July 30, 2013

Rachel Held Evans and the Evangelical Implosion

(Photo Credit, Rachel Held Evans)

By Jeff Gissing (@jeffgissing)

Over the last several days a number of friends have shared with me an article entitled “Why Millenials are Leaving the Church,” written by Rachel Held Evans.

Looking through my Facebook feed I can discern two responses both to this article and to Evans. About half of sharers I’m connected to are basically expressing the sentiment: “Exactly! That’s how I feel!” The other half: “You’ve got to be kidding me! What a joke.”

Interestingly the reactions seem to break down across gender, theological, and vocational lines. In other words the people who are most perturbed by Evans seem to be male, evangelical, and pastors. Almost invariably women sharers are in substantial agreement.

Confession: I am male, evangelical, and a minister. I read Rachel’s writing periodically and agree with most of it some of the time and some of it most of the time. I agree with her more on where evangelicalism has gone wrong than I agree what to do about it.

“Why Millenials are Leaving the Church,” is an article that I’ve basically written several times on my blog so I should be in the cheering section. Yet, something about the post irked me.

In summary, I was with her until she wrote:

“What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance. We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against. We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers. We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation. We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities. We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.”

As a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA), my first response was to suggest the PC (USA) as an example of a church with all of those things. Despite all that, the PC (USA) is struggling not simply with keeping millenials, but keeping anyone under the age of sixty.

Apparently Anthony Bradley feels the same way. Over at the Acton Institute Power Blog he writes:

“Evans is saying nothing particularly provocative nor even progressive; she simply represents a standard UMC critique of conservative evangelicalism…. [B]ut I do find it odd if Millennials, who are leaving evangelicalism and passionately seeking the kind of church Evans describes, don’t join a mainline denomination like the United Methodist Church. The UMC embodies everything Evans says Millennials want.”

In reality, as Bradley observes, the problem is not exclusively an evangelical one. It also affects the mainline churches as I noted in my recent article: “The Coming Collapse of the PC (USA).” Bradley continues:

“The bottom line is that most American Christian denominations are declining across the board, especially among their millennial attendees, and it would require a fair amount of hubris to attempt to explain the decline across America’s 350,000 congregations.”

As Evans points out, there’s little disputing that a problem exists. The more significant issue is how to address it.

In evangelicalism—really Evans is discussing a variant form of mega-church, non-denominational evangelicalism—and mainline Christianity we see two approaches the same issue.

The former tends, in some respects, to ignore or delegitimize the questions being asked by millenials. The latter simply shifts to accommodate them. Neither is getting the results they’d wish for. Here’s why so many of my pastor friends are irked by this piece. It is one thing to declaim about the state of the church from behind a keyboard. It is another to invest your entire life in service to God through service to a parish.

In some respects our impulse is to justify the church, to answer the charges leveled against her by Evans and others. Yet, our work is not to justify the church. As Richard John Neuhaus noted in his jewel of a book Freedom for Ministry “…Because we do not pretend that the Church is the Kingdom of God, we offer no excuses for its not being the Kingdom of God. There will be not satisfactory Church, no Church that can be embraced without ambiguity, until the world of which the Church is part is satisfactorily ordered in the consummation of God’s rule. In short, we cannot get it all together until God has gotten it all together in the establishment of the Messianic age” (24). This reality is lost on Evans and others.

In acknowledging the church’s frailty, we begin the quest for a suitable way forward. In so doing, I find myself returning again and again to someone who seems able to hold evangelical belief and cultural influence together: Tim Keller.

Keller is a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America. It’s a largely white, affluent church rooted in the Southern United States. It’s quite conservative, both socially and theologically. In fact, it’s a church that doesn’t ordain women to any ecclesiastical office. Yet, Keller seems to be able to exert significant positive influence both in the city of New York and around the world.

In his wonderful book Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City he distills what I think is the key to his effectiveness and that of Redeemer Church. He writes,

“Preaching is compelling to young secular adults not if preachers use video clips from their favorite movies and dress informally and sound sophisticated, but if the preachers understand their hearts and culture so well that listeners feel the force of the sermon’s reasoning, even if in the end the don’t agree with it.” (15)

The point is not, as Evans argues, “a change of substance.” Instead, the church needs to relearn the faith (catechesis), rediscover its mission, reclaim its peculiarity, and recover the centrality of the gospel of the kingdom.

