Religion’s failures are pushing some Evangelicals to change — but into what?
Note: A recording of our Oct. 5 webinar is now available.
"I started deconstructing my faith three years ago," says Emily (not her real name), a college-educated mother of three. "We were told you don’t question your pastors – you follow at all costs. It was a blind faith."
Over the years inconsistencies and even spiritual abuse accumulated in her church to a point where she couldn’t accept the rationalizations and controlling tactics. The spell was finally broken when affairs and coverups among leaders came to light.
"The Holy Spirit prompted me to re-read the Gospels in a whole new frame of mind," she says. "I read them trying to set aside the anger, judgment and hate for sinners I had been taught – such as for homosexuals or women who get abortions. As I read, I noticed much more love and grace. I realized my problem wasn’t with Jesus, but with this particular church."
Like many searching for help today, Emily interacted with other people over social media on her journey. She googled the phrase "Evangelicals who left the church" and found a Facebook group of "exvangelicals" who talked a lot about deconstructing their faith. "There is a lot of hurt out there," she says when describing the group, adding that she too was going through a divorce around this time.
Deconstruction for Emily means being critical about this church and "being okay with asking the questions – and realizing some things that pastors do and say is wrong, even if they are sincere in it." Part of this has been "the freedom to enjoy the journey" but also "grieving what is lost – my church, my friends, my network." Sometimes she asks, "Have I gone too far? I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater."
She joined a small group of another church with her new husband. The group showed her another kind of Christianity is possible. Has she reconstructed her faith? "I’m not there yet," she muses. "Right now this is my journey – to seek God in His truest form."
SEEN ONE, SEEN ONE
Faith deconstruction is increasingly common, perhaps related to the number of young people who have been dropping church in recent decades after attending regularly. American pollster David Kinnaman reports periods of major doubt (38 per cent), rejection of beliefs (32 per cent) and dropouts (59 per cent) in his book You Lost Me (Baker, 2011). Some even celebrate faith deconstruction, such as a group of former Evangelicals who authored the devotional anthology The Deconstructionists Playbook (Our Bible App, 2021).
My own reading and interviews quickly suggest one truism. Once you’ve seen one person deconstruct their faith, you’ve seen one person deconstruct their faith. You need to hear the story to understand the person’s heart.
That variety can be summed up by saying that Evangelicals who are deconstructing are people who doubt the faith they have received is the fully refined good God intends, and are seeking to sift out the dross and keep what is most precious.
Some observers are quick to judge this as nothing new, grouping it with attempts by a variety of Christians over the past few decades to distance themselves from right-wing American evangelicalism. (I wrote a book on such a group that seeks to "be a church for those not into church," which I explained as "evangelicalism for those not into evangelicalism" – The Subversive Evangelical: The Ironic Charisma of an Irreligious Megachurch, McGill-Queen’s, 2019.)
But the deconstructing phenomenon today is also about another trend – the growing segment of North Americans with no self-identified religious identity. Observers sometimes refer to the nones and the dones – those asked to identify their religion but respond saying they have none (this includes people who’ve had no religious upbringing) and those who were raised with a religion but have abandoned it and now say they are done with religion.
RENOVATION OR DEMOLITION?
Deconstruction is a term made popular by French philosopher Jacques Derrida – it is really a mix of construction and destruction. Originally it was used in academic literary criticism to point out internal inconsistencies in words and concepts.
The way the word deconstruction is being used now in evangelical circles is much more personal than philosophical, and suggests people are pulling apart aspects of their identity that formerly composed a single package. Most have never read any Derrida. At its heart this deconstruction is more accurately a questioning, doubting and reckoning.
Deconstruction is a building metaphor. It’s not necessarily demolition or destruction, but more often dismantling, a taking apart or uncoupling of something formerly whole. Deconstruction as such need not be a threat, but it can be experienced as a loss – like being left in a wilderness. For Emily the deconstruction journey has been both disorienting and a godsend. It has enabled her to move from a community that no longer embodied the vision of Jesus in the Gospels to something new.
She was led to this transition through bad church experiences, a growing intuition something was off-kilter, and a re-examination of the Scriptures. At the same time she was developing new, healthier relationships outside her previous church community. For many like Emily it’s personal pain that speaks, urging a break in a pattern and maybe away from a community, and toward change for the better, closer to Jesus and His Way. This could be considered, in hindsight, more of a deconstruction toward renovation.
These renovator Christians commonly deconstruct from a certain kind of conservative evangelicalism to a more selective and idiosyncratic Christianity, sometimes appearing more progressive or liberal in shape (commonly cited examples include Jay Baker, Lisa Gungor, Rob Bell and David Gushee).
There is, however, a second kind of deconstruction where former Christians come to self-identify as atheist (such as Michael Gungor, Abraham Piper, Bart Campolo, Joshua Harris, the comedy duo Rhett and Link, David Wimbish and Marty Sampson).
