FEELING a bit battered and blue after Easter? Every year, Easter is the single biggest day in churches coast to coast, a celebration of resurrection and new life.
Overall, however, attendance is down in the U.S., fueled by an exodus of younger adults. Yes, “Christians” are on the front pages of newspapers coast to coast, these days, but the news isn’t about inspiring growth. News reporters are covering “Christians” who are playing political hardball to try to maintain traditional bias against LGBT men and women in places like Indiana and Arkansas.
This isn’t shaping up like a hopeful springtime celebration of Christian renewal.
If this describes your attitude today, you should immediately order an antidote to these spiritual blues: Rachel Held Evans’ new book, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. The book releases on April 14, 2015, but Amazon is taking orders now for delivery next week.
In her book, Rachel uses her considerable talent as one of the nation’s best spiritual storytellers to explore the great treasures people still can discover within the church. At their best, congregations can draw on the ancient tap roots of Christianity: love, compassion and hope for the world. If that doesn’t sound like your version of “church,” at the moment, then give Rachel a chance. You’ll get hooked on her real-life stories from the trenches of congregational life. In some cases, you’ll find yourself smiling broadly—maybe because you recognize your own story in Rachel’s stories.
By the end of the book, if you have given up on “church” until now, you’re likely to nod your head and say: “Hey, I’m going to give it another shot. There are a lot of treasures in this tradition.”
ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed the author. Here are …
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH RACHEL HELD EVANS
ON ‘SEARCHING FOR SUNDAY’
DAVID: Rachel, you have so many talents—writer, speaker, teacher and you even appear in videos, as well—so, how do you introduce yourself to groups?
RACHEL: Yes, I’m a writer, a blogger, a speaker. But, when I introduce myself, I usually begin by saying that I grew up in the Bible belt and that as a young adult I grew up in a nondenominational evangelical church. Then, as a young adult, I had questions about what I believed. I went through–and I’m still going through–a lot of doubts.
I tell people: You’re not alone if you have doubts and questions. I do, too.
Oh, and I usually say I’m married—and a huge Alabama Crimson Tide fan.
DAVID: That’s a great introduction to this book, which begins with your baptism by full immersion at the age of 12. Readers who grew up in an evangelical church will think of their own early experiences; readers who’ve never stepped into the doors of such a church will be fascinated by the scene you paint. And—the Crimson Tide? You describe, in your home church, the “red-and-white hair bows, neck ties, sports jackets, and blouses—the sacred accouterments of Alabama’s second region.” That was, at the time of your baptism, the University of Alabama football team under Gene Stallings.
And then, toward the end of that chapter, you mention the real doubts that can pop up even in the midst of a perfect moment like your own baptism. After the ritual, you write: “I remember wondering why I didn’t feel cleaner, why I didn’t feel holier or lighter or closer to God when I’d just been born again.”
Honesty—even about your doubts—is a hallmark of your writing.
RACHEL: My writing seems to attract people who are in some sort of religious transition. They may be going from one kind of Christianity to another kind of Christianity–or they’re moving from Christianity to some other faith entirely or to no faith at all. I seem to attract readers who are on a journey–reflecting on what they once believed and trying to figure out what they now believe.
‘THE CHURCH WELCOMES US’
DAVID: One of the best passages in your book appears right away in the prologue “Dawn.” I think you should ask a graphic designer to blow this up into poster size with the cover of your book—and offer it as a free download for people to print out and hang on a wall. I bet a lot of people would want to hang this poster.
I”m talking about the passage where you summarize the entire book. It goes like this:
“The church tells us we are beloved (baptism).
The church tells us we are broken (confession).
The church tells us we are commissioned (holy orders).
The church feeds us (communion).
The church welcomes us (confirmation).
The church anoints us (anointing of the sick).
The church unites us (marriage).”
This new book really is about reminding us of that core power within our religious traditions and communities, right?
