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.
Still, Evans has no plans to leave the Southern Christian enclave where her parents, with whom she’s close, live. “There’s just a lot to love about small-town life,” she told me. “The folks around here just know me as Rachel and not Rachel the writer or Rachel the blogger. I would like to keep that as much as possible.”
Geography not only helps to explain why Evans moved to an Episcopal church just this past year. It also, I imagine, helps to explain some of the ways Evans has reacted to her evangelical upbringing since leaving for college. As Hannah Anderson at Christ and Pop Culture noted last year, Evans and other young, progressive Christians sometimes react to culture-war flashpoints with as much declarative verve and binary categories as the leaders they're countering. The de facto response to one fundamentalism isn’t always nuance; often it’s just another fundamentalism.
In Searching for Sunday, Evans recounts the morning one beloved Bryan professor said in chapel, “You can believe the Bible or you can believe evolution, but you can’t believe both. You have to choose.” After graduating from college, Evans returned to Grace Bible, the nondenominational church whose youth group solidified her early faith (and her mastering of Chubby Bunny). When she returned, statements like “America is a Christian nation,” or ones that quickly claimed God’s will in specific legislative acts and ballot issues, bristled to the point of distraction. “Evangelicalism gave me many gifts, but the ability to distinguish between foundational, orthodox beliefs and peripheral ones was not among them,” writes Evans. “That recurring choice—between faith and science, Christianity and feminism, the Bible and historical criticism, doctrine and compassion—kept tripping me up like roots on a forest trail.”
For what it’s worth, this Northerner has never walked that particular trail. The choices Evans describes feel like promptings of a faith crisis that need not happen. That a Christian could believe Scripture is authoritative and reach different conclusions about how God created humans; or be sympathetic to aspects of the feminist movement, especially the first wave; or study Scripture as a historical document as well as the Word of God—this was the stuff of 200-level Christian college courses. At least the ones I took at a Christian college in West Michigan.
I asked Evans if maybe she had an atypical Christian college experience (especially on the issue of origins). She was quick to say that her experience “doesn’t represent all evangelicals or all evangelical churches.” But, “it’s pervasive enough to have struck a chord with a lot of my readers . . . so more moderate evangelicals can’t ignore that this is out there.”
And so, after months spent squirming in her seat at Grace Bible, she and Dan started sleeping in on Sunday mornings. Not incidentally, that’s also around the time Evans began blogging.
RachelHeldEvans.com has brought Evans a virtual church of sorts. Her blog, which she’s maintained since 2007, has grown steadily in readership since, drawing more than 6 million pageviews in 2014. The blog has positioned Evans as a figurehead for a “new,” “future,” or “post-evangelical” Christianity, someone whom mainstream media approach to test the winds of the US church. Depending on which pastors you read and where you worship and which tweets you favorite, the idea that Evans signifies the church’s direction is either very good or very bad news. (In the world of online Christianity, reactions can only be very good or very bad, not very nuanced.)
In a 2013 post leading up to a conference on the future of evangelicalism, Evans asked her readers, “Do you identity yourself as an evangelical? Why or why not?” The answers help to explain Evans’s appeal:
- “I don’t tend [to] volunteer that description for myself. I started to realize a few years back that ‘Evangelical’ is well on its way to meaning ‘Fundamentalist,’ which is something I’m definitely not, nor would want to be thought to be.” (Robert Lee White)
- “Evangelicalism is about having the answers—not asking enough questions....The questions that we wrestle with in life are too dangerous for the evangelical world to touch if they can’t simplify the answers.” (Lady Di)
- “I define ‘evangelical’ as a large, loud group of generally likeminded gatekeepers to a door that they neither own nor built but are nevertheless skilled at slamming.” (Lance)
- “The Evangelical label...often gets us painted with a cultural brush that we don't want: (up-tight, Right-Wing, Conservative, anti-gay, biblical inerrantists, literalists, capitalists and on and on). In short, ‘evangelical’ is a largely irrelevant branding and misunderstood descriptor that I have happily left behind.” (Corbin Lambeth)
Blogging, Evans writes, garnered “a whole community of people from across the world who smiled back at me from the tiny avatars in the comment section and bestowed upon me...two very powerful words: me too....I wasn’t the only one who felt lonely on Sunday mornings.” Emboldened by that camaraderie, Evans writes, she began “airing my unpopular opinions like red bras on clothesline.”