In reality many millenials who attend mainline and evangelical churches are experiencing different forms of the worship of a substitute. That might sound trite, but I think it’s true. When we get our loves out of order, we end up destroying things.

It’s like having a phone conversation with the Verizon commercial guy: “Can you hear me now?” No meaningful conversation can take place where there is more concern for the quality of the phone line than the conversation itself.

Another, more theological word for this is, idolatry. When a congregation or denomination is obsessed with a side issue–can you hear me now?—it almost guarantees they will fail.

Am I saying that Rachel is an idolater? No. Her observations are astute and simply dismissing them is foolish.

What’s critical, however, is how we respond to the issue she has revealed? For the record, I think that she is largely on target in her diagnosis. However, I think we may see the remedy differently.

I think, for example, that it is possible to have an authentic conversation on human sexuality and end up once more affirming traditional marriage as God’s creational design and also encountering the Scripture’s judgment on our practice of heterosexual marriage and divorce.

What is required now is something deeper than accommodation to millenials. The church needs to recover its theological vision–locally and nationally. That theological vision is the foundation on which its ministry and witness will be built. That vision ought to be connected directly to the witness of Scripture and the Confessional heritage of the church. As Richard Lints of Gordon-Conwell Seminary puts it, “The modern theological vision must seek to bring the entire counsel of God into the world of its time in order that its time might be transformed.” That vision is the work of “translating” the God and His Kingdom for a generation who speak a different dialect. As Keller notes, secular young adults may reject the gospel. It is to our shame, however, if they reject simply because they never encountered it expressed in accessible terms and in a life of authentic discipleship.


38 Responses to Rachel Held Evans and the Evangelical Implosion

  1. Greg Paley says:

    Evans has not written one word that could not have been written by either a mainliner or by a Unitarian. How anyone could regard her as even remotely “evangelical” is a real puzzle. She isn’t. She can continue to use the label, but her worldview is completely secular. She wrote a very anti-Christian and toxic book that mocked people who consider the Bible as a guide to life. I’m not in a position to say that Evans is not a Christian, but l will say that her beliefs are, at best, sub-Christian, and she is an evangelist for secularism. God will have to judge her heart, but her words and actions are not Christian at all.

    As the article points out, accommodating to the world has been tried, and it doesn’t work as a strategy to retain church members, much less attract new ones.

    In other words, any church that followed her advice is committing institutional and spiritual suicide.

    Did it occur to anyone that not ALL Millennials think alike? I’m betting there are some out there whose lives could be transformed by the power of Christ. Let’s concentrate on reaching those people, and stop listening to no-talent hack writers like Evans and her ilk. She has no credence as a thinker or as a spokesman for Christianity and has gotten much more attention than she deserves.

    • Donnie says:

      “Evangelical” has become one of those meaningless buzz words. I won’t quibble too much about her use of that word, because so many other people with similar views also use it.

      This is why I do not consider myself an evangelical Christian, just a plain ol’ Christian.

  2. Tim Vernon says:

    It’s hard to imagine a starker contrast – Tim Keller’s excellent books which are “red meat,” and Rachel Evans’ book, the spiritual equivalent of lo-cal cotton candy. Two different visions of Christianity: a tough-minded faith that demands much but also promises much, versus an easy “lite” religion that makes no demands and that envisions God as the cosmic head-patter, there to make you feel good about yourself. In one of Keller’s books he makes the point that faith involves a personal relationship with God, and any personal relationship involves the other person challenging you. The lite religion that Evans propagates is not challenging at all, God is there to rubber-stamp whatever the person does. I’ll take the toughminded faith any day over this squishy feel-good pseudo-religion.

  3. Donnie says:

    I’m skeptical of anybody who wants to “end the culture wars.” 99.9% of the time that’s said by a progressives who are equally entrenched in the culture wars but pretends to be above the fray. It’s hypocrisy of the worst kind. A more honest statement would be “I want conservatives to stop voicing their opinion and accept my beliefs uncritically.”

