Rearranging the Chairs…a response to Rachel Held Evans

Rachel Held Evans has written a thought provoking piece about why Millenials are leaving the church.  She writes about how frustrating it is for her to give talks on this subject.  She “points to research that shows young evangelicals often feel they have to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity, between compassion and holiness” and then she “talks about how the evangelical obsession with sex can make Christian living seem like little more than sticking to a list of rules, and how millennials long for faith communities in which they are safe asking tough questions and wrestling with doubt”

Then she says this:  “Invariably, after I’ve finished my presentation and opened the floor to questions, a pastor raises his hand and says, “So what you’re saying is we need hipper worship bands. …And I proceed to bang my head against the podium.”

So far so good.  Rachel, I think, wants pastors to see that it’s substance, not style, that matters.  But then she says:

“Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions – Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. – precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic.”

BANG. BANG. BANG.   That’s me, banging my head against her podium.

Why, after telling us that the issue is substance, not style, does she immediately lead us into a discussion of style: about how high church and ancient forms of liturgy are better than low church, implying that chant is better than Hillsong, or that wine is better than grape juice, or that pews are better than chairs?

She seems to be doing the very thing she’s railing against: pointing to a certain style as ‘refreshingly authentic’ and in the process implying that churches where Sufjan Stevens’ arrangements of hymns, sung in candlelight, with good coffee afterwards, and a group of people heading off to the pub, is somehow less than going to Catholic mass.

Nope – wine, or Eastern Orthodox, or ancient hymns, or small, aren’t better.  They’re not worse.  They’re not the point.  So please don’t tell us they are.

She writes:  We want an end to the culture wars. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.  I know a church filled with millenials, built on the notion that our calling is simple:  Pursue justice and mercy in our world, and love too, along the lines of Micah 6:8 – provide shelter for people who don’t have a bed; provide fundamental medical care through a mobile clinic; provide food for those who are hungry, and a conversation too, at a community meal.

She writes:  We want a truce between science and faith.  I know a church that did a series on Science and Faith so that young people would no longer be forced to make a false choice between the two, completing the series with a Q and A panel discussion that included scientists, mostly advocates of theistic evolution, but who could also speak about intelligent design, earth age issues, and textual considerations along the lines of John Walton’s book.

She writes:  We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.  I know a church where hundreds gather each week in Bible studies, and their theological tent is big enough to include the likes of Beth Moore AND NT Wright.  They study, and seek to put it into practice, and do so, caring for people on the margins, including the elderly and disabled, sometimes at great cost to themselves.

I know church like that, because I serve a church like that, and for over a decade it’s fastest growing demographic has been the 18-35 category.  We’re large.  Our building is nice.  We play Hillsong stuff.  We have a good sound system.   We serve grape juice, not wine.  On the other hand, we’re not cool or hip.  We don’t market aggressively.  I’m the senior pastor, and I’m 57, and I preach in sweaters purchased at Goodwill.  And young people attend – lots of young people.

If you asked me why they attend and get involved, I’d say Rachel’s right:  Young people want a faith that calls them to justice, to comfort with ambiguity, to involvement, to compassion, to integration of intellect and spirit.  I’d add that young people also want to meet older Christians who have enough humility and love to mentor millenials, learn from them, and truly enjoy them.  They want Bible teaching that doesn’t move to the answers too quickly on important issues, but is willing to look at all sides, including the important issues of sexuality.  They want a vision that encourages them to move beyond spiritual consumerism into actual service.

But can we please, please, stop arguing about big church over small, traditional over contemporary, pews over chairs,  Eastern Orthodox or Evangelical Free or whatever is the conflict de jour?  The substance that’s needed has never changed:  A world thirsting for Jesus is thirsting for hope, community, justice, peace, contentment, meaning, reconciliation.  That substance can be found, or missing, no matter what it looks like on the outside.  Let’s get on with being about that, in whatever church we find ourselves and then maybe, just maybe, we’ll stop talking about rearranging the chairs – again.

About raincitypastor

pastor, Bible teacher, climber, lover of: God, mountains, coffee, the church, good food, good conversation, lingering outside as the sun goes down, sport, words, music, ideas, creating...and much much more.
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24 Responses to Rearranging the Chairs…a response to Rachel Held Evans

  1. Jim Wellman says:

    Touche, Richard. What you’re are pulling off is remarkable… and it does get done in a lot of places, so there is a little bit of whining going on here… and its more than cool now to go all high church, but you’re point is well taken, why is that more authentic?! And its a very different theology from even the arminian evangelicalism which I believe you support. I know some slightly more liberal folks who are doing the same that you are doing, because its real, its biblical, its justice oriented, and there is some high church thrown in… a mature (57 year old) leader with wisdom and enough history to know that tricks really don’t do it in the end (even high church tricks, ha ha). Peace, my friend.

