I had been eagerly waiting for Rachel Held Evans’ new book Searching for Sunday to hit the shelves ever since I heard that it was in the works. While I’m only an occasional reader of her blog, which is more issue-focused and, frankly, sometimes too abrasive for me read consistently, I was deeply impacted by her first book Faith Unraveled, which told the story of her transition from an utterly confident (sometimes judgmental) completely sure-of-her-own-rightness Christian to one who wanted to wrestle with hard questions rather than write them off. So many of her stories and experiences and reflections were uncannily similar to my own and that book was like water in the desert to my soul.
When I learned that her new book would be specifically about her loving, leaving, and finding church again, I couldn’t wait to read it. All I can say is that it was even better than I was expecting it to be. Once again, I felt like I was reading my own diary at so many moments. To the point that if someone wanted to know where I’m at with the church, I would probably just hand them this book and say, “She says it better than I could.”
For the past few years I’ve struggled with church. And even as I’ve tried to remind myself that church isn’t primarily about what I can get out of it and that not all churches are the same, I’ve felt an increased disinterest in participating in the church. This has become more of a concern recently as we prepare to move back to the US, a move which will necessitate our finding a new church. I’ve found myself reluctant to even try. By the time I finished this book, I felt understood, even validated. But I also felt hope.
In the introduction, Evans’ pinpoints the reasons for the dissatisfaction that so many of our generation are feeling with the church:
“We don’t want to choose between science and religion or between our intellectual integrity and our faith. Instead, we long for our churches to be safe places to doubt, to ask questions, and to tell the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable. We want to talk about the tough stuff – biblical interpretation, religious pluralism, sexuality, racial reconciliation, and social justice – but without predetermined conclusions or simplistic answers. We want to bring our whole selves through the church doors, without leaving our hearts and minds behind, without wearing a mask….
We can’t be won back with hipper worship bands, fancy coffee shops, or pastors who wear skinny jeans. We Millennials have been advertised to our entire lives, so we can smell b.s. from a mile away. The church is the last place we want to be sold another product, the last place we want to be entertained.
Millenials aren’t looking for a hipper Christianity. We are looking for a truer Christianity, a more authentic Christianity. Like every generation before ours and every generation after, we’re looking for Jesus –the same Jesus who can be found in the strange places he’s always been found: in bread, in wine, in baptism, in the Word, in suffering, in community, and among the least of these.”
The rest of the book is structured around the seven sacraments – Baptism, Confession, Holy Orders, Communion, Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, and Marriage – but if that sounds dull and dry, don’t be fooled. This isn’t a book of theology. This is a very vulnerable and personal story masterfully woven together with the story of the church and with some breathtaking theological truths. Take for example this profound reminder that
“…what makes the gospel offensive isn’t who it keeps out, but who it lets in….
Grace got out of hand the moment the God of the universe hung on a Roman cross with outstretched hands looked out upon those who had hung him there and declared ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’
Grace has been out of hand for more than two thousand years now. We best get used to it.”
Evans writes about stepping away from the church for a while as she wrestled with questions that no one seemed to want to discuss and becoming critical and cynical about the body as a whole. I saw myself in this, the way I began to feel when I went to my parents’ church or my in-laws’, or visited a new church with my husband.
“I expected the worst and smirked when I found it. So many of our sins begin with fear—fear of disappointment, fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of death, fear of obscurity. Cynicism may seem a mild transgression, but it is a patient predator that suffocates hope…”
For years I found myself growing more and more cynical about the church to the point that it was sometimes a struggle for me to admit that it could ever do any good at all, and this cynicism made it very difficult for me to accept that God is still using the church today. That, as Evans’ says,
“Church is a moment in tie when the kingdom of God draws near, when a meal, a story, a song , an apology, and even a failure is made holy by the presence of Jesus among us and within us.”
I can’t claim that I agreed 100% with every single word and idea in this book, but that really doesn’t matter to me because I agreed wholeheartedly with the spirit of this book which was like an empathetic companion in my grief, an understanding friend, and sustenance for my sometimes starving faith.
To me, the most beautiful thing about this book is that while it fully acknowledges the many problems with the church, particularly the evangelical church, it also leaves the reader with hope that maybe church can still be worth it. Maybe there is still value in this broken body. Maybe there is something so essential about the church that it’s worth investing in, in spite of all her failures.
Evans concludes, “God surprises us by showing up in ordinary things: in bread, in wine, in water, in words, in sickness, in healing, in death, in a manger of hay, in a mother’s womb, in an empty tomb. Church isn’t some community you join or some place you arrive. Church is what happens when someone taps you on the shoulder and whispers in your ear, Pay attention, this is holy ground; God is here. Even here, in the dark, God is busy making all things new.”
Once after attending a service at my in-laws (genuinely lovely) church I turned to my husband and said, “I just can’t do it. If that’s what it has to look like for me to be a Christian, then I don’t want to be one. I don’t fit with the floral clad church ladies making small talk, I’m not moved by the choir, and I refuse to laugh at jokes that aren’t funny just because the pastor said them. I’m sorry, but I can’t ever do church like this.”
But this church that Evans writes about, this is a church I just might want to be a part of.