Searching for Sunday

by Rachel Held Evans, 2015

I heard about this author on NPR, Fresh Air (I think), when another author was being interviewed and he mentioned how influential Rachel Held Evans was in his life. She died at the age of 37 on May 4, 2019 from an allergic reaction to medication for an infection that caused her brain to swell. This is eerily similar to how her aunt died, which she describes in this book.

This book is about her disenchantment with the Evangelical church, her decision to leave it, and her return to church eventually–an Episcopalian church. She’s from Tennessee and was raised in a southern Evangelical church. She was on fire for God throughout her youth. She grew angry and began having doubts about her faith first when it said innocent Muslims who died at the hand of suicide bombers were going to hell, and then when her church became political and posted political signs to vote against gay marriage. She and her husband spent a while not going to church, then visiting different churches once a month or so, then starting their own church which failed a year or so later, then finally settling on an Episcopalian church.

The book starts out really well and I thought, I must own this book, but she lost me about halfway through. It’s her story, and it’s good, but the way she organized it, via the sacraments of Baptism, Confession, Holy Orders, Communion, Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, and Marriage, confused me. She did not mention seeking the Lord in prayer throughout her faith crisis. Her focus was on the Church: where faith is practiced, with all its trappings, and how she lost faith in that, but then found it again.

Two main takeaways for me:

  1. Christians cannot do their faith alone.
  2. Accept that the church will never be perfect; forgive it.


“Nine-hundred miles away, in Princeton, New Jersey, my future husband was winning trophies in the pinewood derby at Montgomery Evangelical Free Church, which for many years he took to mean was a church free of evangelicals, like sugar-free gum.”

“In baptism, we are identified as beloved children of God, and our adoption into the sprawling, beautiful, dysfunctional family of the church is celebrated by whoever happens to be standing on the shoreline with a hair dryer and deviled eggs.”

“Yet historically, the Christian life began with the public acknowledgment of two uncomfortable realities–evil and death–and in baptism, the Christian makes the audacious claim that neither one gets the final word.”

“We all long for someone to tell us who we are. The great struggle of the Christian life is to take God’s name for us, to believe we are beloved and to believe that is enough.”

“Baptism reminds us that there’s no ladder to holiness to climb, no self-improvement plan to follow. It’s just death and resurrection, over and over again, day after day, as God reaches down into our deepest graves and with the same power that raised Jesus from the dead wrests us from our pride, our apathy, our fear, our prejudice, our anger, our hurt, and our despair.”

“In the ritual of baptism, our ancestors acted out the bizarre truth of the Christian identity: We are people who stand totally exposed before evil and death and declare them powerless against love.”

She began to question her faith when it said the innocent Muslims killed by suicide bombers were going to hell (because they weren’t evangelical Christians like her).

“I’ve heard many recovering alcoholics say they’ve never found a church quite like Alcoholics Anonymous. They’ve never found a community of people so honest with one another about their pain, so united in their shared brokenness.”

In the Confession chapters: “These brave prayers are just the start. [prayers of confession] Like the introductions at an AA meeting, they equalize us. They remind us that we all move through the world in the same state–broken and beloved–and that we’re all in need of healing and grace. They embolden us to confess to one another not only our sins, but also our fears, our doubts, our questions, our injuries, and our pain. They give us permission to start telling one another the truth, and to believe that this strange way of living is the only way to set one another free.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer quote: “He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone. It may be that Christians, notwithstanding corporate worship, common prayer, and all their fellowship in service, may still be left to their loneliness. The final break-through to fellowship does not occur because, though they have fellowship with one another as believers and and as devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners. The pious fellowship permits no no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone in our sin, living lies and hypocrisy. The fact is that we are sinners!”

Her friend, Kathy Escobar, started a church in Denver called the Refuge, where Christians can be real, not hypocrites, and it has attracted all types – those living in poverty to the very wealthy.

“Imagine if every church became a place where we told one another the truth. We might just create sanctuary.”

In the chapter, What We Have Done, she lists the horrors that Christians have done:

Christian crusaders killing innocent Jews and Arabs, the inquisitions and torture, Martin Luther encouraging the burning of synagogues and expelling and murdering Jews, European Christians bringing evil and disease and slavery and death to the native peoples of the New World, Puritans decimating the Pequot tribe in 1637, Andrew Jackson’s Trail of Tears of the Cherokee People in 1838, Christian ministers defending slavery, Christian ministers against Martin Luther King Jr and civil rights, and on and on.

