An Open Letter to Rachel Held Evans
by Brian Watson
You don’t know me, so I should introduce myself. My name is Brian Watson. I’m a Christian, a husband, a father, and a pastor. But I’m kind of a nobody. I haven’t published any books, nor have I been on national television. If you look at this blog, you’ll see I’ve barely written anything here. However, I am a well-educated Christian, a pastor, and someone who cares deeply about Jesus, his church, and truth.
I should also add, before I continue, that I’m a deeply flawed person who has been adopted by God simply because of his grace. I have been changed by God, and I’m not the person I used to be. However, I’m still not the man I desire to become. I’m still a deeply flawed person, a work in progress. I know quite well I’m not a Christian because of my moral performance or because I’m somehow inherently better than anyone else. I’m a Christian because God loved me, he sent his Son to bear my sins on the cross, he gave me the gift of faith and he has changed me.
I’m writing because I have seen several of my Facebook friends post links to your blog. Even my brother sent me a link to something you wrote. Whenever I read something you have written, I’m a bit disturbed. I’m writing to you now in response to the latest of your writings that a friend has posted, the article posted on CNN’s website titled, “Why millennials are leaving the church.” (The article can be found here.) You see, there’s another thing you should know about me: though I’m not a millennial (I’m 37), I, too, have a highly sensitive BS meter. When I read your writings, I find elements of truth, but then I find there are some problematic statements. So, what I write here is directed towards that one article, but I could just as easily respond to other things you have written.
First, let me affirm some statements you make. You say that “church-as-performance” drives your generation away. I must admit that I, too, am turned off by such an approach to church. Any gimmicks employed by churches make me cringe. Church-as-performance is wrong because worship isn’t supposed to be a show. It is supposed to be sincere and true (which, by the way, are not the same thing—wrong beliefs remain wrong, regardless of the sincerity with which they are held). We are supposed to worship God in spirit and truth (John 4:24).
I also agree that Christianity cannot be aligned with a political party or country. That doesn’t mean that politics do not matter, or that one should somehow be anti-patriotic, but the kingdom of God will endure forever, while nations and political parties will not. Governments and politicians will err, but God does not.
I would also agree that Christians sometimes focus on moral rules so much that the gospel can be lost. We can give off the impression that Christianity is little more of a code of conduct—“Follow these rules and you’re in the club.” But that’s not the gospel. Christianity says we can’t follow the rules perfectly, which is why we need Jesus to do that for us.
I would also agree that Christianity should not be anti-intellectual. A Christian must love God with all his or her mind as well as heart, soul, and strength (Mark 12:30).
Finally, I agree that Christians should care about the poor and oppressed, and they should not be hostile to the LGBT crowd. (But, I would hasten to add, distorting the truth about homosexuality isn’t love—it’s another type of hostility.)
However, I find that many of your comments are problematic. Let me give you a few examples.
You saw you want an end to culture wars. I do, too. However, short of Jesus returning, this won’t happen. Since Eden, there has been a culture war going on. As long as there is spiritual warfare, there is going to be cultural warfare. When Elijah spoke out against Baal worship, he was speaking against a culture that accepted idolatry. When Jesus spoke out against the scribes and Pharisees, he was speaking out against a certain culture. When Paul spoke to the men of Mars Hill, he was witnessing another idolatrous culture and he could not refrain from speaking. When Christian abolitionists spoke out against slavery, they were warring against another culture. This will continue as long as sin is present in the world, whether we like it or not. I don’t think Christians should look for fights to pick, but the fight is there nonetheless.
You say that you want to be known by what you stand for, not by what you’re against. But to be something is to be against something else. Again, if Jesus is our ultimate example, we can see he was against certain things. In fact, your writings are against certain forms of Christianity, yet I often find myself wondering what you are for. Often, I get the sense that you are trying to reconcile God to the world, instead of the world to God through Christ (2 Corinthians 5:18-20).
You say you want a truce between science and faith. I agree that Christians should not be against science, but there are good reasons for Christians to be wary of claims made by the scientific community that are not based on real science, but are based on philosophy. I would encourage you to read some excellent books by Christian intellectuals on science. I highly recommend Vern Poythress’s Redeeming Science. He holds a PhD in math as well as a PhD in theology, so he knows something of which he writes. Another book to read would be J. P. Moreland’s Christianity and the Nature of Science. There are many other books along these lines. Christians don’t have to be against science, but they should understand the nature of science, which is limited in its explanatory power and is always subject to revision. Science, while very useful, is not equal to God’s revelation.
You also say that every generation, deep down, longs for Jesus. You must mean every generation of Christians. For, short of God’s grace, “no one seeks for God” (Rom. 3:11). Yet—and here’s the key problem of the article—you assume that millennials are an exceptional generation. Let me disabuse you of that notion right now. Millennials do not belong to an exceptional generation. Nor do Gen-Xers or Baby Boomers. Each generation is valuable and perhaps in some ways unique. But each generation also consists of human beings who have the same needs and the same types of desires. In short, we’re all sinners, and each generation has its flaws. It is highly arrogant to think that any particular generation is the one that has figured it all out. It is highly arrogant for a young generation to think they know what the church should look like, they don’t find it anywhere, and so they leave the churches that exist.
Your writing is full of generalizations that, in my experience, often don’t ring true. I don’t think you would like it if someone made sweeping generalizations in the opposite direction. It would be easy to sketch an alternate narrative about millennials: they grew up with amazing privileges, which have led to them being spoiled; they grew up with the Internet, which leads to shallow thinking (see The Shallows by Nicholas Carr); they have grown up in a time where authority is not only questioned, but disrespected; they have grown up in an age of entitlement, when people don’t talk of responsibilities or duties, but “rights”—instead of “oughts,” they talk of “wants.” (By the way, you might want to look at this article, which speaks to millennials and their search for Jesus.) But much of those statements wouldn’t apply to individual millennials, so I don’t see the need to rely on that narrative. The truth is that we are all sinners who want what we want.
