By Eddie Pipkin
I was saddened – as were many in the ministry community – by the tragic, unexpected death of Rachel Held Evans at just 37-years-old. Evans, a leading progressive voice of her generation, had charted a well-documented path of evolving theological views. Raised in the conservative, evangelical South, she explored a way forward for young people who were serious about their discipleship but hungry for a new kind of faith community. Whatever your theological perspective, her life and approach to her faith journey contained valuable lessons for all of us.
For the strongest connection to the themes that regularly fill this space, it is well worth taking the time to revisit one of her most famous commentaries, an op-ed column that she published in The Washington Post back in 2015, entitled “Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church cool.” It epitomized her voice and as she lamented the influential megachurch focus on stadium style worship, iPad giveaways, hip coffee bars, and fog machines. Her disillusioned generation, she argued with wit and passion, was looking for depth, meaning, and purpose:
In other words, a church can have a sleek logo and web site, but if it’s judgmental and exclusive, if it fails to show the love of Jesus to all, millennials will sniff it out. Our reasons for leaving have less to do with style and image and more to do with substantive questions about life, faith and community. We’re not as shallow as you might think.
If young people are looking for congregations that authentically practice the teachings of Jesus in an open and inclusive way, then the good news is the church already knows how to do that. The trick isn’t to make church cool; it’s to keep worship weird.
You can get a cup of coffee with your friends anywhere, but church is the only place you can get ashes smudged on your forehead as a reminder of your mortality. You can be dazzled by a light show at a concert on any given weekend, but church is the only place that fills a sanctuary with candlelight and hymns on Christmas Eve. You can snag all sorts of free swag for brand loyalty online, but church is the only place where you are named a beloved child of God with a cold plunge into the water. You can share food with the hungry at any homeless shelter, but only the church teaches that a shared meal brings us into the very presence of God.
She was a prophet who spoke of the power of the “ancient-future” approach, culturally relevant celebrations that connect believers to the time-honored traditions and disciplines of the faith while challenging us to be forward-thinking in our embrace of social justice and honest relationships. (I thought about her this week as I was hanging out at Castle Church Brewing in suburban Orlando, an initiative by the Lutherans that combines a working brew-pub with a church congregation and community activism.)
She practiced what she preached. She was unafraid to do deep dives into what she believed and why, and she was both tireless and fearless as a friend and advocate. Many of her peers wrote poignant remembrances. This one, by her partners in co-founding the upcoming Evolving Faith Conference, Sarah Bessey and Jeff Chu, was also published in The Post (“How Rachel Held Evans should really be remembered”):
But we misunderstand her if we see her primarily as a renegade and an eager sparring partner. She never positioned herself simply “against” anything. To tell the truth is to recognize Rachel for who she was – someone who, inspired by Jesus’ love for her, poured out uncommon love and worked relentlessly “for” the good of all people, whether they agreed with her or not.
Rachel was “for” words, beautiful, thoughtful words. Her writing brimmed with wisdom and wit, authentic storytelling and heart-rending language. And how she loved the Bible. While her relationship with Scripture evolved, her respect for it only deepened. . . .
Her life and work offer us lessons:
- Live fearlessly. Don’t be afraid to take on tough topics honestly.
- Tell the truth. Don’t dumb down the Gospel. Don’t make it all rainbows and unicorns.
- Love the way that Jesus loved. This moves far beyond aphorisms. She was always about expanding love’s circle of inclusion – this applied equally for her to the people she felt had been abandoned by the traditional church and the people who strongly disagreed with her about her perspective.
- Practice hospitality. She preached it as a value of the church and famously practiced in her own home and community.
- Use humor. She explored challenging topics (most famously her “year of living as a biblical woman”) with self-deprecation and and a winking embrace of irony and the absurd.
- Value and respect all viewpoints. She listened to other people – carefully and sincerely. She did not talk over them or past them. She valued conversation and an exchange of ideas. And she could always make her point without degrading or insulting other people.
- Treat other people with respect and dignity. She stayed in small town Tennessee because she loved the people there, even though many disagreed with what she had to say. She sincerely believed in the value of each individual as a unique and valued creation of God.
- Be disciplined in your discipleship. She did not take her faith lightly. She studied vigorously and put her faith into practice, embracing the disciplines and participating in accountable community.
These were (and are) great values with which to live a life. They are great values to anchor any faith community. They are solid principles to guide any church that wants to thrive and grow. They are biblical, they are authentic, and they leave plenty of room to celebrate traditions and walk forward into the future. I encourage you to check out the four books she published – they are great discussion starters for small groups and leadership teams – and to read more about her work and legacy.