RACHEL: I’m glad you like the way I wrote that introduction. Yeah, you’re right. Those lines are a summary of the book. What I’m trying to say about this whole list—who some readers will recognize as a list of sacraments, depending on their Christian tradition—is that you actually don’t have to use sacramental language to describe those seven things. Millions of Christians don’t use the word “sacrament” to describe all of those things. At an evangelical church, for example, people might not acknowledge anointing of the sick as a “sacrament,” but we do see people caring for the sick and praying with the sick every day. The behavior is there even if it’s not described as “sacrament.”
This is important for me to communicate to readers in this book: I’m not saying we all have to use the same language to describe these things we do in the church—but these seven behaviors are there.
Then, I arranged the book around seven sections that correspond to these things: baptism, communion, marriage and so on. When I first decided that I wanted to write a book about “church,” and about my own experiences—experiences that a lot of other people have had as well—I wasn’t sure how to organize the book. Then, I came up with the idea of arranging my thoughts around the sacraments. So, as you’ve said, I start with baptism.
And, as I tell my stories, I also write about the questions we have about these things. So, I was baptized—but what does that mean about my identity now? A lot of people are asking that kind of question, including a lot of people who have left church entirely.
‘YOU’RE THE EXPERTS! DON’T YOU KNOW THIS?’
DAVID: Here’s one reason I love your book: You fully recognize all of the problems church leaders have caused and all of the mistakes they’ve made. But, nevertheless, you flat-out love the church. And if I had to explain one of the central appeals of this book, I only have to look at prime-time TV this spring.
I often meet with community leaders, including religious leaders and media professionals. Among media professionals, everybody’s talking about the explosion of these big-budget biblical-themed productions on TV this spring: “Killing Jesus,” “The Dovekeepers,” “A.D.—The Bible Continues.” In fact, the debut of Bill O’Reilly’s “Killing Jesus” just set new viewership records for the National Geographic Channel. Secular media professionals are buzzing about how we haven’t seen this many swords-and-sandals epics since the 1950s.
But Christian leaders? They’re still down in the dumps about all the Americans who are turning away from organized religion. Before Easter, when I did meet Christian clergy, I told them: “On Easter morning, just stand up in the pulpit and say: ‘You’re seeing the story on TV every night. Now, you’ve come to the place where we live by those stories you love so much. Welcome home!’ ” Now, that’s one way to preach the Easter message.
I was thinking about your chapter “Wind” in which you talk about the powerful, timeless flowing of the Spirit. And you describe Jesus’s encounter with Nicodemus. This is the story where Nicodemus seems confused by what Jesus is preaching and Jesus finally gets fed up with the older man’s stubbornness in refusing to believe what Jesus is saying. As you retell the story, you put Jesus’s response to Nicodemus this way: “You’re supposed to be the expert! Don’t you know this already?”
I feel as though that exchange, deep in your book, is really a strong message to readers who have forgotten the true spiritual power of the church to foster love and compassion and hope and healing in the world. “You’re the experts! Don’t you know this already?”
RACHEL: Yeah, you’re right. Now, I also have to say: Yes, I get people’s discouragement. I get that numbers are down and people aren’t going to church like they used to. But you know what? We follow this God who knows a thing or two about transforming the layout of the grave—and God’s not ready to give up. So, we shouldn’t be ready to give up.
The truth is: People will always be interested in Jesus. Just stop for a moment and think. These days, we fret so much about what clothes we wear in church and what music we use on Sunday mornings and—well, we fret about so many things that distract us from what we need to remember: Jesus is present where two or three gather in his name. We know that Jesus is present in communion in some way—and I know that the words we use to describe communion are different, depending on our Christian tradition—but we know that Jesus is present in it.
In the church, we are supposed to be the people who know how to introduce people to Jesus—and you know what? Millions of people want to meet Jesus. Yeah, Christianity may be losing some of its influence over the culture, but that may be a good thing.
Now, we have to ask ourselves: What does it truly mean to be influential? Does it mean having political battles go our way? I think we need to look back to what’s most important. And I think the most important signs are the fruits of the spirit.
