SEARCHING FOR SUNDAY: LOVING, LEAVING AND FINDING THE CHURCH
BY: RACHEL HELD EVANS
I met Jesus when I was 7 years old. I began serving in the church at 9. I was baptized at 13 and married at 24. I was first on church staff at 27, then again at 35 and became disillusioned, broken and disengaged at 44. Searching for Sunday is Rachel Held Evans story but for all intents and purposes, this is my story. Growing up in a middle class, Baptist church in the lower mainland of British Columbia, with three sisters, imperfect parents and attending church services, events and outreaches three times a week, I had planted myself firmly in my faith, grew deep roots in my church community and crafted a spirituality that would have made any conservative Christian proud. Bible College and University fuelled my hunger for studying scripture and integrating my widening circle of experiences with my theological foundations.
As I stepped into deeper places of ministry, however, this hunger became more urgent but the food I was being served was tasting lukewarm and unsatisfying. Do this bible study. Ask fewer questions. Attend more conferences. Pray more. Listen to more anecdotal sermons. Submit more. My mind and soul were longing for a place to wrestle through what I was taught as a young Christian and what I was learning from own study of scriptures and exposure to other theological traditions and perspectives. And the church culture that once brought me comfort and security now felt unnatural and superficial.
I told them we’re tired of culture wars, tired of Christianity getting entangled with party politics and power. Millennials want to be known by what we’re for, I said, not just what we’re against. We don’t want to choose between science and religion or between intellectual integrity and our faith. Instead we long for our churches to be safe places to doubt, to ask question, and to tell the truth, even when its uncomfortable. We want to talk about the tough stuff-biblical interpretation, religious pluralism, sexuality, racial reconciliation and social justice – but without predetermined conclusions or simplistic answers. We want to bring our whole selves through the church doors, without leaving our hearts and minds behind, without wearing a mask.
Evans’ journey is chronicled through seven sections of imagery that include the following sacraments: baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, anointing the sick and marriage. Each of these sections contains theological underpinnings that are intertwined with her own fraught filled faith journey along with reflections and stories shared by her readers, friends, her contemporaries and critics. This framework serves her narrative well, particular since anyone who has grown up in an evangelical context would be intimately familiar with each of these. How she then fleshes out her own interaction with these sacraments, for example her own baptism, and subsequently the imagery and examples of water in the Old Testament alongside other stories in relation to baptism, for example Philip baptizing the eunuch in Acts 8 and a young, gay friend inviting her to his baptism because his Christian parents had disowned him, creates a rich layer of understanding, of nuances that perhaps the reader had considered before. These nuances in turn create space for the reader to frame not only their own particular experiences but also widen the frame to see how scripture, theology and others’ perspectives can be understood.
Whether you meet the water as a baby squirming in the arms of a nervous priest, or as an adult plunged into a river by a revivalist preacher, you do it at the hands of those who first welcome you to the faith, the people who have – or will – introduce you to Jesus. “In baptism”, writes Will Willimon, “the recipient of baptism is just that – recipient. You cannot very well do you own baptism. It is done for you.” It is an adoption, not an interview.
As a writer and blogger for the past six plus years, Evans has risen in the social media spotlight as a relevant, refreshing and contemporary voice in the evangelical world. Her public engagement of difficult and polarizing issues in the western church today has also created difficulty for her, as she has chosen to chronicle her wrestling with the evangelical world through her books, speaking and on her blog. This has led to some very public stand-offs between herself and opposing voices being played out in real time for all of us to have front row seats. Evans talks about this in her book, including her then and now reflections in regards to how and why some of these events unfolded as well as the toll it took on her and her husband.
In the center of Searching for Sunday, Evans chronicles her experience being part of a church plant that ultimately opened and closed its doors within a two-year period. And it is in these chapters that the true narrative in the larger narrative emerges. This is her search for Sunday. For it was such an intimate and deeply personal part of her life for such an intense period of time. It was a culmination of her inherited and young adult formed faith thus far being pressed and squeezed through a wringer, tearing at the edges while being held together by strong, sturdy and at times, fragile threads. Her inclusion of this birth and death experience demonstrates a beautiful vulnerability whereby the reader can more fully understand how Evans search for Sunday, her perspective and her longings are both urgent and legitimate. I also think it lends profound credibility to Evans’ premises and assertions as she confronts mainstream evangelical practices, theology and ideas since she has not been a pundit from the sidelines but a warrior in the trenches who has wounds and scars from the battles she has waged.
Church is a moment in time when the kingdom of God draws near, when a meal, a story, a song, an apology, and even a failure is made holy by the presence of Jesus among us and within us.
The theme of commitment to one another in this imperfect thing called community is ever present throughout the book. Even as the title suggests a “search” and a “leaving” Evans never minimizes nor abandons the God-planted desire for relationship with one another and with our Creator. This innate, persistent, mysterious longing for authentic community, she acknowledges, is what drove her to not give up looking to discover, create and participate in deep, faith-rooted, local community.
We all long for someone to tell us who we are. The great struggle of the Christian life is to take God’s name for us, to believe we are beloved and to believe that is enough.
The reasons for staying, leaving and returning to church are as complex and layered as we are. They don’t fit the boxes we check in the surveys or the hurried responses we deliver at dinner parties.
Our differences matter, but ultimately, the boundaries we build between one another are but accidental fences in the endless continuum of God’s grace. We are both a forest and single tree – one big Trembling Giant, stirred by an invisible breeze.
Evans does not resolve the tensions she encountered along her journey for the reader in a neat or convenient way. Nor does she necessarily suggest that they are in fact, resolvable. What she does do in Searching for Sunday is confronts the questions and struggles many women and men in the church today are already asking and walks the reader through a messy, life-time process of reconciling theology, scripture, experiences and culture in order to make a way forward to re-engage the hope of the world, the local church.
In my own journey back to church these past five years, I closely identify with much of Evans’ experiences and her process of reconciliation. From moments of panic to triggers of stress and cynicism at the thought of being part of a movement that in many ways expresses itself in practices that do not line up with my own values and theological beliefs which in turn informs how I live out and practice my faith daily. However, I too, could not escape the persistent call to be in meaningful relationship with one another in the context of a gathered, local church community. To engage in the sacraments of communion, baptism, healing, taking care of the vulnerable and under resourced and celebrating marriage and singleness are far too life-shaping for me to deprive my own children of these rich, deep, faith building experiences as well.
My inner vow to never work in a church again was also softened and redeemed through my own searching for Sunday journey. As I took steps to work through my betrayal and trust issues related to pastoral leadership and spiritual abuse, I was able to reaffirm God’s gracious pursuit of me to stand back up, dust myself off and step into my calling as an agent of change within the church, albeit in a new, healthier church community, with new responsibilities and a re-ignited sense of hope and anticipation. It is an imperfect church. But I am an imperfect human as well. “The church offers death and resurrection. The church offers messy, inconvenient, gut-wrenching, never-ending work of healing and reconciliation. The church offers grace.”
 Rachel Held Evans, Searching For Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015), Kindle edition, 13-14.
 Evans, chapter 5.
 Ibid, 26.
 Ibid, 27.
 Ibid, 102.
 Ibid, 203.
 Ibid, 227.