Rachel Held Evans and Evangelicalism’s Implosion
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 distinct responses both to this article. Those who share the post basically do so with this commentary: “Exactly! That’s how I feel!” In the comment boxes there is a frequent adverse reaction along the lines of, “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 and those who are more progressive utter, “duh.”
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. With respect to this article of millenials, I agree with her more on where evangelicalism has gone wrong than I agree what to do about it–not that she really says much about this in the post.
“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 and the fact that it exists outside of evangelicalism doesn’t invalidate Evans’ conclusions. The more significant issue is how to address it.
In 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. Andy Crouch has pointed out that evangelicalism is also guilty of simply critiquing culture or copy it. 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 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. Perhaps this contributes to the strong negative reaction by many pastors.
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” although the things she asks of evangelicalism don’t necessitate a material alteration of the church’s doctrine.
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 issues 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. I’m not claiming that Evans reaches a different conclusion about this issue. It may be more accurate to state that she doesn’t reach any conclusion. She raises good questions but is less adept at answering them.
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 discpleship.