Tag Archives: Rachel Held Evans

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.

Animate: Bible (Resource Review)

animate-bible

 

Introduction

What if I told you there was a resource out there that could help your church or your small group engage the Bible faithfully, critically, deeply – and have fun doing it?  Animate: Bible from Sparkhouse (a Fortress affiliate) is just such a study. I recently completed this curriculum at my church and wanted to offer you a few thoughts, since several colleagues asked for my feedback.

Who are the experts? The leaders for Animate: Bible include a who’s who of evangelical and/or progressive church leaders, pastors, and and thinkers: Nadia-Bolz Weber, Will Willimon, Rachel Held Evans, Phyllis Tickle, and others.

Who can lead it? The scope and sequence gives you a good idea of what to expect in leading or participating in Animate: Bible.  The material is arranged so that someone with little to no knowledge of the subject can facilitate sessions effectively.

Who should participate? I have a feeling that Animate: Bible was especially designed with younger Christians and seekers in mind, but I believe it would be a worthwhile study for Christians of any age and experience.  I had a mix of long-term and newer students of the Bible in my class, and everyone seemed to find the contents interesting and helpful.

What? Animate: Bible is composed of a series of 7 short, engaging videos with a journal for each participant and a leader guide for the facilitator.  The videos (remember the title) are not just “talking heads,” but effectively communicate the points being made by the speaker though drawings and animation that are both informative and whimsical.  The journals include a variety of questions that are very adaptable for the size of your group and the time frame allotted, as well as interesting illustrations and space for notes.

Why? What I appreciated most about Animate: Bible is the chance to discuss questions and topics not covered in the usual Sunday School curriculum or Bible study: How did the canon form? How should we read different kinds of scripture? How do the Old and New Testaments fit together?  Much of this material – the 10,000 foot view questions of Scripture – was new to my participants (as it would have been for me had I not been to seminary).

What worked especially well? The topics are arranged in such a way that they build upon each other quite effectively.  The materials themselves – the journal, video clips, etc. – have a quality look and feel to them that give you a sense this was put together with care.   More to the point, Animate: Bible helps your group approach difficult questions about Scripture (such as: maybe we should read Jonah as allegory more so than history?) in a way that is sensitive to where people come from, but inviting to a new manner of reading. Finally, the leaders were especially engaging; they possessed a variety of backgrounds and approaches to their topics, but on the whole the video components were quite well done.  My favorites were probably Willimon (I know, I am a company man!) and Bolz-Weber.  I even enjoyed the sessions with Rachel Held Evans and Phyllis Tickle, neither of whom I am especially fond of.  (For more on the latter, see here.)

What could have been better?  I’m a preacher, so I am critical by nature about other preachers.  I had some minor quibbles with some of the points made in the curriculum.  The session on canon ends by asking what might be added to the canon, a question which, though sensible in the context of the conversation, I find risible.  The session on grace discusses looking at Scripture with twin lenses: the “love” of Jesus and the “grace” of Paul.  I found that distinction difficult to maintain, however.  Minor points, to be sure.

Concluding Thoughts & Recommendations

Animate: Bible would be especially effective in certain contexts.  For instance, a college or young adult group, a city or suburban church, or a college town.  I believe it would be less effective in a setting where the the majority of participants would be serious inerrantists or otherwise not interested in questioning their understandings of the Bible.  I would also suggest taking the “For Further Study” recommendations seriously, as they are quite good.  I read Eugene Peterson’s Eat This Book and Jaroslav Pelikan’s Whose Bible is it? in the course of leading and preaching this study. I would also suggest Hays and Davis’ The Art of Reading Scripture, a precis of which you can find here.

Oh yeah, preaching.  I preached this as a series as I led the study.  That is, I took the topics of the study and preached through them as a small group I  led worked through the sessions.  This allowed me to “double down” on learning and teaching the topics, and also allowed me reach more people with material that I believe could transform their reading of Scripture and their walk with God.  If you are the adventurous kind of preacher – and not too tied to the lectionary – I would suggest giving this a shot.  (Side note: the sample clips work great for sermon videos.)

So, if you think your church or small group could benefit from this material, run out and get yourself a copy.  I highly recommend this excellent resource and I am looking forward to checking out other offerings in the Animate series.

Since I am a company man, here’s the sample from Bishop Willimon’s session “Interpretation: Scripture Reads Us.”