Talk to scholars that study American religion and most will say that the implosion of the “Seven Sisters” of old-line Protestantism has to be at the top of any list of big trends in the past half century.
For those who need to refresh their memories, the “Seven Sisters” are the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Churches USA, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
Many reporters, when dealing with mainline blues stories (think churches “for sale”) never pause to probe the “WHY?” factor in that old journalism formula “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” “why” and “how.”
Often, journalists don’t give readers key facts about the mainline decline at all. In recent years, I’ve seen more than a few stories suggesting that the slight (but important) declines in some conservative flocks have the same root causes as the 30-50% declines seen in mainline churches since the 1960s....
Back in the days of peak Mars Hill Church Mark Driscoll made a case for church mergers. "Jesus Loves Church Mergers, And So Should You" was pretty direct. In 2012 he wrote about churches interested in joining Mars Hill and wrote:
- Becoming a Mars Hill is not for everyone. The Holy Spirit has different callings for each church, and we rejoice in any and every church that loves and serves people for Jesus. Mars Hill doesn’t work for everyone, and we’re the first to acknowledge that. But, depending on the calling and context, it does work for some.
- Statistically, the majority of churches are plateaued and declining. Over 3,500 churches die and close every year. We want to see as many churches open and people meet Jesus as possible.
- We have some success, by God’s grace, adopting in an existing church and transitioning it to a Mars Hill church. In New Mexico, we’ve seen a church go from a few hundred to over 1,000 worshipers in a few years—primarily by conversion growth. In West Seattle, we saw a church go from under 200 to as high as 1,000. In Sammamish, east of Seattle, we saw church go from under 200 to around 800 in a matter of months. This is not all transfer growth. Fully 1,392 people were baptized at Mars Hill last year, and every one of our 14 churches across four states is seeing people meet Jesus regularly.
"This is not all transfer growth" is the key idea I want to consider. It was something people inside and outside of Mars Hill had considered by 2012, that a lot of the growth of Mars Hill was not the result of evangelism or winning souls so much as transfer growth, the arrival of already-Christian people who were attracted to Mars Hill and found in it a place for community.
A conceptually related transfer can be the celebrity conversion. Julia Duin wrote that the death of Rachel Held Evans inspired reporters to write with some unusual passion for the recently deceased writer.
What I didn’t realize about Evans is how much she connected with reporters –- especially some with degrees from Wheaton and evangelical backgrounds -– who began pouring out tributes by mid-day Saturday. This was the darkest of days on the evangelical left, which is a rising force in evangelical life — in part because of its media clout.
One of the first up was Ruth Graham’s piece in Slate:
Rachel Held Evans, an influential progressive Christian writer and speaker who cheerfully challenged American evangelical culture, died on Saturday at a hospital in Nashville, Tennessee. Evans, 37, entered the hospital in mid-April with the flu, and then had a severe allergic reaction to antibiotics, as she wrote on Twitter several weeks ago. According to her husband, Dan Evans, she then developed sustained seizures. Doctors put her in a medically induced coma, but some seizures returned when her medical team attempted to wean her from the medications that were maintaining her coma. Her condition worsened on Thursday morning, and her medical team discovered severe swelling of her brain. She died early on Saturday morning.
Judging from the speed at which the story was posted, I’m guessing the writer knew that Evans wasn’t going to recover and had an obit ready to go (which is common practice with beat reporters).
Many other stories and commentaries quickly sprang up, including from Religion News Service, the Washington Post , in NPR, the New York Times and more. This was a wave of journalistic grief.
So, who was this woman and why did so many reporters, all of whom appeared to be friends with her, weep after her death?...
Sounds to me like she happened to be at the right place at the right time during the Barack Obama years. Being named as a member of President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships didn’t hurt. She wasn’t bad at marketing herself, either.
I think a lot of journalists saw themselves in Evans. As intelligent millennial women not sure how to grapple with the faith they grew up with and without the benefit of a popular Jesus movement like their parents enjoyed in the 1970s, Evans personified their doubts and questions.
Would a more traditionally theological woman, maybe a younger version of Anne Graham Lotz, get such a send-off? I doubt it, mainly because very few religion reporters seem of the same cultural and theological cloth as Lotz. They’re a lot more like Evans. And so, when someone like Rachel Held Evans dies an untimely, sad and tragic death it is, for many journalists, as if one of their own has passed. They lost a member of their team.
Duin observed that Rachel Held Evans managed to be in the right place at the right time. By taking a role within the Obama administration after becoming Episcopalian it would not be inapt to say that Rachel Held Evans became a court Episcopalian within the Obama administration, not altogether unlike court evangelicals have some kind of holding court in the Trump administration.
Duin pointed out that she sensed journalists saw themselves in Rachel Held Evans.
