Book Review - Searching for Sunday


The Church is dying, and you know that because every pulpit, Christian blog, skeptic's website, and news media in America delivers that message like a skipping record. The church is tearing itself apart over the authority of science, patterns of abuse, and the "gay issue." Mention any of these issues on Facebook, and dozens of people will be happy to tell you what "Jesus really meant," or why "religion is harmful and headed for extinction."

Rachel Held Evans dives head first into these waters in her latest book, Searching for Sunday. I should mention that this is no unbiased review–I'm both a fan of Rachel's work and fond of her as a human being. This is a vital book: a vision for a church that rises to face this era, and it's by far the most powerful writing that Rachel has done. That's saying something, as Rachel's skill with prose is something I envy almost every day.

Rachel's voice is often associated with two very different streams in the world of Christianity: Evangelical and Progressive. For many Evangelicals, Rachel is often a thorn in their side, a voice shouting over the fray that undercuts some uncomfortable issues. For this same reason, she's a rally point for Progressives. Rachel gives a lot of disenfranchised people hope.

And yet, I've seen scores of my conservative, evangelical friends express interest in Searching for Sunday. That attention is well deserved because Searching for Sunday is a beautifully written, much needed work for a Church in the middle of Civil War. It's a reminder of what following Jesus together can look like. It's a thoughtful examination of how an entire generation of people longs for Jesus, but have trouble with His Church.

Centered around seven sacraments, Searching for Sunday tells stories from different traditions within Christianity, along with Rachel's journey from her Evangelical roots, to a small church plant, and finally an embrace of the mainline Church. Most encouraging is the way Rachel incorporates the presence of all these movements into her faith.

Don't expect to find the tenets of the One True Christianity here. Instead, you'll find the story of a large, half-dysfunctional family made up of Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, Orthodox, Episcopalians, Pentecostals, Emergents, and I-Just-Can't-Do-This-Anymore people who are all obsessed with Jesus Christ. I mean that literally, Rachel describes the church as a family living in a house together, and it's a beautiful metaphor for how denominations are a gift as much as a curse.

I used my camera phone to take note of the passages I wanted to highlight when I wrote a review of Searching for Sunday. I took over 40 pictures, mainly when I found myself laughing or weeping. I'm a big hearted guy, but that's an uncommon level of emotional engagement even for me.

Chapter 10, What We Have Done, is stunning in its power as it describes both the ancient and modern atrocities of our faith, as well as the saints who stood for justice and peace.

That's because Rachel never casts anyone as the hero or the villain. She spends plenty of time mourning with those who mourn, but she doesn't point the finger at anyone. Rachel highlights our shared brokenness and our shared hope. She talks about doubt, and the infuriating ways that Christians "help" the doubting.

In one story, Rachel is teaching at a youth retreat, while unsure what she believes. At the climax of the event, she's asked to be one of the communion servers. Rachel writes this about the experience:

“As I stood at the front of the rustic camp meeting room, holding a loaf of bread in one hand and tearing off a piece at a time with the other, hundreds of people approached, one at a time, with their hands held out, ready to receive.

'This is Christ's body, broken for you,' I said.

I said it over and over again, to each person who came to the table–to the back-row boys who avoided my gaze, to the girls whose mascara rivered down their cheeks, to the kids who giggle in line with their friends, to the ones who came all alone.

This is Christ's body, broken for you.

Rachel goes on to describe the transformative experience of serving communion for the broken from a place of brokenness and the insights she gained from the experience. So often we search for answers to life's most difficult questions in ideas and beliefs, but the Gospel only takes on life in flesh and blood. When our questions turn into actions that meaning is found, and Rachel illustrates that beautifully in Searching for Sunday.

So what of a dying church, tearing itself apart? This was the most powerful message of Searching for Sunday. Empires fear death, but the Church is in the resurrection business. Christianity has died over and over throughout history, and each time it's been resurrected with a new voice and a new body that speaks to a new time.

Perhaps it's time to stop lamenting this death, and instead become a part of new life. As Rachel says in a chapter titled Easter Doubt, “And sometimes, just showing up, burial spice in hand, is all it takes to witness a miracle.”

Searching for Sunday will be available everywhere on April 14, but you can preorder it now.

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