Searching for Substance: Rachel Held Evans’ Decades-Old Prescription for Reaching Millennials

Webber saw this attraction 30 years ago.
Webber saw this attraction 30 years ago.

Everything old is new again.  It’s painful to watch a well-worn thesis go viral 30 years late and with someone else’s name attached.  Many folks have been talking about this self-aggrandizing piece by famous I-used-to-be-evangelical-but-now-I’m-enlightened blogger Rachel Held Evans (henceforth RHE).  Aside from seeing it all over Facebook and Twitter, I have unchurched friends sending me messages about it, I see some of my denominational supervisors writing about it, and I overhear colleagues talk about it at meetings. Thus it’s hard to argue that RHE is certainly an impressive trend in the progressive Christian blogosphere.  The problem is, her prescription for bringing millennials back to the church is at least 30 years old.  Robert Webber made this case just a couple of years after I was born.  The idea for which Evans is being lauded is literally as old as the millennials she intends to draw back.

RHE’s re-warmed argument runs as such:

“In response, many churches have sought to lure millennials back by focusing on style points: cooler bands, hipper worship, edgier programming, impressive technology. Yet while these aren’t inherently bad ideas and might in some cases be effective, they are not the key to drawing millennials back to God in a lasting and meaningful way. Young people don’t simply want a better show. And trying to be cool might be making things worse.”

If young people don’t “simply want a better a better show,” don’t tell that to the fastest-growing megachurch in my state.  I may find the show aesthetically offensive, the methods manipulative, and the content lacking, but that doesn’t mean many churches have not found this prescription “successful.”  If it is now cliché to the sophisticated palate of RHE, it is only because this formula has been useful in many places and for many years.  Time will tell if young adults are now growing wise to the marketing.  In my own small town, the churches that are attracting millennials the fastest are still following the above formula that Evans finds passé.

That doesn’t mean she’s totally wrong, though.  What attracted RHE to sacramental Christianity includes many of the reasons I love and practice it:

“What finally brought me back, after years of running away, wasn’t lattes or skinny jeans; it was the sacraments. Baptism, confession, Communion, preaching the Word, anointing the sick — you know, those strange rituals and traditions Christians have been practicing for the past 2,000 years. The sacraments are what make the church relevant, no matter the culture or era. They don’t need to be repackaged or rebranded; they just need to be practiced, offered and explained in the context of a loving, authentic and inclusive community.”

The problem is that Evans’ solution is in danger of underwriting “the form of godliness without the power.” (2 Tim. 3:5) I would certainly agree that the aesthetics of Holy Communion or Ash Wednesday are far more powerful than a coffee bar or strobe lights.  But if these wonderful practices are divorced from their doctrinal content, they are little more than nice rituals and not a means of grace.

Which brings us to RHE’s solution: The Episcopal Church.  To be blunt, if the Episcopalians were drawing in millennials the way RHE’s analysis suggests they should be, then statistically TEC would not be dying out faster than Blockbuster. Evans does suggest one need not be a part of a denomination that is historically sacramental, but this is only to double down on the problem: going through the motions of ritual without the ecclesiology or doctrinal commitments which underlie them creates just another hip activity to do on Sunday.

Communion elements in stained glass from an Ohio parish, courtesy Nheyob via Wikimedia Commons.
Communion elements in stained glass from an Ohio parish, courtesy Nheyob via Wikimedia Commons.

Holy Communion serves as an example of why form and content must be in harmony. To name just three potential problems related to the Eucharist: absent (1) a sacramental theology capable of claiming that what happens at the table is something more than a snack, or (2) a Christology capable of handling the theological freight of the Great Thanksgiving, or  (3) a soteriology that recognizes the need to repent for sins of omission and sins of commission, this highest point of Christian worship becomes dead ritual, an aesthetic experience that pleases but does not transform.*

I don’t pretend to know what millennials want (even though I am one) because I don’t believe I can read a few polls, talk to my friends, and thereby understand everyone in my generation.  That said, I am quite sure that we should not design churches to fit the fancies of the same people who have made The Real World a successful franchise and the Kardashians famous.  Thus the appeal of the ancient forms of worship not designed by me or for me, an appeal which I gladly confess.

But the ancient forms demand substance to match the style.  I don’t know what millennials want, but what (read: Who) millennials need is the God revealed in the Bible and confessed in the creeds and liturgies of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.  Mainline churches like TEC and my own United Methodist Church reflect that apostolic teaching and practice on paper, but on the ground our pastors and other leaders too often compromise core Trinitarian and Christological confessions which frame Christian life and practice.  (The story of two “bishops,” Sprague and Spong, is enough evidence to suffice here.)  When this happens, we are trying to plant heirloom roses in poisoned soil.