Terry Mattingly wrote that in doctrinal terms RHE left evangelicalism for the doctrinal left. I am not sure I would put it that way, as Darryl Hart has written at book-length evangelicals in the United States have historically been pretty sympathetic to progressive political and social causes.
Contra Mattingly, it might be more plausible to suggest Rachel Held Evans became an Episcopalian but could be identified as still a kind of politically progressive evangelical. That she has been described in the wake of her death as prophetic is easy enough to find.
Was she a prophetess? If so, for what cause? RHE could be regarded as a prophetic voice for a specifically American progressivism that, by the end of her life, reflected mainline denominational associations. Along the way she became someone Sarah Pulliam Bailey described as the most polarizing woman in evangelicalism, before she became Episcopalian.
com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/ 2015/04/16/how-rachel-held- evans-became-the-most- polarizing-woman-in- evangelicalism/?utm_term=. ff1362e6eb2a
April 16, 2015
Since Evans started her blog in 2008, she has amassed a large base, including around 64,000 followers on Twitter and nearly 50,000 fans on Facebook. And even those who don’t formally follow her networks watch her blog to see what she is writing.
Last month, Evans told Religion News Service columnist Jonathan Merritt that she has joined the Episcopal Church. But long before that, her writing was setting off debate about how far evangelicals can go in stretching theological boundaries and still call themselves evangelicals.
From her self-made pulpit, Evans has openly wrestled with faith and evolution, where women fit in church leadership and who will end up in hell. With no formal seminary training or institutional backing, she has challenged traditional evangelical biblical interpretation on the place of LGBT people in the church, advocating for allowing them to join and even become leaders, especially contentious topics in evangelical circles.
The conversation over evangelical identity is decades-old, but it has been growing in intensity over the past 10 years. Four years ago, former megachurch pastor Rob Bell pushed the envelope on heaven, hell and salvation, but now he finds his home on Oprah’s network more than he does in evangelical circles.
As more states allow same-sex marriage, LGBT issues have flared up more frequently in evangelical churches and institutions. Some have been kicked out of their denominations — the wide evangelical umbrella includes many –after announcing that LGBT people could become members or be included in leadership.
For the informal gatekeepers of evangelicals — those who preside over the business of evangelicalism, such as the editors at publishing houses and conference organizers — what people say and how they define themselves as evangelicals still matters. (Evangelicalism is defined, in part, by its lack of traditional leadership hierarchy.)
But Evans is among a growing number of young evangelicals who are questioning the status quo promoted by these gatekeepers.
“A lot of millennials are on a similar journey where they’re trying to place themselves,” said Wes Granberg-Michaelson, who is an expert on ecumenical relations. “Do they try to hang onto the evangelical label and reclaim it, or do they try to forge their own path? That’s still an open question.”
Finding her voice
Evans speaks at evangelical and mainline Protestant conferences, churches and colleges across the country. But she came to evangelical prominence by an unusual path.
She isn’t a pastor or a theologian, and doesn’t lead an organization or a specific cause. In fact, she is not connected to any institution other than her evangelical publishers. She usually writes from her home in Dayton, Tenn., where her husband, Dan, runs her Web site.
She emerged over the past decade as part of a wave of evangelical bloggers who gained independent followings.
“I just know I’m not the only one who sits in the pew sometimes and asks, ‘Am I the only one who’s doubting all of this?’”she said. “I want people to know there’s somebody else out there who feels the same way.”
Writers like Evans are attractive prospects for publishers who have come to rely heavily on authors who already have large social media followings. But Evans’s voice is unusual for traditional evangelical publishers like her own Thomas Nelson. Some have quietly speculated that Evans maintains her evangelical connections even as a member of an Episcopal Church so she can reach more readers.
“I know that there’s a lot of people who feel like, ‘Well who is she? She didn’t go to seminary, she hasn’t cut her teeth as a pastor,’” Evans said. “I think some people feel like it’s a little bit of a threat to authority, that somebody can just be a blogger, and people will listen to what they say.”
Female authors and speakers, such as Beth Moore or Joyce Meyer, have usually focused on Bible teaching or spirituality. But Evans also reflects a recent crop of popular female bloggers willing to push theological boundaries, including Nadia Bolz-Weber, Sarah Bessey and Elizabeth Esther.
[Bolz-Weber’s liberal, foulmouthed articulation of Christianity speaks to fed-up believers]
Many evangelicals contend that Evans’s biblical interpretations have gone too far, said Andrew Walker, director of policy studies for the Southern Baptist’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
“She has a presence because she’s willing to ask questions and that taps into a millennial narrative about searching for answers,” Walker said. “What she offers as an answer is unbiblical and theologically dangerous.”