‘NEVER IN MY LIFE HAD I BEEN SO ANGRY’
DAVID: And the truth is that church life—in fact, congregational life whatever your faith might be—is hard! Americans are among the most religious—and also the most outspoken—people in the world, according to the World Values Survey. So, it’s natural that congregations are hotbeds of both wonderfully compassionate spiritual growth—and sometimes big, emotional fights, right?
RACHEL: So many of us have experienced church burnout, and you’re right: It’s not just among evangelicals. If you’re invested in a congregation, then I’m certain that you’ll be disappointed big time at some point. It’s a part of being in a community–people will let you down. I reached a point a while ago when I got burned out because of the culture wars in which so many Christians are invested. This came to a head for me when the World Vision story broke—Christians refusing to give money to World Vision because the non-profit was going to allow people in same-sex marriages to work in its U.S. offices.
DAVID: You recently wrote a column for CNN about that turning point, headlined: “Are Culture War ‘Victories’ Worth the Casualties?” You really poured out your fury in that column, asking how Christians could celebrate a loss in donations to World Vision that cost thousands of children and their families the food, health care and other services they so desperately need. When you saw so-called Christian activists proclaiming victory, you describe your reaction this way: “Never in my life had I been so angry at my own faith tradition.”
RACHEL: I got so burned out at that. Christians battling a culture war were willing to let thousands of children go hungry because they wanted to punish World Vision over welcoming gay and lesbian men and women. It’s hard for me to even understand how people can think like that! Not only were children victims, but so were all the LGBT Christians who got caught in the middle of this culture war.
DAVID: You were angry—and yet you couldn’t abandon Christianity.
RACHEL: Like it or not, I’ve got skin in the church game.
DAVID: I want to stress to readers that your viewpoint on LGBT inclusion isn’t shocking. You’re not even in a prophetic minority on this issue. In fact, most Americans are moving in this direction. You’ve only got to read the latest column by University of Michigan sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker to see the dramatic shift in public opinion. In Dr. Baker’s words: “I’ve been following and reporting these trends for quite a while.”
RACHEL: You’re right. Study after study is showing this to be the case. Barna has done research on this, too. For young adults this is a huge reason that they’ve abandoned church. I have beat that drum so many times. It’s so frustrating to go to an evangelical conference and tell pastors straight-up: This is really driving people away from your churches.
And they say, “No, that’s not the problem. We’ll just bring in a better class of band to perform better worship music.”
And I go: “Ohhhhh, yeah. Like that’s going to make a difference.”
DAVID: I am amazed at how many seminaries and universities and other groups are welcoming Dr. David P. Gushee to talk about his book Changing Our Mind. Gushee also is shouldering a backlash from conservatives for his new stance on welcoming LGBT Christians. But, to borrow the headline from the Detroit Free Press on Sunday, Gushee’s on “The Right Side of History.”
RACHEL: What Gushee is doing is such a huge deal. I know so many gay friends who were just thrilled when he spoke out and published that book.
‘CHANGING HOW WE SEE OUR NEIGHBORS’
DAVID: At the end of author interviews, I usually ask a “walking away” question. As an author, envision readers walking away from having read your book. What do you hope they carry with them?
RACHEL: Every author I know has this hope—that their work helps people pay attention to the world around them in new ways. We need to pay better attention to God working in the world and in the church.
I hope that people make new connections. I hope this book changes how we see our neighbors. I hope that I can help readers pay more attention to the Spirit moving in our world.
I hope that readers will see themselves in my stories. I hope they’ll realize: Oh, somebody else has experienced these questions, and these doubts, I’ve experienced. I especially hope that when people finish reading my book, they will feel less alone.
Care to read more?
BUY THE BOOK—Click on the cover photo with this interview to visit the book’s Amazon page. Here’s her Amazon author page.
VISIT RACHEL ONLINE—She’s everywhere. Visit her main website, which is the mother ship for everything Rachel is doing from publications and public appearances to her latest blog posts. You’ll also find her on Twitter, where you can join her more than 60,000 followers, and on Facebook, too.
GET THE VIDEO—Rachel also appears in the very creative Animate Bible-study series. In her portion of that series, Rachel talks about “how the Old Testament and the New Testament relate to each other for Christians.”
(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)