This Sunday, the family and I went to watch Rachel Held Evans speak at Canterbury United Methodist Church in Mountain Brook. She first caught my attention with a blog on Proverbs 31. (It’s a good one, you should read it!) I was not in church at the time, and as a woman who has long struggled with reconciling not only my feminism, but many of my other “unorthodox” ideas about the Bible with my desire to follow Christ, I was overjoyed to find a kindred spirit. Reading her blog helped me to heal and make peace with the struggles I was having. I realized that I wasn’t alone in my approach to many Biblical ideas. Reading her blog was one of the factors that helped me eventually find Saint Junia.
So, of course I was excited when I heard Rachel Held Evans was in town! She was a great speaker and worth slogging out after worship in really icky weather to sit for another hour and half before supper. Listening to her speak was heartwarming, and she had a lot to say that was especially relevant to us at Saint Junia. Naturally, she talked about why people leave the Church. At Saint Junia, we aren’t the least bit puzzled on that score, because many of us have already lived it. Rampant politicization, legalism, mistreatment of our LGBTQ friends, rejection of science and reason, and a desire for social justice all made the “why people leave” list. What we’re concerned with at Saint Junia isn’t so much dismay over dwindling numbers, but our own need to reach out to these very people that have already walked away and are “allergic to church.” It’s a hard group to reach, because we’re wary and suspicious.
The answer, Rachel suggested, is to keep the Church weird. Being hip and edgy with a pastor who wears skinny jeans and a band with a fog machine is not the answer to overcoming hurt and disillusionment. (I’m sure Dave will be glad to know that!) Being cool is overrated, because our calling really is to do what the Church has always done: bring people to Christ, and into community with each other. Many of us still love Christ even if we’re completely disgusted about the Church, and we long for communion with him.
Rachel’s new book, and a good part of her talk, focused on sacraments as important work of the Church. She discussed the way that sacraments are not only cerebral, but have a physical aspect that is vital as well. Involving all the senses makes for an integral healing experience.
Communion is specifically what brought Rachel back after having a break from Church. Every week, all the world over, Christians have a meal with God, where all are welcome to the table. We taste and smell and touch and commune together. She talked about her own hunger for communion every week, and how that hunger is what brings her back again and again. She spoke of the joy of serving communion for the first time to a group of 600 students, and repeating over and over, “This is Christ’s body, broken for you.” Serving communion helped her to see that Christ is enough, that we’re all human and broken, but Christ is sufficient for all of us.
Rachel talked about the healing power of confession. One example she gave was a church that was founded on a mashup of Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12 steps and the Beatitudes. AA has a sense of community that is often missing in church, because we’re missing out on confession. Church should be a place where we can tell the truth, be honest, and talk about all of life. So far, I’ve found this at Saint Junia, particularly in the small groups I’m a part of. I think we’re doing this well at least on the small scale, and it’s important that we continue to reach out and listen without trying to just fix one another.
Anointing the sick is important, too, and goes along with confession. Rachel wasn’t talking about a charismatic miracle cure with this, but more a healing which is harder and more needful than a cure. Being willing to touch those who are sick or hurting is powerful. Many times when people leave the church, everything was fine, until…. until the diagnosis, until the divorce, until the sexual assault. These are times when we need community, unconditional love, and something deeper and more meaningful than empty platitudes and verses about it all working out in the end. The Church should be the very place to go to heal, but too often it’s a place where that healing is actively hampered. I’ve personally seen this firsthand when my own suffering and pain simply meant to others that my faith was weak, and I needed to “get right with God” because my fellow Christians sure didn’t want to deal with the mess my life presented them.
There was a Q&A after, and a lot of really great discussion that I wish I could remember well enough to give you detailed notes on. Instead, I want to end with an observation that resonated deeply with me and may stick with me the longest. Rachel reminded us that worry over the death of the Church only makes sense if the Church is in the empire business. If we’re in the Resurrection business, why are we worried about death at all? God is able to make birth from death! She went on to tell of a little church plant who lost its funding from its denomination because the members and pastor stood behind a lesbian couple rather than kick them out. The death of that little church plant was the birth of something bigger. That thought is encouraging to me as I think about Saint Junia. We don’t know what lies ahead, but our God is in the resurrection and healing business. Where we might see pain and suffering and death, there’s hope and life and healing right around the corner.
Teresa Chandler is a local freelance writer who has been a partner at Saint Junia since our first joining service this Easter.