    I’m not saying Evans is guilty of that, but most of the people before her are.

  4. cleareyedtruthmeister says:

    Another excellent article.

    Rachel Evans achieved stardom in the left-wing religious community with her silly caricature of orthodox Christian beliefs in her “year of Biblical womanhood” book, which contained numerous misunderstandings of Scripture, too numerous to get into in this forum. It provided nice ammunition–from inside the Christian community, no less!–for secular liberals to use to bash orthodox Christianity. And the conditioning influence on millenials of the overwhelmingly liberal media/entertainment complex should not be understated.

    While she poses some interesting questions, Ms. Evans implies the answers involve more capitulation to culture. Yet, as this article as well as the Acton Institute article points out, mainline denominations (Episcopalian, PC-USA, etc.) continue to accomodate culture but are declining at higher rates than other denominations.

    What does Evans mean when she says she wants “an end to the culture wars?” Such rhetoric may feel good to people who’ve not thought deeply about such matters, but secular culture has always been at odds with Christianity because secularism takes the way of least resistance: i.e., surrendering to sin. Therefore, Christianity, necessarily, will have to be counter-cultural on many fronts.

    In other words, arguing for an end to the “culture wars” is tantamount to arguing for an end to Christianity. Ms. Evans, like other liberal Christians, continues to saw off the limb on which she sits.

  5. Kay Glines says:

    I watched Evans’ appearance on The View and it just made me cringe. It was like she was pleading with these five thoroughly worldly women, “Oh, please, PLEASE like me. I mean, I’m a Christian, sorta, but please don’t hate me…” What kind of witness is that? She seems to have struck a chord with people as shallow herself, but she certainly doesn’t represent evangelicals as a group, or evangelical women, either.

    She’s already waved the white flag in the culture wars, and that’s exactly what she means when she says “let’s end the culture wars.” All that matters to her is that she feels loved, or at least tolerated, by people who have no beliefs at all. However, the rest of us will continue the wars no matter what she says, maybe because there are issues bigger than our own self-esteem, such as the sanctity of life, the sanctity of marriage, religious freedom. Maybe if she’d ever look past the end of her nose she’d see that the culture wars are worth fighting and always will be.

  6. Daniel says:

    Rachel appears to be a poster child for the feminization of the church, in particular, and society, in general. I wasted three decades in the UMC until I finally figured out that I am thoroughly reformed and am not going to earn my salvation through works of social justice and protest so favored by Rachel and the UMC hierarchy. As a white male of heterosexual privilege I felt entirely unwelcome in the UMC and marginalized by its overt and hostile feminization. My favorite story is how a female pastor described one of the church trustees to me as – “I’m not sure who it was, all old white guys look the same to me.”

    If we men don’t do some serious work on recapturing the church militant and taking responsibility for spiritual leadership, we have nobody to blame but ourselves when Rachel and others of her ilk define what the church should be to us.

    One other thing my sojourn with the UMC taught me was that using the Gamaliel method of testing as described in Acts 5:38 showed time and time again that having women as clergy is not advisable. Before everyone pops a blood vessel, this is not meant to diminish or demean the vital role women play in the church (I do favor the office of deaconess), but the general emotional makeup of women makes having everyone feel good take a higher priority than guarding the faith once delivered to the saints. That being said, the female perspective on things can be a good and moderating influence. BTW, I now happily belong to a LCMS congregation.

    In general, I find Rachel Held Evans to be tendentious, pouty, and rather irrelevant.

  7. SW says:

    Excellent! The best response I’ve heard to RHE’s CNN article. Like you I agree with the diagnosis but disagree with the treatment.

    Evangelicals create conflict over hot-button issues, while Mainliners accommodate them. But what Millenials really want is someone to engage the issues.

    To borrow your example, it is not enough for the church to affirm or condemn homosexual relationships. Millenials can get either outside the church. Rather the church’s job should be to inform or understanding of sexuality, brokenness and humanity in relation to Jesus. If we do that, at the very least the arguments about gay marriage will (rightfully) become secondary to the vision of true humanity in God’s kingdom.