Evans’s new book, “Searching for Sunday,” documents her transition in and out of churches in her 20s and early 30s. A year ago, Evans began attending St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland, Tenn., because she felt like she didn’t have to fight issues like women’s ordination or LGBT inclusion, though she has not been confirmed in the church and says she’s in no rush to do so.
The question of whether good people like Holocaust victim Anne Frank might be in hell sent her down the “proverbial slope” in college, she writes. “Evangelicalism gave me many gifts, but the ability to distinguish between foundational orthodox beliefs and peripheral ones was not among them…” she writes.
Questions over LGBT inclusion has become something of a litmus test to determine who is a true evangelical.
Scholar David Bebbington has identified four areas, the combination of which set evangelicals apart from other Protestants: a conversion experience, faith-driven activism, a regard for the Bible as the ultimate authority and a stress on Jesus’s death and resurrection. For a majority of evangelicals, the concept of LGBT inclusion collides with the authority and proper interpretation of the Bible.
[Can one pastor bridge deep divides between evangelicals and mainline Protestants?]
Evans’s evangelical church’s activism on a Tennessee campaign to ban gay marriage eventually led her to leave that church. But she says she still feels connected to evangelicalism.
“You can’t just divorce yourself from it,” she said. “I can’t just say, ‘Oh, well, they’re not accepting LGBT people so I just need to check out.’ I want them to be, because I want to see LGBT people be able to worship in an evangelical setting and not feel marginalized or left out. I want that to happen, even though it’s not necessarily my tradition.”
Rachel Held Evans, in light of this, can be described as a celebrity conversion from evangelicalism to a mainline Protestant denomination. Normally in the parlance of writing about Christians a celebrity conversion is usually a phrase brought up when someone who is a celebrity in sports or entertainment or some other field announces they have converted to Christianity. But with an established celebrity we don't have a conversion, exactly, we have a celebrity conversion that can be thought of as "transfer growth".
What Duin and Mattingly were able to observe was, I would argue, a reverence for Rachel Held Evans as a celebrity through whom her fans were able to live vicariously in a way that is not actually that different from those who were (or are) fans of Mark Driscoll. It's at the end of the article that Bailey points out the systemic demise of the church Rachel Held Evans associated with:
“I wish I could just pull apart every part I like from every tradition and make this little mosaic that is the Rachel religion, but I can’t do that,” Evans said. “I can’t take a little Lutheranism or a little Catholicism. I think especially this generation is okay with dabbling a little bit, and I don’t think there’s any reason to look down on them for that.”
Evans says that the Nicene Creed, a creed that many Christians recite in churches, is where her theological boundaries begin. Her theological progression parallels other “post-evangelicals,” including authors and speakers like Tony Campolo, Brian McLaren and Diana Butler Bass.
Bass, who documented her departure from evangelicalism in her 2002 book “Strength for the Journey,” notes how Evans mirrors an older generation who started in evangelicalism but ended up in mainline Protestantism.
“The baby boomer generation made a similar journey, and it’s interesting millennials are doing the same thing 30 years later,” Bass said. “On one level, it points to an inherent instability in evangelicalism.”
Her adopted faith home, the Episcopal Church, faces its own challenges, including a 12 percent drop in membership over the past decade, according to the most recent statistics available.
“The Episcopal Church is no less plagued by troubles than any other, but for now, it has given me the room to wrestle and it has reminded me what I’m wrestling for,” she writes. “And so, with God’s help, I keep showing up.”
The United States has become more secular and secularist, though not with nearly the speed or thoroughness secularists would like, but the inter-generational demise of the mainline Protestant denominations has been documented for a while. Rachel Held Evans became a symbol for those within progressive American Christian enclaves for the vitality and sustainability of the mainline tradition, and as an existing evangelical celebrity who transferred, became a kind of celebrity convert within American Christianity from evangelicalism to the mainlines. But without much conceptual shifting, it was a celebrity conversion that amounted to transfer growth.
I have not soft-pedaled my concern that figures like Mark Driscoll and Rachel Held Evans in popular level Christian publishing are two sides of the same coin, popular communicators whose initial and primary training was in communications who gained wide followings through personality and whose approaches to biblical texts and theological concepts is ... sloppy. Granting people may strongly disagree with me what I regard as troublesome about both Mark Driscoll and Rachel Held Evans is that if they can be considered prophetic voices I regard them as prophetic voices for types of Americanism first and foremost. Yes, discussions about Jesus ensue and are plentiful in the books but once you accept a role in an administration you signal what earthly empire you are willing to align with. To the extent that she could be identified as evangelical Rachel Held Evans was a "court evangelical" for the Obama administration, which made her a hero to those who admire her but I have my doubts that anyone should accept any kind of role in any administration.
