Reason to Return, Ericka Andersen. Colorado Springs: NavPress. Forthcoming (January 17) 2023.
Summary: A book directed to believing women who have left the church looking at the reasons why they have left and reasons why they should consider returning, both for what they may gain and what they may give.
Ericka Andersen states in the introduction to this book that over the last decade that 26 million women left the church. In this work, Andersen explores the reasons behind that departure, especially given the benefits of church participation, particularly lower rates of depression. She then offers reasons for believing women to consider returning and that this is a call worth pursuing
She discusses the various reasons women have left: the desire for more, not enough time, not needing the church to relate to God, ways one has been hurt, the mess of one’s life, and politics among them. I was particularly interested with how she would deal with times when the church has hurt or abused, which would be one of the most difficult of instances under which to consider returning. She tells a story of a woman who struggled with how she was treated over her divorce but is on a slow journey back. She quotes Rachel Denhollander who says “I don’t trust the Church, I trust Jesus….Jesus is worth fighting for, so His Bride is worth fighting for.” Andersen discusses how Jesus knows one’s hurt, having also been hurt by the religious–murdered no less. She recognizes both the struggle, and that struggling against the abuses is worth it. She suggests we are detoxing, and the key is to find churches doing it well.
She then turns to reasons to reconsider. While we can have a personal relationship with Christ, the church offers the supportive structures to sustain our spirituality. When we have questions, even if we’ve been dismissed by some churches there are others who will walk with us as we search. Churches call us out of our comfort zones and good ones stick with us when it gets messy. They address our loneliness crisis and contribute to our mental well-being. The church becomes a place where we belong–and that cares for our kids.
The third part of the book focuses on why the call to return is worth pursuing–and really, why the Bride is worth fighting for. The church is mean to be a place of authenticity, not for the righteous but for sinners. She argues for searching for the right space and place, including examples of alternative communities like biker churches and microchurches. She contends that church people overall are more generous–that those who give to the church are more generous toward secular causes as well and benefit the wider society. The rituals and liturgies give us images and language for our faith. We should also not be dismayed if the church seems in decline in some parts of the West because of its vibrant global growth
She concludes with what I think is her foundational argument: “The church of your past isn’t the church of your future.” She summarizes her case with five reasons:
- It is incomplete without you.
- Your personal growth matters beyond you.
- Your encouragement is important.
- The local church needs your help to “make disciples.”
- You are the only one with your perspective.
We do not simply need the church but it needs us. We find our healing and wholeness as we use what we’ve been given to seek that in others.
One thing I appreciate in Andersen is balance. Balance between facing what is wrong with the church and what may just be wrong with us. Balance between facing the world’s criticism of the church and not acceding to the world’s lack of hope for the church. Balance between recognizing how a church community may play an important role in our growth and how we have an important role in fighting for the purity and wholeness of Christ’s bride.
One thing that might have been helpful in her appeal to look for good churches would be to talk about the signs of toxic churches and the signs of healthy ones. For those who have only known the toxic, they may not be able to recognize the healthy, or believe that such exists. Some of this is implicit in what she writes–it might have been helpful to make it more explicit rather than just encourage people that good churches are out there.
This is a book written toward women but addresses many concerns, other than how men have abused women either emotionally or physically, shared by men and women alike. The loss of so many women from our congregations ought concern both men and women, especially among those leading congregations. It is worth using this book as a mirror to observe what we see of ourselves and what may be done to see our churches become places to which women will feel both drawn to and safe in. Will they find in us reason to return?
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.