    I pray there are more pastors like you who understand this vital difference. The future of the church in America depends on it.

  8. Karl Kroger says:

    A fairly solid response. It’s unfortunate to see the lack of overall integrity at IRD and most of what is communicated by y’all echoed and reflected in the comment section.

    • Vince Talley says:

      In other words, it vexes a liberal pastor to see Christian laity taking positions he does not approve of. I’m not sure how that qualifies as “lack of overall integrity.” We call it “defending the faith.” That probably isn’t done at places like Candler, where the religion is politics.

  9. Brettany Renée Blatchley says:

    “In acknowledging the church’s frailty, we begin the quest for a suitable way forward.”

    It’s “frailty” for the Evangelical church to be alienating people from Jesus who don’t toe their particular application of their particular interpretation of God’s intentions. If Evangelicals saw many of the things that they are known for doing in this particular light, then they wouldn’t call this “frailty,” they would call this sin. Maybe the proper response would be repentance? Maybe God has a far bigger problems with sins of this sort than any of the worst of the LGBTQ “sinners?”

    The measure you use will be the measure used upon you. Scary words when one introspects under the guidance of God’s Spirit.

    • Adrian Croft says:

      You sure used a lot of words to say “Give the LGBT activists everything they want.”

      Hit that New Testament, kid, see if it puts evangelicals under any obligation not to “alienate” sexual minorities. I just don’t see it. Christianity isn’t a product of focus groups, it’s a vehicle for salvation.

      You have this knack for bandying words about just like Rachel Evans does. Quantity of words does not equal quality of thought. On this website, you’ll find lots of people that will cut through the verbiage. Verbhorrhea may get you an A in some college women’s studies course, but not with this crowd.

    • cleareyedtruthmeister says:

      A few months back I read a thoughtful piece called “The Canonization of Subjectivity.” It describes the approach of modern religious liberals perfectly. If something is objectively clear, but it doesn’t sit well with you, then just go off on another creative “interpretation.” Nice to have that in your back pocket. It allows you to justify just about anything.

  10. Mike says:

    What Rachel doesn’t seem to realize is that Christianity is based on certain presuppositions, especially that God has spoken through the Scriptures and therefore the Scriptures are the basis for all truth. To ask for a change is substance is to change the truths of Scripture. There is supposed to be a war between the church and culture as the culture runs counter to the Scriptures. Jesus came into the world to save his people from the world and it’s culture of sin. There is no war with science when science agrees with the Scriptures. Modern science is subjective rather than objective and assumes that the reason and assumptions of the creature are greater than the creator. The modern church is known for what it stands, that’s why it is unattractive – it’s just another social club compromising with and embracing the sins of the culture. It’s not a problem of questions not having predetermined answers. Those questions do have predetermined answers; she just doesn’t like those answers and wants answers that fit her idea of what Christianity is. LGBT is counter to God’s word. It is not compatible with Christianity any more than any of the other sins mentioned in Scripture. To be welcomed into the kingdom of God, one has to repent and turn from their sins and trust in Christ as the penal substitute for our sins. How could we continue in the very sins he died for? This of course has said nothing about the role of the Holy Spirit in salvation. She seems to have a strange idea of what a life of holiness really is. The church is supposed to be in the world without being of the world offering reconciliation and peace with God through faith in Jesus Christ. The church represents the Kingdom of God in the world and therefore is for believers only. It is unsuitable for unbelievers just as the Kingdom of Heaven is unsuitable for unbelievers. It’s function in the world is to take the Gospel to the world and offer a message of hope and redemption from the world and its culture of sin. It is relevant only to the extent that it does that.

  11. Forgiven Sinner says:

    It is incredibly tiresome and sadly predictable that pieces like that written by Evans will ultimately will get down to the acceptance of “our LGBT brothers and sisters.” You might as well just skip to the middle/end of each piece.

    Good for the author of this piece for calling that out.

    Churches – preach, teach and promote the Word of God. Stand for truth, and make no apologies for that. When we do that, we will be walking in the footsteps of our Savior – who was mocked, abused, beaten, tortured and killed because of it.