It is not impossible to grieve for the terrible loss of the Evans family while also regarding the star-making machinery of popular level Christianity in America in its mainline Protestant and evangelical forms as something to view with skepticism. My concern is less with her personally, having never met or, or with her as a person. I never doubted she wrote her own books even when I disagreed with a variety of things she had to say, whereas I read Mark Driscoll books and reached the inescapable conclusion he was failing to credit authors whose work I could prove he was familiar with. It's a terrible observation to make but rock stars are more glamorous when they die young. I regard it as unfortunate RHE decided to endorse Nadia Bolz-Weber's book Shameless, which is little more than a blue state variation on Mark and Grace Driscoll's Real Marriage.
Rachel Held Evans wrote that Mark Driscoll was a bully and that people should stand up to him. That was done by evangelicals and conservatives as well as progressives. Confronting the facts about what Mark Driscoll did with his empire based in Puget Sound was only possible through the efforts of a truly ecumenical collaboration across secular and religious, progressive and conservative communities. I was glad to be a part of that process of bringing things to light. I hoped that Mars Hill would reform rather than collapse but it collapsed, and it collapsed because its corporate structure was designed in such a way that Mark Driscoll was either sitting on the throne of the corporate entity or he was not even a member. By deciding to resign he doomed Mars Hill to extinction, which it was likely to face anyway.
That years-long process gave me a clearer understanding of which conservatives and progressives I could respect and trust and which ones I couldn't. Unfortunately, Rachel Held Evans, despite her public stance against Mark Driscoll, never became a progressive I took seriously. I came to see, as I have said before, Mark Driscoll and Rachel Held Evans as two sides of the same coin, a star-making celebrity-driven popular-level Christian media juggernaut with stars whose works are sold whether or not their works add anything of substance to their respective traditions. To see Rachel Held Evans endorse the Bolz-Weber book, a pastrix whose gimmick is being the cussing pastor who tells it like it is about sex and says that Augustin and Origen had issues about sex and that Song of Songs is this amazing work of Hebrew erotic made clear to me that RHE's convictions that Driscoll was a bully had to do with the "what" of his views but her endorsement of NBW suggests that the objection was not in the "how" of the persona or gimmick.
It's alright for a cussing pastor with a flair for drama and even an admitted tendency toward narcissism to get an endorsement provided the star is within the same basic constellation. That I don't believe there's good reason to regard Nadia Bolz-Weber or Mark Driscoll as having any business being taken seriously giving marriage advice via best-seller self-help books is not something I think I need to argue at length. I've done that elsewhere. I find it troubling that after her stance of confrontation against Mark Driscoll's shtick Rachel Held Evans found Bolz-Weber's more or less corresonding gimmicks worthy of endorsement and this gnaws at me because having read both the MD and NBW books I can see how the core gimmicks both writers use are essentially the same. She was encouraging to many and she asked some important questions and played a crucial part in publicly dissenting against Mark Driscoll's persona but her endorsement of NBW laves me with the sense that a blue-state variation of Driscoll's core gimmicks was something she was happy to endorse.
What I find troublesome about the praise for Rachel Held Evans since she has passed is that she has gotten an enconium at The New Yorker, a publication that had nothing to say about her when she was alive. Rock stars are most powerful as symbols when they die young, and rock stars can be more perfect in death than they could ever be in life. Selling these crafted personas, these media-mediated personalities, is exactly what the star-making machinery does in American culture in general and with some uniquely hagiographic tendencies in popular level American Christian media in particular. It is axiomatic that in death every Christian is regarded as a saint who has hoped in Christ, but the American Jesus, whether the one reverse-engineered for blue or red state voting agendas, is inextricable from American journalism. She cemented her blue state court evangelical/Episcopalian status years ago, after all. Call it the stubborn jaded sentiment of someone in middle-age, but I can no longer respect those celebrity Christians or Christian celebrities who make a point of being in the orbit of American power, whether a Billy Graham or a Rachel Held Evans. Her fans may have to consider in her passing that if Rachel Held Evans was an evangelical she was as much a "court evangelical" for the Obama administration as a Jerry Falwell Jr. is a "court evangelical" for the Trump administration. That no Christian should wish to be so closely aligned to American power seems obvious to me ... but it is clearly not so obvious to others.
For all that, the mainline Protestant denominations are probably still as much in a death spiral now as they were at the start of the year but remembering the death of a Christian woman who died tragically too young can give journalists an opportunity to write about her and retroactively make her a star, an even bigger star than she may have been while alive. Chronicling the peak and fall of what used to be Mars Hill gave me years enough to observe that what American Christians tend to do is to debate the merits or demerits of specific designated celebrity Christians and Christian celebrities, at no point does an interrogation of the basic functioning of the star-making system come up. We are not supposed to ask why these people were made stars to begin with and on what basis, and whatever team we have aligned ourselves with, that goes double for the stars in "our" constellation.