Rearranging the Chairs and other wastes of time: A response to Rachel Held Evans

Rachel Held Evans has written a thought provoking piece about why Millenials are leaving the church.  She writes about how frustrating it is for her to give talks on this subject.  She “points to research that shows young evangelicals often feel they have to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity, between compassion and holiness” and then she “talks about how the evangelical obsession with sex can make Christian living seem like little more than sticking to a list of rules, and how millennials long for faith communities in which they are safe asking tough questions and wrestling with doubt”

Then she says this:  “Invariably, after I’ve finished my presentation and opened the floor to questions, a pastor raises his hand and says, “So what you’re saying is we need hipper worship bands. …And I proceed to bang my head against the podium.”

So far so good.  Rachel, I think, wants pastors to see that it’s substance, not style, that matters.  But then she says:

“Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions – Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. – precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic.”

BANG. BANG. BANG.   That’s me, banging my head against her podium.

Why, after telling us that the issue is substance, not style, does she immediately lead us into a discussion of style: about how high church and ancient forms of liturgy are better than low church, implying that chant is better than Hillsong, or that wine is better than grape juice, or that pews are better than chairs?

She seems to be doing the very thing she’s railing against: pointing to a certain style as ‘refreshingly authentic’ and in the process implying that churches where Sufjan Stevens’ arrangements of hymns, sung in candlelight, with good coffee afterwards, and a group of people heading off to the pub, is somehow less than going to Catholic mass.

Nope – wine, or Eastern Orthodox, or ancient hymns, or small, aren’t better.  They’re not worse.  They’re not the point.  So please don’t tell us they are.

She writes:  We want an end to the culture wars. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.  I know a church filled with millenials, built on the notion that our calling is simple:  Pursue justice and mercy in our world, and love too, along the lines of Micah 6:8 – provide shelter for people who don’t have a bed; provide fundamental medical care through a mobile clinic; provide food for those who are hungry, and a conversation too, at a community meal.

She writes:  We want a truce between science and faith.  I know a church that did a series on Science and Faith so that young people would no longer be forced to make a false choice between the two, completing the series with a Q and A panel discussion that included scientists, mostly advocates of theistic evolution, but who could also speak about intelligent design, earth age issues, and textual considerations along the lines of John Walton’s book.

She writes:  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.  I know a church where hundreds gather each week in Bible studies, and their theological tent is big enough to include the likes of Beth Moore AND NT Wright.  They study, and seek to put it into practice, and do so, caring for people on the margins, including the elderly and disabled, sometimes at great cost to themselves.

I know church like that, because I serve a church like that, and for over a decade it’s fastest growing demographic has been the 18-35 category.  We’re large.  Our building is nice.  We play Hillsong stuff.  We have a good sound system.   We serve grape juice, not wine.  On the other hand, we’re not cool or hip.  We don’t market aggressively.  I’m the senior pastor, and I’m 57, and I wear preach in sweaters purchased at Goodwill.  And young people attend – lots of young people.

If you asked me why they, I’d say Rachel’s right:  Young people want a faith that calls them to justice, to comfort with ambiguity, to involvement, to compassion, to and integration of intellect and spirit.  I’d add that young people also want to meet older Christians who have enough humility and love to mentor millenials, learn from them, and truly enjoy them.  They want Bible teaching that doesn’t move to the answers too quickly on important issues, but is willing to look at all sides, including the important issues of sexuality.  They want a vision that encourages them to move beyond spiritual consumerism into actual service.

But can we please, please, stop arguing about big church over small, traditional over contemporary, pews over chairs,  Eastern Orthodox or Evangelical Free or whatever is the conflict de jour?  The substance that’s needed has never changed:  A world thirsting for Jesus is thirsting for hope, community, justice, peace, contentment, meaning, reconciliation.  That substance can be found, or missing, no matter what it looks like on the outside.  Let’s get on with being about that, in whatever church we find ourselves and then maybe, just maybe, we’ll stop talking about rearranging the chairs – again.

About Richard Dahlstrom

As Pastor of Bethany Community Church in Seattle, Richard teaches with vision of "making the invisible God visible" by calling people to acts of service and blessing. It's working, as a wilderness ministry, homeless shelter, and community meals that serve those living on the margins are all pieces of Bethany's life. "We're being the presence of Christ" he says, "and inviting everyone to join the adventure." Many have, making Bethany one of the fastest growing churches in America in 2009 according to Outreach Magazine.


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