    Jesus never worried about hurting anyone’s feelings. Neither should we.

  12. Kit says:

    She doesn’t want the Universal Church Christ founded. She wants the Church of Herself, where all her views and opinions are ratified and sanctified, and she can feel confirmed in her choices. Christ did not come to bring peace, but a sword. He has shown the Way and told the Truth. He loves us no matter what we do, but He doesn’t approve everything we do. You are commanded to love all as yourself, but the dictatorship of relativism means that too many people love themselves more than Christ.

  13. Mena V says:

    This book is written by a Catholic but it is good for lots of Chirstians http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/1594713421/ref=redir_mdp_mobile?tag=theanchoress-20

  14. Patrick martin says:

    Many churches today don’t preach the gospel, but rather something closer to moralistic, therapeutic deism. Man is a sinful creature who needs the saving work of Christ and His Cross, not the help of a life coach. Take a look at what the early church fathers, the Protestant Reformers or the Puritans taught. You can’t read the book of Romans without understanding that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. When you turn Jesus into a good teacher who should be emulated and the Bible into “life’s little instruction manual” you get a purple squishy goo that isn’t the gospel. Read Galations 1:8 to see what Paul says about teaching a different gospel.

  15. Harry Vest says:

    Has it ever occured to any of you that despite the “left” leaning Christians having some slightly muddled views on certain things scriptural that it is indeed the so called “Christian Right” – i.e. that ever so strange mix of Fundamentalists, Charismatics, Domionionists and New Calvinists that are the real threat? The “gospel” they seem to hold so close to what’s left of their cold, mean spirited hearts is so opposite what Jesus spoke of as to possibly be the “Anti-Christ” spirit spoken of so long ago. America and many “Christians” in it are becoming beyond insane and everyone who cares about such things should be very very worried.

    • cleareyedtruthmeister says:

      How, exactly, are these “Christian Right” people the “real threat?” How are they the “Anti-Christ?” How are they becoming “beyond insane?” Spare us the feel-good platitudes and the intellectually vacuous propaganda. Please be specific and factual.

      • Ray Bannister says:

        You’re expecting a liberal to define their terms and back up their silly accusations with facts?? Dream on, brother. Liberals are the gold standard in dogmatism. Anyone who disagrees with them is “mean-spirited” and “hate-filled.” I’m surprised he didn’t use “Nazis.” The only “threat” the Christian right poses is that we might actually delay the death of Christianity, which for the left is the ultimate goal.

  16. The Great Buntini says:

    The young people of this generation will be blessed by persecution..we will be told when to eat, what to eat. how much to exercise, and when and where. They will be told where to send their kids for school, and what to teach them, and what language is proper and what ideas are permissible to hold in or not, and speak or nor not, and some of my friends and relatives will turn me in. It is called The Faith, look it up; we will reign.

  17. Dalaina May says:

    I disagree strongly with many of Evan’s views. Yet, as a 29 year old long-time Christ follower, I too am saddened by the state of the bride of Christ. The overwhelmingly nasty comments and criticisms in the comments section are an example of exactly why I feel this way. Brothers and sisters, we can disagree – even strongly – and we can hold with conviction to our beliefs, but if this is the way we treat each other – THE BRIDE OF OUR SAVIOR, how on earth will anyone be drawn to Him? They will know us as disciples by our love for one another. Your venom for brothers and sisters who disagree with you is shameful. Please be wise with your words and tones. The world is watching us and judging Jesus by the way we treat one another.

    • Ben Welliver says:

      Maybe you think it’s “shameful” to defend your faith, but not all of us agree. Evans has an army of people like herself, who say they “love Jesus” and “love the Bible,” yet she wrote two books in which she attempted to prove that anyone who tries to “live by the Bible” is an idiot. So apparently you think it’s “shameful” for anyone to criticize her, but you don’t think her attack on the Bible is “shameful.” Who do you think is a higher authority – Christ, or Rachel Evans?

