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(Rod Stafford, Mike Summers, Curt Thompson, Aly Hawkins, and Rachel Held Evans discuss "Embracing Doubt." Credit: Fairfax Community Church)

(Rod Stafford, Mike Summers, Curt Thompson, Aly Hawkins, and Rachel Held Evans discuss “Embracing Doubt.” Credit: Fairfax Community Church)

Kristin Rudolph (@Kristin_Rudolph)

A new model of Evangelical conference has emerged in recent years. It is one that aims to ask questions and spread ideas for attendees to take home and implement in their workplaces, churches, and communities, for the renewal of our culture. The Q Conference is the most visible of these conferences, but others are following suit. The latest was the Blue Conference at Fairfax Community Church (FCC) in Fairfax, VA on April 26-27. Blue, “a movement to restore culture,” derived its name from the blue seats that hosted over three hundred attendees who make up the movement, explained FCC senior pastor Rod Stafford. “We are everywhere,” he exclaimed, urging Christians to change the culture in their communities.

Sessions ranged from a psychiatrist reviewing how neuroscience points to the Gospel, to former Bush aide Claude Allen sharing how God restored him after his life derailed. Others included the principal of a DC charter school who loves working with adolescents, and a filmmaker who encouraged Christians to produce higher quality art. A Department of Agriculture official shared how the story of Joseph and the famine inspired him to address hunger through the Federal government. As the conference aimed to find a new witness for Christians in our culture, participants discussed changes within the Church as well.

Stafford interviewed Aly Hawkins, coauthor of You Lost Me about why Christian Millennials (those approximately ages 18 to 30) are leaving the Church. Hawkins said “The main thing” distinguishing this group from other generations “is access,” though they also struggle with feeling alienated and trusting authority. Because Millennials are “digital natives,” and have had access to a world of ideas, beliefs, and information that sometimes challenges their Christian faith, many don’t know how to reconcile what they encounter online with what they experience in church, Hawkins explained. She said the church is often hostile to questions and doubts, prompting some 59 percent to leave because church “doesn’t correlate with [their] lived experience.” Further, “we have a discipleship failure,” she stated, urging more focus on relationships over attendance counts.

Young Christians trying to blend their faith with their education and careers face difficulty as developing an integrated theology of vocation is a relatively new endeavor for Evangelicals. In previous generations, there was a comfortable separation between the sacred and secular, Hawkins claimed. Grandpa went to work in the factory Monday to Friday, then Sunday he took the family to Church, she explained. But, Hawkins continued, “because of the uniquenesses of Millennials, their access … most of them don’t have time for a faith that is not true to their lived experience.” This group presents “a great challenge for the Church,” she observed, “because they’re not going to let us keep that disconnection [between the sacred and secular] just because we’re comfortable with it.”

The writer noted that older generations should engage in some sort of “reverse mentoring” process, because “the ground level assumption for most Millennials is that truth comes out of dialogue.” Young Christians won’t accept “the assumptions of the past [when] you’d go to the experts” for truth.

Hawkins also participated in a panel on “Embracing Doubt” with planetary scientist Mike Summers, psychiatrist Curt Thompson, and author/blogger Rachel Held Evans. Hawkins asserted “signing off on a laundry list of beliefs is a pretty recent phenomenon in Christianity. That’s not what it meant to be a Christian for a really long time … What it meant to be a Christian was to be a part of the community, to take the sacraments of the community and to do the activities of the community. The community said ‘you were a part of us.’” Community is important, agreed Thompson, referencing neuroscience findings that show the brain needs trusting relationships, and to be healthy, we must know our relationships will not be jeopardized when we ask questions.

“Too often we make faith a cerebral enterprise,” Hawkins said, “but we are embodied people  … [We need to] start thinking about our faith as embodied action. Doing things.” Evans agreed that too often faith becomes “reductive” when it is intellectualized, when instead, “faith is action.” For Evans, “Doubt is like a fire that enlivens faith. Doubt taught me to hold my faith and beliefs in an open hand.”

Evans also addressed attendees about “Biblical Womanhood” and “Finding Your Voice.” She was the only one of approximately fifteen speakers who gave two presentations. “Any claim to a biblical lifestyle … is inherently selective,” Evans said, asking “Does the Bible really prescribe a single right way to be a woman?” She discussed her year of living according to “all the Bible’s instructions for women,” which resulted in her book A Year of Biblical Womanhood. The blogger recounted how she didn’t cut her hair, adopted a computerized baby, learned to cook, submitted to her husband, among other “biblical” endeavors. Evans explained: “Mostly I wanted to do this because I wanted to have some better, more authentic, more honest conversation about this whole idea of biblical womanhood … so we could talk about the Bible.” The issue of womanhood within the Evangelical church is controversial, she claimed, largely because “a lot of people are looking to the Bible to function as something that it’s not … a blueprint.”

The Bible, she pointed out, does not tell women if they should pursue a career, what career that would be, where they should live, or many other questions facing women today. “I spent a year of my life completely devoted to this idea of biblical womanhood and I never found a blueprint for how to be a woman, or how to be a man, or how to be a person of faith,” Evans declared. She continued: “The Bible is meant to be a conversation starter, not a conversation ender.” “We’re part of this centuries old, dynamic, ongoing conversation with God and with one another precisely because the Bible is difficult to understand.” The writer urged Blue attendees to “surround ourselves with a diversity of people to help us understand the text.” Talk to a widow to understand Ruth, a farmer for a fresh perspective on Jesus’ parables, and a black preacher to illumine Exodus, Evans explained.

“We find God in the whispers,” Evans said in her second talk, “Finding Your Voice (in a loud world).” Instead of rushing to give the first reaction to a controversy, especially in our fast paced world of blogs and social media, she suggested perhaps waiting and listening is a better option. “As followers of Jesus,” Evans said, “maybe one of the most radical things we can possibly do is become better listeners.” She explained “the path to finding your voice often takes the counterintuitive route of becoming a better listener.” Listening to God, yourself, silence, the stories of others, and even critics is the best way to “find your voice,” Evans said.

“If you really want to be an oddball, listen to the people who offer you constructive criticism,” she instructed. Despite being naturally “very defensive” when hearing any kind of criticism, Evans reported she has become more receptive of constructive criticism, and listening to it “makes the conversation a little more interesting.” Further, she encouraged Christians to not assume something is bad “just because it is controversial.” Evans lamented that “Sometimes in the name of preserving unity, we allow a lot of injustices to persist in the Church. But unity doesn’t mean conformity. We don’t all have to agree to love one another.”

The emphasis on allowing doubts and questions is a reaction against some tendencies in Evangelical churches of the past few decades. Listening to and talking through doubts and building trustworthy community are critical elements of Church life that have been neglected by some within the Evangelical tradition. But to tip the scale too far in the other direction, where doubts are almost encouraged, doctrine is minimized, and beliefs are derived through personal experience is not a recipe for a vibrant and healthy Church. A movement founded on a reaction that doesn’t offer something substantially positive to believe in and give purpose to its members will not likely grow or perpetuate itself.