Thursday, April 16

Book Review: Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans

Rachel Held Evans became my favorite Christian author when I read her second book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, after several months of reading and loving her blog. As part of the launch team for her new book, Searching for Sunday, I had the opportunity to read an advanced copy and share the experience with a community of like-minded readers (and Rachel herself!). As I share my review today, you'll notice that it's mostly quotes - that's because Rachel writes about her faith journey so powerfully and succinctly that I don't think my own words can really do this book justice.

Searching for Sunday is a much deeper, more reflective book than A Year of Biblical Womanhood.  It addresses the fact that America's religious life is at a turning point: Rachel states in the book's prologue that more than half of young people ages eighteen to twenty-nine who grew up Christian no longer attend church. As a well-known young Christian blogger, church leaders often ask her to speak about why millennials are leaving the evangelical church. Her answer really resonated with me:
"we're tired of the culture wars, tired of Christianity getting entangled with party politics and power. Millennials want to be known for what we're for, I said, not just what we're against. We don't want to choose between science and religion or between our intellectual integrity and our faith. Instead, we long for our churches to be safe places to doubt, to ask questions, and to tell the truth, even when it's uncomfortable."
Rachel structures Searching for Sunday around seven sacraments: baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, the anointing of the sick, and marriage - the practices by which God reveals himself to us. Each section begins with a meditation on the elements used in the sacraments, followed by interwoven personal memories and theological reflections. Rachel writes about how she, like many young people, longed to be welcomed, known, loved, comforted,  anointed in the church, but became overwhelmingly frustrated with the lies, abuse, and exclusion that is also found in the pulpit and between the pews, and how the longing eventually won out.

In "Vote Yes on One," one of the strongest essays in the book, Rachel writes that for her, "the trouble started" when she enrolled in a nondenominational Christian liberal arts university, and her questions were no longer met with the satisfying answers she'd found in high school youth group.

"That recurring choice--between faith and science, Christianity and feminism, the Bible and historical criticism, doctrine and compassion--kept tripping me up like roots on a forest trail. I wanted to believe, of course, but I wanted to believe with my intellectual integrity and intuition intact, with both my head and heart fully engaged."
I was raised Christian, but not raised in the church; I was probably running around the woods barefoot while Rachel was memorizing Bible verses in Awana and playing Chubby Bunny with her youth group. I was the weird kid who always wanted to have dinner at friends' houses on Wednesday nights and sleep over on Saturdays so I could catch a glimpse of this church world and learn about Jesus instead of just being reassured that he loved me - and because it was Southwest Virginia, that church world was evangelical bordering on fire-and-brimstone fundamentalism. In college, I joined InterVarsity Christian Fellowship after a high school friend invited me to their large group meeting and started attending a big, shiny Baptist church where the pastor probably never knew my name. After falling asleep in one too many sermons, I Google searched "Charlottesville Baptist Church" with my friend Amanda, we visited the first one on the list, and I suspected I may have found my church family the next Sunday when Pastor Jeff remembered who Heather and Amanda were. Soon I was "plugged in," as Rachel puts it in the book - attending Sunday school, volunteering in the nursery, leading a small group Bible study, and eventually getting Baptized and joining the church. I loved my church and my fellowship, and have many fond memories of my college years falling in love with Jesus, but I also have some less-than-fond memories, like a church friend recommending a "good conservative church" to Amanda when she moved to South Carolina, or my friend being told to step down from a leadership position after he came out.

These are the same kinds of experiences Rachel has had herself and has heard about from her blog readers, the experiences that drove her to write Searching for Sunday. When signs popped up at her church urging Tennesseans to vote for a "Marriage Protection Amendment," she realized something: 

"just as I sat in church with my doubt, there were those sitting in church with their sexuality, their race, their gender, their depression, their addiction, their questions, their fears, their past, their infertility, their eating disorder, their diagnosis, their missed rent, their mess of a marriage, their sins, their shame--all the things that follow us to church on Sunday morning but we dare not name."
One of the strongest arguments Rachel makes in the book is that young people aren't actually looking for a "hipper" church - it's not a lack of fog machines and drum kits that's turning anyone away. 
"Christians may need to get used to the idea of measuring significance by something other than money, fame, and power. No one ever said the fruit of the Spirit is relevance or impact or even revival. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control--the sort of stuff that, let's face it, doesn't always sell." 
Since leaving Charlottesville, I've been a skeptical "church hopper," more inclined to see reasons why a new church isn't for me than reasons why it could be. This book has been very appropriate for this season in my life and gave me the motivation to turn my hopping into a true pursuit. Searching for Sunday gives me hope that somewhere out there is a church family that is welcoming, inclusive, understanding, and committed to praising Jesus together in the midst of messy real life - or one that could be, with me on board. I'm ready to share my bread.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a .pdf of this book free from the publisher, Nelson Books, Inc., an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, as a member of the Searching for Sunday Launch Team. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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