Rachel Held Evans: You don’t have to give away iPads at church to reach millennials

Christian author-blogger Rachel Held Evans.
Christian author-blogger Rachel Held Evans.

Christian author-blogger Rachel Held Evans has what most churches long for these days: A big following among millennials.

At last count, Evans, 34 and due to become a mom in February, has about 82,000 Twitter followers and about 64,000 fans on Facebook. And her books are popular. Her latest is “Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church.”

On Sunday (Nov. 22), Evans will be at Charlotte’s Christ Episcopal Church for a public conversation with the Rev. Chip Edens, the church’s rector. Evans grew up evangelical in Tennessee, but now attends an Episcopal church in Cleveland, Tenn.

The Observer spoke with her recently about why she left evangelicalism, what she likes about being Episcopalian, how churches can attract more young people and how her soon-to-arrive son is coloring her faith. Here’s the edited interview.

Q. Most of the young people I see on Sundays have gone from mainline church to mega-church, which tend to be evangelical. You went the other way – from evangelical to Episcopalian. Why?

A. It was a combination of frustrations with evangelicalism. Its persistent opposition to LGBT inclusion. And its opposition to women in leadership. That got to be a little tiresome. And there was also the draw of the Episcopal Church. I think for a lot of people, when you grow up in one tradition you seek out the gifts of another tradition. I really appreciated the liturgy and the sacraments of the Episcopal Church. It gave me new insight into my faith when I was feeling really burned out and pretty cynical about it.

Q. What about the Episcopal rituals – the smells and bells?

A. It’s all that. Also, having come from an (evangelical) tradition where I had to fight to have any kind of voice because of my gender, it’s nice to be part of a tradition ... that affirms women in ministry and celebrates women. So I immediately felt like I was able to use my gifts and my calling in that environment. And I could very safely invite my gay and lesbian friends with me to church without fearing that something really offensive would be said from the pulpit. And that they wouldn’t be condemned or left out or treated as second-class citizens.

So I liked the smells and the bells and the liturgy. As a writer, I just love The Book of Common Prayer. And taking Communion every Sunday is a really powerful experience for me.... The sacraments most of all.

I really appreciate, too, that every Sunday we say the Nicene Creed together, which to me is the essence of Christianity. I like that the focus is on those basics. You don’t get caught up in these never-ending battles over interpreting the Bible, obscure passages of Scripture, politics, gender stuff. Reciting that Creed every Sunday reminds me that it’s about what I believe about Jesus Christ.

Q. Bishop Michael Curry, the new presiding bishop for the Episcopal Church, is from North Carolina. He also stresses Jesus and is much more outgoing, stylistically, than the Episcopal Church is maybe used to. Do you like that?

A. I do. I feel like he’s going to bring a little bit of the evangelical fervor to the Episcopal Church. I am always sad that there is not more conversation between those two groups because, as much as I love the Episcopal Church, there are things about that evangelical fervor that I really miss. I heard (Curry) give a sermon and just the way he was talking about Jesus, it sounded really kind of evangelical. And I was into it, man. I was, like, “Amen!” I was ready to jump up. His teachings about Communion and Eucharist have been really influential to me. I look forward to what happens next.

Q. A lot of churches are dying to get more young people into their sanctuaries. What’s your advice about attracting them?

A. One thing I tell them to avoid is trying to do the whole “let’s make Christianity cool” thing, where they try to make everything more hip. Like “let’s bring in fog machines and have a cool band and a youth pastor with skinny jeans.” Young people have pretty finely tuned B.S. (detectors). We know when somebody is trying to sell us a product. I think we’re growing disenchanted with those forms of Christianity.

A more long-term, a more appealing way to go is simply articulate and get back to the things that have always made Christianity relevant: baptism, Communion, confession – the sacraments that have been around for thousands of years. I think they are enough on their own. What I see that is actually working is in churches that are willing to go back to the sacraments but re-imagine them in a new context and in a different way. So a lot of the mainline churches that I see thriving are small church plants, where they are doing these sacraments and using this liturgy but kind of in a new way.

St. Lydia’s is a Lutheran church in Brooklyn, N.Y., that does a whole service around an actual shared meal; it’s called a dinner church. Going back to the very ancient practice of Communion, but in a way that kind of hasn’t been done in a long time. You don’t have to put on a show, you don’t have to give away iPads. That stuff rings kind of hollow. It’s more about recovering these ancient practices, but expressing them to a new generation in a new way.

Q. Polls tell us that America is becoming less religious overall and that a large percentage of the “Nones” – people with no religious affiliation – are millennials. Are these young people ever going to find their way back to church?

A. Some people have had bad experiences with church, have been hurt deeply by church and want nothing to do with it. I understand that. (Others) might just feel like church is irrelevant. There’s a lot of other things going on in their lives.

But I think one of the main reasons is that a lot of young people feel like church is not a safe place to ask big questions and really wrestle with their faith. So, when they encounter, say, a conflict between faith and science, they feel like that’s an issue they need to struggle with outside of the church doors because those sort of questions are frowned upon or not allowed or simply not discussed at all. So I think if we created spaces in our churches where young people had the opportunity to really work through their faith, maybe we would retain a bit more. I think a lot of people are just leaving because one question throws everything into doubt and they just feel like they’re done.

Q. The latest Pew poll, out just this month, found that acceptance of gays and lesbians is up in every denomination and every religious group. Even among young evangelicals ...

A. 51 percent! I think it’s because people are just coming out sooner. So we have found that, oh! there are evangelical Christians who are gay. People like (author) Matthew Vines and others, who are telling their story about being raised solidly evangelical and loving that tradition and loving Jesus and also being gay. And the more of those stories that come out, the harder and harder it is to rely on stereotypes about what it means to be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. What changed is that this generation is more open about sexuality. And we owe quite a bit to people like Matthew, who have been honest about their experience. We’re just seeing that one’s sexual orientation is not something one chooses as one chooses what socks to wear in the morning.

Q. How do you respond to people who say you’re just trying to change what’s in the Bible to fit what you believe?

A. The Bible also says for slaves to obey their masters, and we seem to have changed our minds about that. Our understanding of Scripture is always evolving. From the beginning, Scripture has invited us to wrestle and to question and to challenge and to interpret in so many different ways. So, the notion that a few relatively obscure verses in Scripture describing same-sex behavior prohibits for all time same-sex relationships is quite a stretch.

Q. How is your impending motherhood coloring your view of religion and the future?

A. My husband and I basically had an existential crisis upon learning we were having a kid. A big part of it was, “What are we going to teach him about faith?” We’ve had lots of conversations about how scary it is to raise our little guy to be a person of faith when his own parents don’t have it all figured out.

We’ll probably baptize him in the Episcopal Church. And when I’m reading through that liturgy, (it says that) his most important identity – more than any other identity the world will try to give him – is that he’s a beloved child of God. And I think to myself, “That’s not a bad way to raise a kid: Telling him from the get-go that he’s a beloved child of God, that he’s loved and belongs in this family of God.”

Want to go?

Rachel Held Evans will speak at 10 a.m. Sunday (Nov. 22) at Christ Episcopal Church, 1412 Providence Road.

Her public conversation with the Rev. Chip Edens, the church’s rector, will be held in All Saints Hall.

There is no charge. And Christ Episcopal will live-stream her remarks. Details: