Editor’s note: This article first appeared on August 2, 2013. At the time of publication, McMichael was assistant professor of religion at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama. It is re-published today, with the one-year anniversary of Rachel Held Evans’ death happening on Monday, May 4.
Rachel Held Evans recently posted a brief piece on CNN’s belief blog about why millennials are leaving the church. If you haven’t taken time to read her insights, I commend them to you.
Essentially, she argues that millennials are not leaving evangelical churches because they aren’t “hip” enough, but “because we don’t find Jesus there.” “What millennials really want from the church,” she writes, “is not a change in style but a change in substance.”
While reading the article, I found myself nodding in agreement and internally saying “amen.” In fact, shortly after finishing it, I posted it on my husband’s Facebook page with a simple, “Yes, this!”
For me, this was not an unusual response to reading Evans’ work. She has an ability to capture in her prose what simply gets all jumbled up in my head and never makes it out – except more and more frequently in unexplained bursts of anger or frustration about church.
It’s always refreshing to read her thoughts – my thoughts – so nicely pieced together in coherent sentences that might actually effect change and not just cause heartburn. At the very least, her work sparks reactions.
Mere hours after her post on CNN’s belief blog, bloggers began responding with praise, critique, corrections and clarifications. She struck a nerve.
Like Evans, “I barely qualify as a millennial.” As a college professor, however, I spend my days surrounded by millennials. And, as a religion professor, I’ve encountered my fair share of individuals seeking to reconcile their faith and their questions about God.
Most of my students with questions don’t want to let go of their faith; they want to figure out a way to keep it. They want someone to tell them that being a Christian matters and that it’s possible not to check their brains at the door on Sunday.
Evans’ work has convinced many of them to stay or, at the least, not to give up on the church completely. But Evans’ insights in this short piece could be used as fuel for leaving the church.
I didn’t read her piece as an excuse for escaping church, but as an explanation for why so many people have left. However, even I have been tempted to use the real problems Evans listed as an out.
“Well, the church doesn’t have a place for me, listen to me, speak to me, so…” My students try these on me too, and I tell them to keep going to church.
I encourage them to keep reading, thinking, serving and caring. I urge them not to lose their passion, idealism and genuine desire to live out the commands of Jesus (even those who take a break from the church). And then I remind them to plug into a church.
Why? Because once upon a time, someone said the same things to me.
And, more important, because the church is the community of believers with which we live out Christ’s calling here on earth. Christianity is not an individualistic religion, but one of community.
I’m not suggesting that this is easy work, but we are part of this broken body and we must work within it. It’s easier, as others have already noted, to leave the church and critique it than it is to call it back to faithfulness.
I’m grateful for Evans’ prophetic voice. We need to acknowledge that sometimes the church gets away from what the church has been called to be. But we also need the reminder my pastor delivered Sunday morning that the church isn’t really about us.
So, we must ask not just, “What do I want church to be?” but “What did God say the church was?” Perhaps there are as many opinions on that question as there are people but beginning at the local church gives us a place to pursue answers.
I don’t hear Evans telling millennials that the local church is not important. I hear her challenging churches in our current culture to engage the world as Jesus did and love the world as Jesus loved.
Baptists are uniquely positioned for this task. Our life’s blood is the local church. We believe that every Christian voice matters and that every church is an expression of God’s love in the world.
And while my local church is not perfect, it’s full of God’s people and those people are full of God’s love. I’m trying to remember that as I read, attend and serve.
I’m called to act accordingly when I disagree. And I’m trying to model that love for my students so they too will choose to stay.
Mandy McMichael is Assistant Director and J. David Slover Assistant Professor of Ministry Guidance in the Department of Religion at Baylor University. She is the author of “Miss America’s God” (Baylor University Press, 2019). McMichael and her husband, Chad Eggleston, have two children.