For a few years now, I have been puzzled by why Rachel Held Evans remains popular among many younger evangelicals and why the secular media finds her credible. I was struck by Evans’ recent CNN article “Why Millennials Are Leaving The Church.” When reading the post it becomes evident that Evans is not talking about the “holy catholic church,” but a narrow subculture of conservative American evangelicals. The post does not address why young adults in America are leaving the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, broad evangelical, nor mainline churches. Moreover, after reading this opinion piece it became clear to me that what Evans is saying Millennials want from “the church” is fully found in the United Methodist Church (UMC).
Evans rightly argues that conservative evangelical churches will not be able to bait-and-switch young adults with “cool” gimmicks in order to keep them in the doors. Historically speaking, American Christians have always panicked about teens and young adults leaving the church. For example, anxiety over fledgling youth attendances in churches served as the catalyst for the creation of the YMCA and the Boy Scouts. In the 1960s, making church cool led to the introduction of jazz into youth group culture in many Catholic and Protestant churches. After making this good point Evans claims that Millennials are leaving the (evangelical) church because Jesus cannot be “found” in it. This is the point where the post takes an odd ecclesiastical turn.
Evans says that what Millennials really want from “the church” is:
[N]ot a change in style but a change in substance. We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against. We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers. We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation. We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities. 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.
Without question, all of these things are important to consider in 2013. There was something about this list, however, that sounded vaguely familiar to me. Before joining the Presbyterian Church In America, I spent just over 21 years in the United Methodist Church. I had great years there and know the ethos very well. When I read the CNN piece it hit me: Evans is saying nothing particularly provocative nor even progressive; she simply represents a standard UMC critique of conservative evangelicalism. Given Evans’ presuppositions, I am not certain she could list a single objection to what the UMC believes and practices. For the record, I have nothing against the UMC, but I do find it odd if Millennials, who are leaving evangelicalism and passionately seeking the kind of church Evans describes, don’t join a mainline denomination like the United Methodist Church. The UMC embodies everything Evans says Millennials want.
The UMC is outside of the culture wars. It has no conflicts with science and faith and clearly teaches what they are for instead of against. The UMC is a place where LGBT friends are welcomed. Moreover, if anyone knows anything about Wesleyanism, you know that Methodists have a deep emphasis on personal holiness and social action. Again, the Jesus that Evans wants to find is waiting for her and her followers in the UMC.
Again, herein lies the core question: Why doesn’t Evans, and others who embrace her critique of “the church,” simply encourage Millennials, who do not believe Jesus “is found” in their churches, to join churches like the UMC? If someone is passionate about Jesus and is truly looking for him, but doesn’t find him in one church, wouldn’t it stand to reason that a genuine search would lead that person to another church where it is believed Jesus actually is? It makes me wonder if the Evans critique is not about something else.
One of the many blind spots in Evans’ entire project is that young evangelicals are not leaving evangelical churches to join mainline churches like the UMC, they are leaving the church altogether in many cases. Evans’ list does not help us understand that phenomena much at all. In fact, even the UMC, with all Evans’ lauded attributes, is hemorrhaging. The bottom line is that most American Christian denominations are declining across the board, especially among their millennial attendees, and it would require a fair amount of hubris to attempt to explain the decline across America’s 350,000 congregations.
I do not have the answer to my original question but I do know that Evans and her fans seem to long for United Methodism and should be encouraged to join the denomination, and other mainline churches like it, since they do not believe the churches they criticize have Jesus. Criticizing evangelical churches on CNN for not being essentially United Methodist seems bizarre and, perhaps, reveals that what Evans actually represents is nothing but American United Methodism in evangelical whiteface.