  2. timthurman says:

    Your church is doing it right… providing real substance, living the gospel, and being the hands and feet of Christ to a hurting world. I doubt Rachel Evans would have a problem with your church. That being said, most churches are not like Bethany. Most churches are unwilling to look beyond their pews and are even unauthentic within their walls. Most church parishioners refuse to admit their own brokenness, let alone reach out to broken people. Thankful though for churches like yours that get it!

  3. Stacy Corn says:

    Thx for the call to stop drawing attention to differences.. Twitter is so disheartening sometimes.. I’d always thought that the word ‘Christian’ meant originally, ‘one in Christ’.. I mostly follow ‘pop’ Christian pastors and bloggers — I can hardly say I detect anything resembling one-ness :-(

  4. Well said, Richard. I mean, I had other problems with what Evans wrote, but you touched on a couple of important ones here.

  5. Jim Underhill says:

    Though a young 61 years of age, I too was a ‘millennial’ in another time and century. So what did we want then – authenticity/truth/true worship/community engagement/service/and more…. It was sought wherever someone said it was happening. We joined charismatics, left for high church liturgical, moved on to community groups, left it all for a time, landed at our current residence that mixes a lot together, yet is not perfect. Yes, today’s millennials can do the ‘church hop’ as others have, but it won’t be the answer necessarily. There will be disappointment, lies, boredom and all that has been experienced before. Best advice, as we received it, is to pray like crazy for direction, seek confirmation, and lower the anchor to lock-in and live. LIke any meaningful relation (with Jesus and others), we have to settle down and grow up to gain any meaning from our relations and time.

  6. Tori says:

    Well said Richard, Almost makes me want to move back to Seattle so we could attend Bethany.

  7. Rich Thomas says:

    “Father, I pray…in a day when there seems to be more gadgets and gimmicks needed to create “worship experiences,” free us needing anything more than the gospel to worship you the way you deserve to be worshipped, and delight to be worshipped…And let us never forget that you are not seeking “great worship,” but true worshippers—those who worship you in spirit and truth.” —Scotty Smith

  8. John says:

    I think you miss the point about high church. It seems authentic because its what they’ve always done, not something they’ve put on to appeal to some crowd or another. Rachel and others simply know they aren’t being pandered to, and they read that as authenticity.

  9. Bob Wilson says:

    Or perhaps those that are searching could come back to the One, True, Faith that gave us the Bible. The Church that was founded by Christ. The Church that teaches, preaches, believes and practices the basic truths that Jesus taught – all people are created in the image of God, each person has dignity, we are His hands and feet here on earth put here to Love God and to love our neighbor. I’m speaking of the Catholic church. What most of us know about it is incorrect. Once you find the truth and the beauty in Catholicism, you will feel at home, you will be at home.

    • Keith says:

      Bob, our Eastern Orthodox believers make the same claim as you…that they are the One, True Faith that is founded by Christ…

  10. The church I serve looks probably a lot more like your church than the “high-church” expressions Rachel mentions (I’m an electric-guitar-playing worship dude; we have the nice AV equipment; and so on). However, the mistake here is to reduce liturgical worship to a “style” alongside any number of other styles (e.g. cowboy churches, hipster churches, piano-and-organ traditional churches). Worship formed by the historic patterns of liturgy can incorporate virtually any “style” you want to put to it. There’s no contradiction in what Rachel wrote because liturgy is not a style. Liturgy is a shape, a form, a story. Liturgy gives substance to style.

    • jeana says:

      Brannon pretty much wrote what I came here to say…

      The expressions Rachel mentions are rooted in years of history and are filled with a deep well of content/substance. Millennial’s often find the modern-day forms lacking in sustainable content that isn’t fleeting or meant to tickle emotions. We can wrap liturgy in modern-day forms, and I know many who have… so I see no contradiction either. And I know there is danger too in being ‘attracted’ to the high-church forms and completely missing the content. But I’d rather be shaped by content than form any day.

      • Yes – what you said, Jeana! :-) You may be using “form” as a synonym for “style” (because you make the “form vs. content” distinction), although I’m unconvinced form and content can be quite so easily distinguished. In my comment, I’m using “form” in the sense of shape, mold, pattern, template (rubric, even). If I’m making a dress, I have to follow some type of pattern for it to come out anything looking like a dress; but I can use any color or style of fabric I want, and I can accessorize (show my style) in virtually unlimited ways. If I’m baking a cake, I need a cake pan to pour my batter into, or it’s just going to come out looking like a big blob of nothing instead of a cake; but I can decorate it any way that is appropriate to the occasion. To my mind, that’s kind of what liturgy does: it’s the dress pattern or the cake pan. It’s what forms the elements of our worship into something that is distinctly *Christian.* It moves us past “style” toward substance and our common story.

