Like 9,303 other people (as of this posting), I follow Rachel Held Evans on Twitter @rachelheldevans as well as through her blog, I find her refreshingly honest and hopefully theological. I’ve been so impressed with her writing that I downloaded her first book, “Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions,” and am currently about 2/3 of the way through it. I’d highly recommend it to those who believe Christianity is judgmental, hateful, condemnatory, and out of touch.
Which is why I was surprised when in some of her latest blog posts she acknowledged she is having a hard time finding a church home. She wrote about it in a couple of blog posts entitled “15 Reasons I Left the Church,” and its sequel, “15 Reasons I Returned to the Church.” Both were articulate, honest, and helpful. Again, I’d recommend them. She was inundated with responses from mainline Christians, who invited her to their church or recommended she try a mainline in her town. She responded in a third blog post, “The Mainline and Me.” In this patient post she gently explained that although she appreciated many things about mainline churches, there were some things missing for her, such as biblical literacy and an emphasis on “cultivating a personal spirituality.” As a pastor of a mainline Protestant congregation (ELCA), I had to admit she has some points as I experienced not-so-subtle pangs of conviction. I felt there was more to be said, but wasn’t sure exactly what.
A couple of days later I got back on Twitter and read some tweets from another source I find refreshingly honest and helpful, “Friar 1 and Friar 2.” These guys are also mainline Protestants (PCUSA), and aren’t afraid to be cynical, straight-forward, and theologically precise. Also having read Rachel’s blog posts, they responded by pointing out some of the ways mainlines have successfully revealed the kingdom of God in the world. An emphasis on social justice and standing fast for the ordination of women are among the most significant contributions. I found myself feeling liberated and inspired.
I realized that I experience the deepest and most profound sense of spirituality not when I’m studying the Bible or at a spiritual retreat, but when I’m holding the hand of a hospice resident as they take their last few breaths. I’m moved by the presence of Jesus when I place the bread and wine of Holy Communion in the hands of a tearful visitor who hasn’t been to church in decades. I am closest to God when I’m in the pre-op room at the hospital saying a quick prayer with a terrified surgical patient. The movement of the Holy Spirit is practically tangible as the congregation gathers around the font while water is poured and promises made. These are deeply and profoundly spiritual times, and I am humbled to stand on holy ground in those moments.
Rachel Held Evans is right. We mainliners don’t always articulate a profound personal spirituality, but it doesn’t take much scratching to uncover an unfathomable depth of communal spirituality. Take part in a congregational program that helps ex-cons prepare for job interviews or participate in a weekend prayer retreat. Both are good things to do. Both are spiritual. Both are walking with Jesus. But for me, it’s no contest as to which one I can articulate with more clarity and passion. Yes, we mainline Christians need to better explain our motivation for our work in the world. Maybe we shouldn’t be so quiet about it, even among ourselves. But if you’re looking for a bottomless wellspring of spiritual life, a mainline church that has relationships with her neighbors is second to none. I am spiritually invigorated by the emphases of the mainline church. I am grateful. In a spiritual way, of course.