Rachel Held Evans Returns to Church
Image: Courtesy Nelson Books.

Four years ago, Rachel Held Evans spent Easter in the apartment of a funeral home. But there would be no candles lit, no feast after the service. Instead, the group of about 10 had gathered to mourn the death of their church.

The Mission had launched in 2010 at the urging of Brian Ward, Evans’s former youth pastor in Dayton, Tennessee, 45 minutes north of Chattanooga. Like other emergent/missional/ancient-future “experiments,” the house church had a piecemeal, earnest feel to it. Evans was quickly named worship pastor and wrote liturgy for group drawn from the Anglican prayer book. Ward baptized a local guitar player in the Tennessee River. Members volunteered at Dayton’s free health clinic. Evans and her husband, Dan, helped to pay the lawyer’s fee to register the Mission as a nonprofit, a decision that “felt as momentous as a down payment on a house,” Evans writes in a new book, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church (Thomas Nelson).

But the financial strain capsized the community. The apartment where they met was always cold. Evans realized that she and Dan’s income was so low, they qualified for free care at the clinic. Meanwhile, Pastor Ward found a youth-pastor gig at a United Methodist church in Florida. And Evans wouldn’t return to one for another three years.

A Trail Well Traveled

This Easter, the Paschal candles were lit. And, as she has done most Sundays for the past year, Evans attended St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland, “a bustling little congregation” 45 minutes outside Dayton. It marks the popular blogger’s return to church. It may also mean for Evans, I imagine, a more peaceful relationship with the evangelical tradition that nurtured her early faith.

Her book, part-memoir, part-meditation on the seven sacraments of the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, follows a trail well traveled. Like many who grew up in low-church evangelical settings, Evans says she’s drawn to the Anglican-Episcopal tradition for “the liturgy, the lectionary, the centrality of the Eucharist in worship, the Book of Common Prayer.” There’s also the physicality of it all; the water, the bread and wine, the bodily actions that seed faith as much as express it. “The sacraments gave me the language to name all those things I see as worthy and valuable about the church,” Evans told me in an interview for CT. “[They are] why I can’t give up on it.” She has read For the Life of the World, Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann’s sacramental opus, three times.

Of course, anyone familiar with her writing won’t be surprised that Evans also likes the church’s “giant red doors that are open to all.” The Episcopal Church has worn its inclusivity, especially to women leaders and LGBT folks, as a badge of pride for at least the past 50 years. (Evans has also been reading a lot of Barbara Brown Taylor.) Strikingly, open doors hasn’t attracted more people. Scholar Philip Jenkins, an Episcopalian, has figured out that if its membership continues to drop, the denomination of 2 million won’t exist by the end of the century. Still, for Christians who think hallmarks of their evangelical heritage are too narrow or too flashy or too often amount to plain old prejudice, well, “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.”

For the past year, as I’ve watched Evans criticize the evangelical movement for these and other reasons, I’ve wondered what kept her from joining the mainline tradition. She chalks it up to geography. “There is no Episcopal Church in Dayton,” she said. “There’s a smattering of Southern Baptist Churches, and a Methodist Church.” Dayton (pop. 7,400) is the home of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial and Bryan College, a nondenominational school named after William Jennings Bryan, the high-profile lawyer who took Darwinism to task at the Rhea County Courthouse a mile from campus. Bryan is where Evans studied literature and where her father teaches Christian thought and biblical studies. The town has one Catholic parish. In Evans’s telling, Dayton’s Christianity is both ubiquitous and fiery—something that made her quest as her high school Bible Club’s president to start a revival a bit redundant. “We had to form a double circle around the flagpole for See You at the Pole because so many of us showed up to take a stand for Jesus,” she writes.

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