      • Or, more concisely, rather than “wrap liturgy in our modern-day forms,” I’d suggest we wrap our modern-day forms in liturgy. :-)

  11. Pingback: Re-rearranging the chairs: a response to Richard Dahlstrom responding to Rachel Held Evans « Ben Irwin

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  13. Hannah N says:

    I think style and substance (or form and content) are deeply connected, though teasing out exactly how is difficult. I think that’s part of what complicates these conversations. I love liturgy and often see more God in it than a sermon, because I am not a good sermon listener. But I don’t attend a very liturgical church, because we just happened to find meaningful community with Mennonites (where most of the hymns are lovely but some are real clunkers). I go to Compline at St. Mark’s when I am really needing a high-church liturgy fix. Instead of getting defensive about Hillsong (of which some of the songs are lovely but some are real clunkers), evangelicals could ask “How do people find God in liturgy and how can we bring that into our worship?” I think that’s part of what’s powerful about liturgy – that it allows Christians to find content (substance) in the form (style). There is no perfect form of worship, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about those forms as a meaningful part of worship.

    • I do think style and substance are deeply connected Hannah, and I didn’t want to come across as getting defensive about Hillsong. My intent was to point out that God’s glory can inhabit ANY form – so in a conversation about calling the church (appropriately) back to intellectual honesty, service, and justice, it seemed out of place to imply, in my opinion, that those things are in high church settings more than low. High/Low churches do and don’t miss the point, from place to place, setting to setting. So maybe we need to just acknowledge that, rather than imply that higher church is somehow richer. It surely can be – and I attend high church when not preaching at my own church. But high church can be just as consumerist, shallow, and narrow minded as any place else – so that I come to the conclusion that the form misses the point. Thanks for you comment and contributing to a rich discussion.

      • This is good, Pastor Richard, and a helpful clarification – thanks. I bet we’d jive pretty well. You’re right, in my opinion (based on my experience and what I’ve observed), that high churches “can be just as consumerist, shallow and narrow minded”… have you heard the one about the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist? (A: you can negotiate with a terrorist.) But in those instances, I don’t think the liturgy is to blame.

        I have concerns about many of my friends that I’ve seen migrating away from various expressions of American evangelical churches to “high-church” traditions (Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox) that this is simply another consequence of consumerism. It’s one of several reasons that I’ve remained in the tradition that brought me to faith (the Church of the Nazarene) and why I am now an ordained minister serving the church that claimed me before I had any ability to claim it: because it’s one of a very few ways I am able to resist the temptation of consumerism when it comes to virtually every aspect of contemporary Western life, including spirituality, religious practice, faith identity, etc.

        Still, I would push back a bit against the unqualified association of “high-church” and “liturgy,” and continue to press that liturgy is not simply one style amongst many that we can choose from. Maybe “high church” *is* a style (I’ll have to consider that one a bit more), and just so happens to be a style that worships according to the historic patterns of Christian liturgy. But I don’t believe liturgy is equivalent to or unique to high church expressions. Liturgy can and should form whatever style or expression our worship takes.

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  15. NR says:

    I’m curious to know if your church is “seeker sensitive?” The church I go to has gotten so “seeker sensitive” I’m not sure that God is comfortable. It’s all about the latest gimmick to get the people in, whether that be horses, motorcycles, themes etc. I have been tempted to go to a “highly liturgical” church now and again to know I’ve been to church and not to a theater. By now I’m sure you are wondering why I still go there. Well, it’s where I believe I should be. It is rather hard at times. I’m not against Hillsong or any other musical style. Anyhow, just wondering…..

    • we’re not, to use your words, trying to “get people in” at all. Our concern is this. When people come in, is what they’re hearing accessible? Is it authentically the scent of Christ, or is it just a show? I like paul’s observation that he considers himself the aroma of Christ TO God, AMONG people. The prepositions are important, in that they point to the reality that our only real ‘audience’ in worship is God – but that we should be mindful that what we’re doing is being watched, and thus we should pay attention to whether the language we use can be understand by normal people, or only theologians, or those who speak Latin.

      Hope this helps. Thanks for your comment.

      • NR says:

        It does help. I love the what you said. I love Paul’s observation that he considers himself the aroma of Christ to God, among people. I think this is a goal that I want to embrace.

  16. I appreciate your point here, and agree with much. However, I don’t think Evans’ high church v. low church comment was the main thrust of her article…it was more of an aside. That’s kind of a straw man argument, in my opinion. The real point is what you address when you talk of your own church and the activities that go on – acknowledging the struggles and embracing the doubts. I applaud you for that! However, having been in countless Evangelical churches over my life (raised in it, and still attend!), yours is most definitely the exception rather than the rule. That’s the point of what Evans had to say.

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