When popular Christian author and blogger Rachel Held Evans came to Eastern Mennonite University last week, one student cleared her schedule. First-year seminarian Lindsay Davis was at each of Evans’ appearances: morning chapel, an afternoon reading and discussion with an undergraduate Anabaptist Biblical Values class and an evening lecture.
Reprising themes she explores in her books, Evolving in Monkeytown (Zondervan, 2010) and The Year of Biblical Womanhood (Thomas Nelson, 2012), and on her popular blog, Evans repeatedly urged faith communities to nurture diversity and honor differences.
That message was one that Davis also wanted to celebrate.
“I was raised Pentecostal, attended a Brethren college, go to a Methodist church, and study at a Mennonite seminary,” Davis said. “When I found Rachel’s blog, I was struggling with faith and doubt and being a woman wanting to pursue pastoral leadership yet being told I couldn’t. What she talks about has resonated with me and inspired me.”
Similar feelings brought audience members to Harrisonburg from as far away as Pennsylvania and Indiana.
Evans’ thoughtful, often humorous explorations of her evangelical faith and the Christian tradition have earned her both controversy and acclaim. She’s appeared on The Today Show, NPR, Oprah.com and in a host of national newspapers. She was named one of Christianity Today’s “50 Women to Watch” in 2012.
Church is where we ‘tell the truth about ourselves’
During a chapel talk titled “Keep the Church Weird — Millenials and the Future of Christianity,” Evans said that she’s often asked to speak about reasons why teenagers and twenty-somethings are leaving the church. Though at 32, she barely qualifies as a millennial, Evans thinks her popular blog (in one month last year, it received more than 272,000 visits) has come to resemble what the younger generation wants in a church: a haven for fellow-seekers and fellow-questioners, where alternative viewpoints are welcomed and explored.
“That’s what we want,” Evans said, reciting from what she termed a “litany” of millennial needs. “We want the church to be a safe place to doubt, a safe place to wrestle with tough questions about everything from sexuality to science to Biblical interpretation. We want the church to be where we can tell the truth about ourselves and about the world.”
She urged a change in style – to a “truer, more authentic Christianity” – instead of the all-too-popular and much too superficial “change in substance” of updated music, cool hangouts, and hip youth pastors. Too often, she said, branding and theology, denominational differences and the culture wars “get in the way.”
One of Evans’ themes is that the story of Jesus is powerful and that God’s grace is “always enough.”
“Let’s get out of the way,” she repeated throughout the day. “We get in our own way. We get in God’s way.”
Clearing that path to God means letting in – and leading the way for – the marginalized, the poor, the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40), including the LGBT community, Evans said during an afternoon discussion with an Anabaptist Biblical Perspectives class. She is not merely stating her own beliefs, but sharing those of many millenials, according to polls by the Barna Group and Pew Forum.
“What gives you hope?” asked Bible faculty member Carmen Schrock-Hurst at the end of the Q & A session.
The empowerment of the marginalized through the online community, Evans replied. “They are still coming. They still want to be part of this family, this church story. People from the margins will have positions of leadership and start changing things and have a voice. That’s exciting. That is really good news.”
Afterward, Schrock-Hurst said it was an honor for the campus to host Evans.
“Since her visit I have had numerous students share about how much they enjoyed her chapel presentation about millenials and the church,” Schrock-Hurst said. “Rachel has a gift for sharing concerns about her doubts and the church, and yet also models an inviting spirit that doesn’t let us off the hook on faith issues.”
The Bible as a conversation starter
Evans’ evening presentation about her bestseller, The Year of Biblical Womanhood, drew a near-capacity crowd to Lehman Auditorium. The book chronicles Evans’ year-long exploration of the Bible, during which she searched, exhaustively and humorously, for a single, cohesive formula of what it means to be a Christian woman.
In the process of exploring Biblical values such as gentleness, domesticity, obedience, justice and fertility, Evans also discovers that gender roles “get in the way of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.”
“Traditions that overemphasize gender roles reduce womanhood down to a list of acceptable roles, especially being a homemaker, a wife, a mother,” she said. “It’s not about acting like a man or acting like a woman. What matters is where you find yourself as a follower of Jesus. It’s not really about roles, it’s about character.”
That discovery led to a new relationship with the Bible, Evans said. Rather than seeking a “blueprint” for behavior and tradition, she now sees “the Bible as this beautiful, ancient collection of stories, proverbs, songs, and prophecies that pulls us into communion and community, that gives us something to talk about, precisely because it’s difficult to understand, it’s complex and complicated.”
For this reason, the Bible should be a “conversation starter, not a conversation ender,” she concluded. “Of course, we’re going to disagree. But no matter that we disagree, we’re still brothers and sisters in Christ. We can still break bread, share communion, be a family.”
All of Rachel Held Evans’ talks at EMU on March 19 can be accessed online: