Rachel Held Evans’ latest post at CNN’s religion blog has stirred up controversy in just the way RHE knows how to do so well. See here and here for some reactions. Part of what’s challenging about her piece (and all her writing, really) is that it contains a lot of truth. In her comments on liturgy, authenticity, and a broader Christian cultural-political mandate, RHE offers or, at least, approaches some important insights. The merits of some of her points have not been fully appreciated by some of the commentators (rightly) expressing concern about her larger message.
But I too have difficulty sympathizing with her millennial-centric approach to church message reform. When Evans states, rather emphatically, that, “We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there,” I start to get nervous.
This statement is at once true and not true. It’s true in that there is obviously much that churches can do to better engage with Christ, with the fullness of who he was and what his message required. But it also reflects the astounding arrogance of individualism. The assumption underlying that statement is that the individual is the arbiter of truth in the world. It implies that millennials would know Jesus when they saw him, and the church needs to change itself until they can see him there. What it leaves out is the idea that millennials need to conform themselves to the church to find Christ there—which is, after all, the point of the very liturgies RHE references.
But a bigger problem I have with the mentality behind arguments like this is the emphasis on “winning” people as if this was some kind of marketing ploy. One primary purpose for the church’s existence is spreading the gospel and bringing people into the church. Yet evangelization isn’t about superior marketing; it’s about a superior message. Like Bonheoffer, I see any attempt to “win souls” by hook or by crook to be a disservice to both the gospel and to those hearing its message. True evangelism is born out of a life committed to Christ, in the fullness of who he is, was, and will always be. Just because the message born of that life is unpalatable to a generation, doesn’t mean it’s not true, or that the message should be changed. It may require cultural translations – as any missionary could tell you. But in translating Christianity into other cultures, missionaries made it into Buddhism, Hinduism or Islam. The minute we see ourselves as competing in a popularity contest is the minute we’ve lost our way. We don’t come to Jesus on our terms; we got to him on his.
[Image of Rachel Held Evans from American Vision]