As much as anyone else, I want millennials (indeed, all people) to know fellowship with the Three-One God and life in the Body of Christ.   With the ancient church and the Reformers, I believe the sacraments are among the most wonderful gifts of God.  This remains the case whether a critical mass of millennials find them “relevant” or not.  Of course, catechesis (teaching) about Christian worship in general and the sacraments in particular is necessary to help any new Christians connect with liturgical practice, as with anything not immediately self-evident.

But let’s not forget that form needs power; Webber, who originated Evans’ thesis, was very aware of the necessity to maintain the Christian story.  The practices of Christian liturgy without the doctrinal and ethical content which undergird them are little more than mansions built on sand.  Ritual without substance won’t do anyone – millennial or otherwise – any good at all.

P.S. The impressive growth of the ACNA – not all of which can be attributed to schism and sheep stealing, but at least in part to church planting and doctrinal fidelity – serves as a useful foil to TEC’s statistics and an example of what happens when the ancient and apostolic form meets the content for which it was intended.

*This assumes, of course, a heart transformed by the love of God and a life of prayer, service, mercy, and justice. Doctrine and ethics, faith and practice, go together – they do not compete with each other.

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15 thoughts on “Searching for Substance: Rachel Held Evans’ Decades-Old Prescription for Reaching Millennials”

  1. It’s funny, but when you think about it, I made that move about twenty years ago.

    I have been impressed by the ACNA, if only they were a bit more open to LGBT folk. It’s frustrating that openess for LGBT seems to go hand in hand with watered-down faith.

    1. Dennis, I share your frustration on that point. There is no reason the faith “once and for all delivered” cannot be friendly to LGBT folk, though when I contend for that faith people often jump to a fundamentalist boogeyman that hates evolution and gay people. It’s as if their only reference point for Christianity that takes doctrine seriously is fundamentalism. Thanks for your comments.

  2. Reblogged this on Zwinglius Redivivus and commented:
    The only people taken with Rachel Held Evans are people who aren’t familiar with anything that’s more than a month old and who, bereft of historical knowledge, actually deceive themselves, or are deceived, into thinking she’s original or even significant.

  3. Reblogged this on Pastor-Theologian and commented:
    I am constantly amazed at the people who claim to find profundity and wisdom in RHE’s writings. Her theological method is little more than her own likes and dislikes, she’s sometimes as hateful and mean the people she accuses of being hateful and mean, and she is, in many ways, as fundamentalist as the fundamentalists she decries, just in the opposite direction.

  4. Excellent post, Drew! I am attracted to both contemporary worship styles and liturgical styles at different points. I like your linkage of doctrine and liturgical practice, faith and ethics, etc. I also love your emphasis on Trinitarian faith and the necessity of the power behind the rituals. I would attribute the power to the Holy Spirit, the real presence of Christ indwelling believers and inhabiting our worship. I wouldn’t disagree with a thing you said above.

  5. Drew, I don’t always agree with what you say but this time you are spot on! Well done my friend. For several years I have been baffled at the appeal of RHE to me her arguments often lack depth. She can raise good questions but her responses are often weak at best.

  6. I am confused. You quote RHE saying that millenials “don’t want a better show.” And you disparage that –citing the rock band at your local megachurch. Do you really want to say “Nevermind God, the show’s the thing?!”

    She speaks of “drawing millennials back to God in a lasting and meaningful way” and you skewer her for placing the emphasis on empty ritual. Leading me to think you aren’t actually reading what she has written.

    I’m also more than a little concerned about calling anyone who writes memoir and the first person essay, also someone you don’t know, as “self-aggrandizing.” Seems petty.

    What you’re really concerned about is liberal theology. Spong (who near as I can tell, has little in common with Evans) and Sprague (that’s the guy who performed a gay wedding, right? I don’t know the rest of his theology but that gay marriage thing bugs you too.) Okay. Now I think I understand. But I’ve lost what that has to do with Evans, who has written critically about the mainline and the evangelical church worlds.

    And until we have more research (facts, figures) about the growing ACNA, I don’t think we can know what we’re seeing. Conservative mainliners who found a church without women pastors and gay people? Evangelicals who found a more classy way to worship? We really don’t know. Which means we can’t know if people are “converting” to conservatism until we find some numbers.

    1. I need to fix that 4th paragraph. Yes, I understand Evans supports gay people in the full life of the church. That doesn’t make her an extreme liberal (like Spong) across the board. Unless you think she might as well be.

      And I should have noted in the first paragraph that Evans doesn’t reject rock bands and skinny jeans in all settings. She says only they are not “the key.” Seems like you might agree on that point.

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