believe that "a little death and resurrection" is exactly what the church needs (p. 225). In fact, you say, "Death is something empires worry about...not something resurrection people worry about." What do you mean by that, and what future are you seeing for the church, particularly the church in the U.S.?
RHE: 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." Though I would avoid using too much hyperbolic language about death or exile or (most annoyingly) persecution, I think the church in the U.S. is indeed changing and indeed losing some of its unchallenged dominance over the culture...and I actually think that might be a good thing. My hope is that it will remind Christians that "success" isn't measured by money or power or numbers, but rather by the fruit of the spirit--love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Where those characteristics are present, the church lives. So my hope is that, if the American church must "die," let it "die" to the old ways of dominance and control and be resurrected into the way of Jesus, the way of service and sacrifice. We can see this moment in history as the start of our decline, or we can see it as the start of our rebirth, of God doing something new. I prefer the latter.
Z: Boom! I have so many favorite moments in this book, like the gorgeous liturgy/litany of Chapter 10, and the proper uppercut to the "hearse" narrative in Chapter 32. But arguably my favorite section was "Holy Orders" because it so deeply connects with my experience in ministry over the last decade -- particularly my experience planting a church. How did leading in a church plant shape you as a person and as a Christian? And how important was the experience of ministry "failure" in bringing you to your current perspective?
RHE: I used to be pretty hard on pastors, (and in some cases, still am). But the experience of working in church leadership opened my eyes to the incredible pressure we Christians can place on our clergy and how unhealthy that pressure can be for everyone. I'm more convinced than ever that the healthiest churches look more like recovery groups than country clubs and that the call of religious leaders in this age has less to do with protecting their power and prestige and more to do with being honest and vulnerable with their congregations in order to free the whole community to do the same. I'm also more convinced than ever that we need to be willing to talk about failure as part of the death and resurrection process. It's odd to me that Christians so rarely admit to experiencing failure when we claim to follow a guy whose three-year ministry was cut short by his crucifixion! So even though our church plant never took off, even though we technically "failed," we managed to produce some fruit of the Spirit along the way. We baptized sinners, broke the bread of communion, preached the Word, and told each other the truth. We fed the hungry and helped the sick. We lived together in love in spite of political and theological disagreements. Our "failure" produced new friendships and opportunities and eventually led us to a new church. Writing about the whole situation in this book was incredibly healing for me because I could see the experience for what it was -- a fun, difficult, and disappointing experiment in which grace was present and which God used to make something new.
Z: There was a moment in Chapter 20, page 149 to be exact, where I nearly threw the book in the air and cheered. Of course, it's your little section on evangelical gatekeepers and "coalitions" ;). You say, "The gospel doesn't need a coalition devoted to keeping the wrong people out." Dang! Can you elaborate on this?
RHE: Yeah, evangelicalism in particular has seen something of a resurgence in what I call "border patrol Christianity" in recent years, as alliances and coalitions formed around shared theological distinctives elevate secondary issues (gender roles, sexuality, Calvinism/Arminianism) to primary ones and declare anyone who fails to conform to their strict set of beliefs and behaviors unfit for Christian fellowship. This is legalism--both behavioral legalism and theological legalism--and Jesus spoke firmly against it, warning against religious leaders who tie up heavy loads and place them on people's shoulders, who strain out the gnats in everyone else's beliefs while swallowing their own camel-sized inconsistencies, who slam the door of the kingdom in people's faces.
But Jesus doesn't need a bunch of gatekeepers committed to keeping the "wrong people" out of the kingdom. (We're all "the wrong people," after all.) Jesus needs is a family of sinners, saved by grace, committed to tearing down the walls, throwing open the doors, and shouting, "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.
Z: You wrestle with your evangelical identity throughout the book. At this point I've given in: I'm a charismatic evangelical, despite my views on certain issues or my love for liturgy and tradition or my presence in the mainline! Even after watershed events like World Vision, and your Canterbury Trail journey, do you see yourself as an evangelical? Could you ever be comfortable with that label? No pressure!
RHE: I have no idea. I suppose that if by evangelical you mean someone who believes in the value and authority of Scripture, is passionate about preaching the gospel, and has a personal connection to her faith, then yes, I'm an evangelical and proud of it. But if by evangelical you mean someone who oppose LGBT equality, only votes Republican, and rejects the science of evolution and climate change, well I guess I'm not. It's tough because it's hard to nail down a clear definition of evangelicalism, which ought to be a testament to the movement's great diversity but which too often leads to prolonged and fruitless arguments about who's "in" and who's "out." It can be kind of exhausting fighting over a label, so I don't really do it anymore.
Z: Amen to that - so exhausting. And despite how some folks may want to portray it, this book is for the church - and for the whole church. It's a dose of realism and hope - of death and resurrection. Rephrasing Barbara Brown Taylor and speaking of the church, you say, "Maybe it's time to make peace with her. Maybe it's time to embrace her flawed as she is" (p. 250). Describe your hopes for your readers - what do you want them to see about their relationship to the church?
RHE: My hope, with every book and blog post I write, is to help people feel less alone, to let them know that their questions, fears, and doubts need not isolate them from God or from Christian community. This book doesn't glamorize the church, nor does it demonize it. I hope Searching for Sunday gives readers the language to understand and articulate their dreams for the church and I hope it reminds them that, in spite of everything, the church is enough, for now, to carry us through the world and into the arms of Christ.
Many thanks to Rachel Held Evans for doing this interview- - and I can't recommend Searching For Sunday enough.