(RNS) — When the Rev. Emmy Kegler heard her friend Rachel Held Evans had died earlier this month after a sudden illness, she offered a prayer.
Then Kegler got together with other friends who had known Evans, a popular progressive Christian writer and speaker, to share their memories and process their grief.
As she walked to her car afterward, she wondered what the future would hold. Who would fill the void their friend had left behind?
“Who is going to be our Rachel now?” she asked.
Kegler isn’t the only one asking.
Since Evans’ untimely death on May 4 at age 37, her readers and friends have shared stories of her impact and her kindnesses toward them online — sparking renewed interest in her work and putting her 2015 book “Searching for Sunday” on this past weekend’s New York Times bestseller list.
Along with them, progressive Christian scholars are also considering Evans’ legacy and what’s next for their movement without one of its most prominent and beloved leaders.
It’s the same universal question people ask any time “people who have brave and strong voices who emerge as leaders” die, according to Diana Butler Bass, an independent scholar specializing in American religion and culture.
“When they pass away, the people who look to them for guidance have always asked that same question: ‘What should we do now? To whom do we now turn?’” Bass said.
Evans was raised in a nondenominational, evangelical Christian family in Dayton, Tenn., where — as a student at Bryan College, a center of fundamentalism — she began asking tough questions about her faith.
She brought her sense of humor to those questions in her writing, including a popular blog, lively social media presence and bestselling books like 2012’s “A Year of Biblical Womanhood,” in which she took the Bible’s instructions for women as literally as possible and introduced readers to Amish, Jewish and egalitarian beliefs.
Later, she abandoned the “evangelical” label, worshiping at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland, Tenn.
In mid-April, the 37-year-old writer and speaker tweeted she was hospitalized with the flu, an infection and an allergic reaction to medication. While there, she began experiencing constant seizures and later swelling in her brain.
She was placed in a medically induced coma and never awoke.
Evans leaves behind her husband, Dan, and two young children. For her family in East Tennessee, there is nobody who can replace Rachel, Bass noted.
Her admirers should resist the urge to look for another leader to take her place, too, she said.
“For people who are saying, ‘What’s next?’ — what’s next is the exact same thing it always is,” Bass said. “It’s gird your loins, go to work. And that’s what’s next — you’re next.”
Losing one of the lights of progressive Christianity won’t dim the movement, according to the scholar.
“I am so confident that Rachel’s voice will continue through the unique voices of the many people she inspired,” she said.
“I think it will be lovely, actually, and probably very brave, and Rachel would be proud of them.”
Many who often disagreed with Evans also have reflected over the past few weeks on what they’ve learned from their interactions and the legacy she leaves.
“Rachel Held Evans stirred the evangelical pot in ways that were uncomfortable and distressing,” wrote Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center.
“However, for me, she made me think and she made me better. She pointed out my logical fallacies and forced me to defend my assumptions. And when she appreciated something, she said it. She was always looking for the good in people, and didn’t hold back when she found it.”
But the outpouring of grief and remembrances after Evans’ death hasn’t been without pushback, said Anthea Butler, associate professor of religious studies and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
Some of her critics have seized the moment to discuss their theological disagreements with the late author, Butler said.
Some of them may be jealous that she built a bigger platform than they have, she said.
Some may see her work as a threat to conservative Christianity when Evans’ faith championed the role of women — including clergywomen — and the inclusion of LGBTQ Christians in the life of the church.
“The reality is that they’re just mad because… she had a ministry, and they want women to be quiet, and they don’t like it when women aren’t quiet, and they don’t like it when women aren’t ‘submissive,’” Butler said.
Not only did Evans bypass the gatekeepers of Christianity, Butler said, she also held open the gate for others.
The professor only sees progressive Christianity growing as people reflect on what Evans’ work meant to them and how they can continue it.
Her death might embolden some to ask questions about their own beliefs or to leave spaces that had been comfortable, she said.
And Evans’ work will live on. Her last book, “Wholehearted Faith,” is set for release in October 2020.
A lot of black women in particular are devastated by her death, Butler said.
That’s because she shared her platform with black female writers and preachers and speakers, not only in her writing but also at the conferences she co-founded, Why Christian? and Evolving Faith.
“Rachel Held Evans was somebody that you felt like you could reach out to because she was working through so much stuff,” Butler said. “She was a warm, friendly white face who didn’t talk to you like you don’t know anything,” she said.
Many readers felt that way about Evans, said writer and theologian Brian McLaren. She was asking the same questions about Christianity that they were and showing them that was OK.
“What was so beautiful about Rachel is that she was honest about her ongoing journey. Her books were kind of like bread crumbs she was dropping along the way to show people where she was going,” McLaren said.
What made her unique was that she never gave up on God, he said.
The greatest part of her legacy will be the people who haven’t given up, either, because of her — who will continue to speak up because she paved the way, according to the theologian.
For Kegler, the answer to her question — “Who is going to be our Rachel now?” — came quickly.
She isn’t sure if it was intuition or something divine, but she heard it as clear as a bell: “All of you.”
“Rachel wasn’t trying to make more Rachels,” said Kegler, pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Minneapolis and founder and editor of Queer Grace.
“She was trying to make all of us more ourselves and just to do that to the best of our abilities and to follow God’s call for each of us in such diverse and beautiful ways.”