      If you’d bother to actually read the Bible instead of trash like she writes, you’d see that both Jesus, Paul, and the others could sometimes sound very harsh in debates about faith. I’m sure people like her would prefer that her critics shut up and go away, but there are things at stake here bigger than her ego or her bank account. She is doing her level best to turn people against Christianity and convince them that they ought to follow her lead in trying to ingratiate themselves with unbelievers by embracing gay “marriage” and other left-wing causes. She claims to “love the Bible,” but then condones sexual practices and a view of marriage that are clearly condemned in the Bible. If you want to see how taking liberal social positions works to draw people into the churches, take a good look at the liberal churches, they’ve been embracing left-wing ideology for 50 years and guess what, they keep LOSING members. So don’t mouth nonsense about how “the world is watching us.” Any so-called Christians who follow Evan down the path she’s on can count on seeing their churches decline, not increase. Liberalism isn’t just wrong and un-Christian, it’s the guaranteed path to membership loss.

    • Donnie says:

      What comments have been nasty? I haven’t seen any so far.

      • Adrian Croft says:

        Donnie, in case you didn’t notice, the left defines whatever it doesn’t agree with as “nasty” and “mean-spirited.” It’s their way of shutting down debate.

  18. David Kueker says:

    Jeff’s original comments were wise, fair, carefully thought through, and really added quality to the topic … he improved upon the original. In a word, brilliant. Both came to the same basic conclusion – only an encounter with the Christ found in scripture will suffice.

    Reading the comments was a walk down the quality ladder, step by step, into snarky, disrespectful, childish “straw man” arguments which referenced neither of the two original articles but simply stated the author’s personal opinions (prejudices) in order to judge and criticize someone. I read through to the end to see if there was an exception, and it just got worse. And I suppose my comment criticizes everyone’s … so, no exception for me.

    I’m not surprised that people would wish to leave this mindless negativity and criticism behind in search of a more authentic Christianity … I want to follow them out myself.

    • Donnie says:

      If defending the basics of the faith from those who besmirch it is “mindlessly negative” then I am mindlessly negative and proudly so.

      • Greg Paley says:

        I don’t think I’m “mindlessly negative,” I’m shooting for “thoughtfully negative.” The left can’t handle criticism, they’d prefer that we all be like the mass of churchgoers, mealymouthed and docile and accepting of whatever nonsense anyone spews out.

  19. Alan Baglien says:

    We have watered down the faith, dumbed down catechism, and let society dictate our message! We worry more about feeling than faith formation

  20. Joe says:

    I need to disagree with Mike here, several times:

    “There is no war with science when science agrees with the Scriptures.”

    It is not science’s job to agree with the Scriptures. It is science’s job to describe reality as best we can understand it. With all of the limitations inherent in that statement – but also all of the power and truth that has given millions their very lives, and improved the lives of billions. There’s a lot to be gained by learning how G-d’s world works.

    People who think science can replace religion are fools. People who think religious scriptures can replace science… also fools.

    Western civilization was built on science pursued by a society whose base is ethical monotheism. Take either one away, and the arch falls.

    The arch is falling, and that is an existential threat to religion and to the religious.

    “Modern science is subjective rather than objective”

    Some is. For the exact same reason that there is no perfect church.

    “…and assumes that the reason and assumptions of the creature are greater than the creator. ”

    There is no kind way to put this, other than to say this is a lie. Science’s methods stem precisely from the rejection of this belief.

    A criticism with lies at its foundation is unlikely to be helpful. Wasn’t that the core sore point many commenters here expressed re: Ms. Evans? It’s no less true in Mike’s case.

  21. Norm says:

    “What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance”.

    That says it all, unfortunately.

  22. Patrick H says:

    I’m a millennial, and I think this is a great article. Thank you!

  23. Peter says:

    The comments are better than the article. : )

    I stumbled across this site by accident, but I have bookmarked it.

  24. The_Physeter says:

    I think, for example, that it is possible to have an authentic conversation on human sexuality and end up once more affirming traditional marriage as God’s creational design and also encountering the Scripture’s judgment on our practice of heterosexual marriage and divorce.

    Your article uses an awful lot of fancy language to just end up saying, “We need to keep doing the same things and passing the same judgements, but make it better somehow.” I don’t think this is going to work.

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