It's one of the most talked-about Christian books of the moment: Searching for Sunday – a memoir of what it looks like to grapple with faith, doubt, and finding your place in the Church – is Rachel Held Evans's contribution to the conversation on millennials and the Church. Buoyed by research looking at the reasons people in their 20s and 30s have struggled with the churches of their upbringing or left their faith – and fuelled by a number of books, countless blogs and Twitter conversations, the issue is complex and often comes accompanied by plenty of controversy.
Evans herself has been left frustrated by the fact some have jumped on just one feature of Searching for Sunday – her decision to leave evangelicalism and finding herself at home in the Episcopal church. The ensuing debates – whether Evans is 'rejecting' the importance of evangelism (she isn't), or criticising modern worship music (she isn't) – have often led to people missing the point of a book that, at its heart, is full of hope both for the church and for my generation.
The 'millennials' conversation frequently focuses on the reasons that those in their 20s and 30s have become disillusioned with church – key discussion topics include the perceived hypocrisy of churchgoers or Christian leaders, worries about the compatibility of religion and science, negative attitudes towards progressive theology or politics, and churches that can put on a great Sunday morning 'show', but fall down when it comes to supporting people through difficult times.
According to the Barna Group, which has conducted extensive research about millennials and the Church, we are "a generation that craves spontaneity, participation, adventure and clan-like relationships, but what [we] often find in churches are featureless programs and moralistic content."
Consequently, it's not hard to see why Searching for Sunday has been an instant hit. In writing about her search for a church that's a safe space for doubt and despair, a church that doesn't seem like an exclusive social club for people who look and act a certain way, Evans has identified important issues that have hit home for many and are a call to action for those involved in church leadership.
But at the same time, as so many people are wondering what, exactly, is to be done about millennials and their cynical, disillusioned faith, some are just as cynical about the way these conversations have become the dominant narrative about Christians of a certain age. It's obvious why this is the case – it's a narrative that isn't exactly positive, and often fails to celebrate the things churches are doing to successfully engage with what's frequently referred to as a 'lost generation' – as well as the way scores of millennials are living out their faith and doing a lot of good in the process.
It must also be recognised that there is an enormous gulf between Christianity in Britain and Christianity on the other side of the Atlantic, and therefore the issues Evans has faced aren't necessarily the same for British millennials. In recent years I've been interested to read blogs and books by American Christians who have struggled with the monolith that is evangelical culture there – all-encompassing beliefs about science, pop culture, gender and politics that are almost completely alien to me and my peers here in the UK.
Here, around 12 per cent of people attend church weekly. Three per cent of the population identify as evangelical, while in 2012, the Economist estimated that "over one-third of Americans, more than 100 million, can be considered evangelical". In the UK, adults of my generation are more likely to have had little to no experience of church, rather than experiences that have caused them to become disillusioned and reject Christianity (although I know plenty of people for whom this is also the case).
The conversation about millennials and the Church often focuses on the negative aspects of megachurch-influenced Christian culture that prioritises style over substance at the expense of 'authenticity'. Evans has often spoken of the fact that we're looking for "something more" – and warned against the perception that people in their 20s are "shallow". She – and others – are talking increasingly about the identification of millennials with more traditional and liturgical forms of church – something with which I, too, can identify.
But in contrast, a 2014 article in the Evangelical Alliance's IDEA magazine focused on the impact that Hillsong churches around the world – with their slick marketing, hipster worship teams and aesthetically pleasing branding – have had on millennials, proving a huge draw for the 21st century 20-something. It's clear that when it comes to millennials, there are two sides to the story, and we should not be too quick to assume that the problems experienced by young Christians in the US are also plaguing those in the UK. The British Church faces an entirely different set of challenges, but can it learn from the incessant debate on millennials and the Church?
As someone who identified heavily with much of Searching for Sunday, I believe the evangelical Church in the UK would do well to engage with the conversation on millennials and seeking to avoid replicating – albeit on a smaller scale, and without the cultural baggage – what seems to be happening in the US. My own conversations with friends have revealed that many of them have experienced similar disillusionment with church. There is a real hunger for the kind of church that is participatory and inclusive, a church that can rejoice but also feel comfortable with lament, a church that goes deeper than a stylishly designed set of branding materials.
Evangelical culture tends to be found in pockets here, rather than being something instantly recognisable to most Christians. But a lot of my peers know what it's like to feel the pressure of having been told we were 'history makers', 'a generation rising up', 'called to go big for God'. And we know that when life gets in the way, we want faith communities that will help us wrestle with the big questions, help us find our own way without trying to sell us something, and come alongside us when we're struggling.
Churches, writers, and those who claim to speak on behalf of Christians must be wary when it comes to pigeonholing millennials. But Searching for Sunday – and the numerous books and blogs that echo its sentiments – should also be a wake-up call. We're not looking to be fobbed off with easy solutions. 'Authenticity' may have become little more than a chronically overused buzzword, but it's still one of the key things we're striving for.
Hannah Mudge writes about feminism and faith and is one of the founders of the Christian Feminist Network. She works in digital communications and fundraising for an international development organisation. Follow her on Twitter @boudledidge