She also lists the good that Christians have done: John Huss, Teresa of Avila, Pedro Claver, Anne Hutchinson, William Wilberforce, Sojourner Truth, Maximilian Kolbe, Pastors that stood with Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks.

When they started visiting other churches: “…I sat in the pew with my arms crossed, mad at the Baptists for not being Methodist enough, the Methodists for not being Anglican enough, the Anglicans for not being evangelical enough, and the evangelicals for not being Catholic enough.”

“When Jesus said he came not for the righteous, but for the sinners, he meant he came for everyone. But only those who know they are sick can be healed.”

“At least for a moment, the religious leaders got it: Jesus hung out with sinners because there were only sinners to hang out with.”

“Billy Graham once said, “It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, God’s job to judge, and my job to love.”

“Perhaps it would be easier for us to love if it were our own sins we saw written in that dust and carried off by the wind.”

“…church isn’t static. It’s not a building, or a denomination, or a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Church is a moment in time when the kingdom of God draws near, when a meal, a story, a song, an apology, and even a failure is made holy by the presence of Jesus among us and within us.”

“Church was alive and well long before we came up with the words relevant and missional, and church will go on long after the grass grows through our cathedral floors. The holy Trinity doesn’t need our permission to carry on in their endlessly resourceful work of making all things new. That we are invited to catch even a glimpse of the splendor is grace. All of it, every breath and every second, is grace.”

“Evangelicalism in particular has seen a resurgence in border patrol Christianity in recent years, as alliances and coalitions formed around shared theological distinctives elevate secondary issues to primary ones and declare anyone who fails to conform to their strict set of beliefs and behaviors unfit for Christian fellowship. Committed to purifying the church of every errant thought, difference of opinion or variation in practice, these self-appointed gatekeepers tie up heavy loads of legalistic rules and place them on weary people’s shoulders. They strain out the gnats in everyone else’s theology while swallowing their own camel-sized inconsistencies. They slam the door of the kingdom in people’s faces and tell them to come back when they are sober, back on their feet, Republican, Reformed, doubtless, submissive, straight.”

“This God knows his way around the world, so there’s no need to fear, no need to withhold, no need to stake a claim. There’s always enough–just taste and see. There’s always and ever enough.”

“Sometimes I wonder how much I’ve missed because I haven’t bothered to look, because I wrote off that church or that person or that denomination because I assumed God to be absent when there is not a corner of this world that God has abandoned.”

She talks about Thistle Farms, a company that sells essential oils, made by women recovering from abuse, prostitution, addiction, prison, homelessness.

She was a blogger for World Vision and was heartbroken when 10,000 children lost their sponsors when Richard Stearns allowed people in same-sex marriages to work there. Wayne points out the push to drop child sponsorships was spearheaded by Franklin Graham of Samaritan’s Purse (where her beloved sister and her husband work). Richard Stearns had to reverse his decision. “It had worked. Using needy kids as bargaining chips in the culture war had actually worked.”

“The World Vision incident sent me into as deep a religious depression as I’ve ever known, and I’m still struggling to climb out of it. I know a lot of people who walked away from evangelicalism for good when they saw what happened, and I know a few who walked away from the entire church, unable to reconcile the love they see in Jesus with the condemnation they hear from his followers.”

What it did for Wayne was expose Franklin Graham for who he is – a very bad man.

“Sometimes I think the biggest challenge in talking about the church is telling ourselves the truth about it–acknowledging the scars, staring down the ugly bits, marveling at its resiliency, and believing that this flawed and magnificent body is enough, for now, to carry us through the world and into the arms of Christ.”

“When I was debating titles for this book, I asked for help on social media, and one reader suggested this: Jesus Went Back to Heaven and All He Left Me Was This Lousy Church.” Wayne agrees this is hilarious but also very revealing, just like Trevor Noah’s observations that are hilarious but deeply revealing all at once.

“I’m not exactly sure how all this works, but I think, ultimately, it means I can’t be a Christian on my own. Like it or not, following Jesus is a roup activity, something we’re supposed to do together. We might not always do it within the walls of church or even in an organized religion, but if we are to go about making disciples, confessing our sins, breaking bread, paying attention, and preaching eht Word, we’re going to need one another. We’re going to need each other’s help.”

“The church is not the same as the kingdom.”

“All we have is this church–this lousy, screwed-up glorious church–which, by God’s grace is enough.”