Recently, I had the opportunity to receive a copy of Rachel Held Evans new book Searching for Sunday and take part in her official book release. I received an advance copy, but enjoyed the book so much that I bought three other ones once it was released to hand out to some friends. While I was reading the book, a few questions came to my mind…so I decided to ask Rachel if she wouldn’t mind answering them. Below you’ll find the conversation.
Jason: I really enjoyed the format of your book! What inspired you to organize the book around the sacraments?
Rachel: As a writer, you’re always looking to ground your ideas in the soil of everyday life—in things the reader can taste, smell, hear, and touch. This is especially important, I think, when writing about faith, which can quickly veer into esoteric speculation if you’re not careful. It seemed fitting to arrange the book around the sacraments (baptism, confession, communion, anointing the sick, holy orders, and marriage) because it was the tangible, tactile nature of the sacraments that drew me back to church at times when my faith had been reduced to a set of propositions to affirm or deny. The sacraments reminded me that faith isn’t meant to simply be believed; it’s meant to be eaten and practiced and shared in the presence of other people. So the sacraments served as a literary device that also reflected the progression of my journey away from and back to church. I wasn’t sure I could write about growing up in the church, but I could write about my baptism as a twelve-year-old and what baptism means to faith. I wasn’t sure I could tackle a topic as huge as the future of the church in America, but I could write about communion and the role it might play in that future. Really, it wasn’t until the idea of arranging the book around the sacraments occurred to me that I felt comfortable even tackling the topic. Otherwise, it was too big, too abstract.
Jason: You’ve had the opportunity to speak with a number of churches from a variety of denominations, what do you feel is the greatest challenge faced by the church today?
Rachel: It’s hard to speak about challenges faced by the church when the church is universal and each community faces different challenges based on its cultural context. In some places, the greatest threat to the church is violence and persecution. In other places, the challenge is disentangling the church from politics, money, and power. Given its universal nature, I often wonder if the greatest challenge to the church universal is unity. By unity I don’t mean uniformity of belief or practice, but rather mutual respect and care for one another in spite of those differences. Too often, Christians get caught up in thinking of one another as enemies based on theological or political disagreements, which not only hurts our witness to the world but also diminishes our opportunities to appreciate and revere the way the Spirit works through such a variety of people and cultures and viewpoints. (We have a very long and sad history of this. In fact, more Christians were killed by one another in the aftermath of the Reformation than were killed by the Roman Empire during the worst years of anti-Christian persecution.) One of the biggest challenges in overcoming these divisions is getting past the idea that unity requires uniformity.
“If we (and I include myself in this) could learn to better embrace difference, we could spend less time trying to undermine one another and more time serving the rest of the world.”
Jason: You talk a lot about grace within your book and the role that it played in your life. What role does grace play within the church?
Rachel: Grace is the air Christians breathe. It’s not merely a set of doctrines to believe, or even an attitude of deference to nurture; it’s a way of being in the world—of giving and receiving unmerited favor the way one inhales and exhales breath. What this looks like in day-to-day life is different from person to person and church to church, but I see it most clearly when I see folks who are willing to set aside their preferred way of doing things (even their preferred way of doing religion or theology!) in order to love their neighbor better. I see it in the female pastor who brought anointing oils to the sick parishioner in the hospital who had once challenged her authority to pastor because of her gender. I saw it at the Gay Christian Network conference in Chicago, where people who had once been kicked out of their churches became church for one another. And I’ve seen it in some of my conservative acquaintances and friends who have reached out in love when they saw me struggling with questions, doubts, and anger, and without offering empty platitudes or attempting to change my mind, simply extended a gentle, “I’m here.” Thomas Merton once said, “our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.” That sounds like grace to me.
Jason: In the final chapters of Searching for Sunday you talk about the need to enter into death in order to be resurrected. What is the importance of this journey and how might churches enter into this discussion together?
Rachel: People don’t generally ask for death—particularly the death of our pride, our way of doing things, our need to be right, our sense of control. I know I don’t! And yet the cycle of death and resurrection appears to be one of God’s favorite patterns for working in the world. It’s tough enough for individuals to loosen our death-grip on the way things are; it’s even harder for churches to do so. But as the shape of Christianity changes, particularly here in the U.S., I think we have to have some frank conversations about what it means for the church to die to the old way of seeking power through political influence, money, power, and dominance and be reborn in the way of Jesus, the way of sacrifice and service.
Jason: Much of your book calls for churches to reconsider their role in the 21st century. What does it look like for a church to embrace the 21st century?
Rachel: I think the church embraces the 21st century by embracing the 1st and doing those things the church has been doing for two millennia—baptizing sinners, sharing meals, preaching the Word, anointing the sick, confessing the truth, creating sanctuary, caring for the poor and sick and left out. It’s not about making the church hip and cool. It’s about keeping the church weird.
I’m no expert, but the churches I find myself most drawn to are those that are passionate about these ancient, time-tested ways of loving and following Jesus together and who can articulate their significance to modern-day people in innovative yet faithful ways. I think of churches like St. Lydia’s in Brooklyn, which centers its worship around a shared meal, or The Refuge in Denver, which models its community around the Beatitudes and the 12 Steps of AA. I feature several such churches in Searching for Sunday and they give me great hope for the future.