But what we want really doesn’t matter. It’s what we need that counts.
The truth is that we need Jesus. If Jesus is present in a church, there will be both truth and grace, because Jesus is full of both (John 1:14). If there is no grace in a church, Jesus isn’t there. If there is no truth in a church, Jesus isn’t there. I’m concerned that you are not pursuing truth.
You say that you don’t want predetermined answers. I suspect you may not be using language very precisely. Perhaps you mean you don’t want answers that aren’t well thought out, answers that are dogmatic. But perhaps your comment was more telling. You see, I want predetermined answers. I want answers that are predetermined because I want to answers that are true. All truth comes from God, and therefore there is a very real sense in which all true answers are predetermined, because they come from the one who is omniscient and eternally so.
But, again, perhaps you want answers that are well reasoned. I do, too. Perhaps you want answers that aren’t held without question. That can be a fine thing sometimes. At other times, we must settle on a truth and no longer question it. We must arrive at the truth that there is one God, and that there is only one way to be made right with him, and that is through faith in Jesus. We can endlessly question, but if we don’t arrive at truth, we cannot claim to possess intellectual integrity. I am reminded of a quote by G. K. Chesterton, “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid. Otherwise, it could end up like a city sewer, rejecting nothing.” His point is that a mind that is forever open never decides. It never discerns truth from error. It just allows any garbage to enter in.
If you’re going to question something, here’s a bit of advice: question your own presuppositions. Question your motives. Question why, for example, you feel drawn to high church tradition.
Not wanting truth may very well be part of why some younger people want to belong to high church traditions. Those churches often spend very little time preaching the Word of God (if it’s the Word of God that is the basis of their sermons or homilies). While there are some Scripture readings and true statements in these churches’ liturgies, these do not seem to be the focus of attention. I suspect people take comfort in the rites and rituals found in these churches. (I write as a musician who has been paid to sing or direct music in all kinds of churches. I’ve been around the block, even the high church side, and this has been my experience.)
Truth matters. But so does grace. And here’s another problem: If millennials are leaving the church in droves, they are not being gracious. If your remarks are true, they are leaving the church because the church isn’t the way they want it to be. Now, let me state clearly that there are many “churches” that are only churches in name. These would be the ones that twist the gospel, that don’t handle God’s Word rightly, that aren’t gracious in any way. Those churches exist. So, if a millennial is in a church that is lacking in either truth or grace (or both!), I would advise that person to find a better church.
But to leave real churches—ones that handle the Word with care, ones that practice the sacraments/ordinances—is to leave Jesus. When Jesus appeared to Saul on the road to Damascus, he asked, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). Saul was persecuting Christians in the church. The implication is that persecuting the church is equivalent to persecuting Jesus. Not loving the church is equivalent to not loving Jesus. Leaving the church is equivalent to leaving Jesus.
When a young person leaves a church, it could be for good reasons (the pastor is not preaching from the Bible, he is twisting Scripture, everyone is gossiping, etc.). But it could also be for poor reasons (“I’m not getting what I want”). If a church is trying its best to be one of truth and grace, but it still isn’t what the millennial wants, and he or she leaves, it shows a lack of love and grace—on the part of the millennial, not the church. By leaving such a church (which, of course, is bound to be imperfect because all people are imperfect), the young person says, “I can’t worship with a bunch of people like this.” The fact that young people are leaving churches may say more about those people than the churches. In fact, John might have written about that person (see 1 John 2:19).
In my own church, there are quite a number of people who are different from me. Some are not very intellectual. We don’t all have the same political views. Some people can be a little judgmental and legalistic, while others don’t care as much about holiness as they should. Some people care about the poor (actually helping the poor people they know, not just paying lip service to an ideal), and others don’t. We’re a motley crew in a lot of ways. But we’re united by our faith in Christ and we’re being sanctified by the Holy Spirit. I’ve seen growth in many people of different generations. And by growth, I mean that these people are conforming their thoughts to God’s Word and they are living in greater obedience to God’s Word because they love God and they trust him. This is not legalism. It is loving God with one’s mind, heart, soul, and strength. It is love expressed in obedience, faith manifested in reverence.
If millennials were to join us for worship, they would find a church that does its best to teach and preach from the Bible with intellectual integrity, with passion, and with wisdom (more on that in a bit). They would find people who have been forgiven of their sin and love one another. But they would also find imperfect people who make mistakes. Their LGBT friends would be welcome to come, but they may find themselves under conviction, just as all of us are convicted of our sins when God’s Word is preached. No one at my church would ask a homosexual or bisexual person to leave a worship service, but we would ask them to find their identity in Christ, not their sin.
I’ll end this letter with another thought. In addition to a lack of truth and perhaps a lack of grace, I see a lack of wisdom. I think this is true of this article that you’ve written as well as all the others I’ve seen. Let us remember that true wisdom begins with a fear of the Lord (Proverbs 9:10). Wisdom begins with a holy reverence of God, realizing that he is the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer. Furthermore, he is the King. When we have a true relationship with Jesus, we come under his lordship and we enter his kingdom. We approach him with love and with awe. That means we are not flippant with his Word, playing hermeneutical games. That means we obey his voice. We embrace his answers. We don’t continually ask questions. No, we find our rest in him.