Naturally, when a red bra goes up on a clothesline, neighbors will look, and many will raise their eyebrows. By weighing in on Rob Bell’s Love Wins, John Piper’s theodicy, Al Mohler’s creationism, modesty, contraception, gender roles, doubt, a historical Adam and Eve, exclusivist views on hell, the Southern Baptist Convention, “why millennials are leaving the church”—and, especially and more frequently, full LGBT inclusion in churches—Evans has attracted disdain. It’s a disdain that’s in equal and opposite proportion to the praise given when she takes on an evangelical shibboleth.
To be sure, Evans has attracted disdain in part because her tone can be disdainful. But in a time when evangelicals are anxious over their identity as evangelicals—What are our boundaries? How do we know? Who has the authority to say?—Evans has seemingly become a boundary marker coming from the other side of the fence. We can’t always say with precision what evangelicalism is, but we know it’s not this. Hence blog posts dissecting Evans’s non-evangelical beliefs. Hence recent headlines announcing that Evans has left evangelicalism for mainline Christianity.
In the year since Evans has attended St. Luke’s, readers and followers might have noticed that Evans is blogging less and engaging in fewer debates on Twitter. This Lent she gave up “people”—which she explained meant a “dehumanizing consumption of others” on social media, via mockery or projection of frustration. For the Searching for Sunday book tour, she’s traveling no more than twice a month, she says, to focus on what matters: “family, friends, home, church, sabbath, silence, the forests and creeks and mountains I’m lucky enough to wake up to as a Tennessee resident every morning.” She seems happy.
As to her evangelical bona fides, Evans publicly rejected the label a year ago, after World Vision reversed its hiring policy regarding Christians in same-sex marriages. “I for one am tired of arguing,” she wrote for CNN. “I’m tired of trying to defend evangelicalism when its leaders behave indefensibly.” But in a follow-up post with the subtitle, “Oh evangelicalism, why can’t I quit you?” Evans backed away from the earlier pronouncement. She said she was taking time off to pray and reflect and address “feelings of grief.” Today, when I ask her whether she would call herself an evangelical, she is unsure. “It’s always challenging when a reporter says, ‘Okay, are we going to identify you as an evangelical Christian?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know, I’ll let you make that call.’”
So I will try. Evans is a Christian whose beliefs, political leanings, and affections now make the most sense within the mainline Protestant tradition. That’s all to the good. To be sure, Christianity Today magazine wouldn’t exist without our founders believing mainline leaders had gotten some teachings wrong. We continue to believe they do, on many issues. But the mainline tradition needs as many passionate and smart young members as it can get, especially ones like Evans who can say the Apostles Creed without crossing their fingers behind their backs. That Evans structures Searching for Sunday around the sacraments suggests she’s drawn to the very best of the mainline tradition: namely, its lectionary readings, its practice of Communion, its consistent care for the poor and the marginalized, its “living into” the church calendar, to use a quintessential mainline phrase.
And Evans is not joining the mainline family while writing off her evangelical one (metaphorically and literally speaking). “Evangelicalism is a part of me,” she recently wrote. “It has irrevocably shaped my faith and my view of the world, and I am glad for that. It’s a gift.” When I asked Evans what specifically she was grateful for in evangelicalism, she said, “Real knowledge [of] and an appreciation for Scripture . . . it’s great that I grew up knowing the Bible like the back of my hand.” She mentioned that her youth pastor, Brian Ward, named her gifts for writing and speaking early on. And, “My parents, even when my church or the culture around me did not teach me this, taught me the most important thing is following Jesus and inhaling and exhaling grace.”
After John Piper said farewell to Rob Bell after the release of Love Wins in 2011, the Reformed leader clarified that he meant farewell in the Jonathan Edwards sense. (Naturally.) He tweeted, “Seriously, as before, may you fare well, Rob Bell,” linking to a CT report on Bell’s book tour. Fare is an Old English word meaning “to journey, set forth, go, travel, wander, make one’s way.” It’s a wish of happiness and welfare at parting.
In that spirit of grace that Evans’s parents modeled for her from an early age, may the evangelical family respond to Evans’s joining the Episcopal Church with a sincere, “Fare Well, Rachel. Strength for the journey.”
Katelyn Beaty is print managing editor of CT.