Of course, atheism is a religion, too, and carries with it beliefs and practices, often relating to the ultimate authority of science in all things. This kind of deconstruction might look like demolition at first, but arguably it is a kind of conversion.
This deconstruction is more accurately a questioning, doubting and reckoning.
The most visible public examples are American, but there have been several memoirs of Canadians transitioning out of conservative Christianity – for example, John Suk’s Not Sure: A Pastor’s Journey From Faith to Doubt (Eerdmans, 2011) and Sarah Bessey’s Out of Sorts: Making Peace With an Evolving Faith (Howard, 2015).
Suk’s journey takes him to the edges of Christian belief, while Bessey has made a career out of chronicling her deconstruction (along the lines of the late Rachel Held Evans). Bessey’s journey reads like more of a renovation of faith. Both Bessey and Suk spent extensive amounts of time in evangelical circles in the United States.
Deconstruction can mean letting go, changing your mind. For example, if a person’s identity previously combined white superiority and Christianity in a seamless whole, deconstructing would mean prying the two pieces apart. Positively speaking, this can mean leaving behind some major baggage as your faith grows.
Over at the U.K. evangelical magazine Premier Christianity, editor Sam Hailes quotes a definition of deconstruction as "letting go of some of the things that no longer work." Like a sweater that doesn’t fit anymore and is fraying on the ends. Leaving your Sunday school faith behind. Opening to a new way of thinking (a new paradigm) because the old one had too many holes in it.
At best, it’s leaving behind your dearest idols and following Christ more faithfully. Carly Hutton, who lives in Langley, B.C., grew up in the American conservative world of conspiracy theories, end-times doomsday scenarios and anti-vaccination misinformation. In her 20s she started reading Rachel Held Evans and Sarah Bessey. At the same time she learned she had some Indigenous ancestry.
Gradually, she started to question the package she inherited, particularly aspects such as racism, queerphobia, ableism, capitalism, gun violence, Manifest Destiny and problematic Bible translations. Becoming a mother of a medically vulnerable child has also altered her perspective. Now she wants to teach her children a different way of following Jesus, calling on Indigenous theologians, Black theologians, womanist and liberation teachings.
She says, "I feel that Jesus, who came to earth in the body of a brown man oppressed by a European empire, would understand."
Theologically, deconstruction could be seen as a form of conversion – moving from one world view to another, whether it be from Christianity to atheism or vice versa. Many of the current deconstruction narratives sound like salvation stories. Sociologists have more precisely used the term deconversion when the emphasis is placed on what’s left behind rather than what you’re moving towards.
Positively speaking, this can mean leaving behind some major baggage as your faith grows.
To pursue the theological angle further though, this can be seen as the core process of Christian regeneration or even simply repentance, as a person dies to an old and false self, and rises again to a new and true self, in Christ, as in baptism. Others might compare it to the dark night of the soul described by St. John of the Cross. But typically we don’t call this deconstruction.
Deconstruction seems to be linked more often with doubting particular doctrines, disillusionment with contemporary churches and disenchantment with God’s presence in the world. What it truly means is determined by the deconstructors’ motives, postures and dreams – inner dispositions we can’t just assume.
Most human beings cannot endlessly deconstruct. We can’t live well in a wilderness of ruins. We need shelters – communities, practices and doctrines to be our home. So deconstruction is usually coupled with some reconstruction – a renovation that leads to a new kind of home – or a demolition that means leaving home completely for some other existential shelter.
Some examples of those who came back to an evangelical form of Christian faith after a time of deconstruction include Thomas Oden and Alisa Childers. Some would even include Justin Bieber and Kayne West.
Blessing Oluloto, a student at Redeemer University in Hamilton, Ont., guest-hosted an episode of See Hear Love on deconstruction. Among those she interviews is Oregon pastor and professor J. P. Swoboda, author of After Doubt: How to Question Your Faith Without Losing It (Brazos, 2021).
Swoboda has undergone his own deconstructing, and insists doubt is a legitimate part of the faith and church life, and can be a place where we encounter God in fresh ways. His book tries to steer a third way between a conservative aversion to all doubt and a liberal blessing of all doubt. "The goal isn’t to run from deconstruction, nor to run toward it," he writes. "The goal is Jesus Christ and nothing less."
Oluloto, a Nigerian by birth, admits to her own season of deconstruction. She sees it as dryness and distance from God. She took a sabbatical from much of her explicitly spiritual activities to re-evaluate. Deconstruction for her entailed "spotting the bad theology, and admitting to the falsities we’ve absorbed over the years and exchanging them for a new trust in Jesus." She describes it as "a dangerous kind of honesty" and "a tool for building humility within and freedom from idolatry without."
It is possible to dismiss and even demonize those talking about their deconstruction journey – to conclude they are posturing to match a trend. Grayson Gilbert, a Midwest church planter and former atheist who writes for www.Patheos.com, says former Evangelicals who now embrace a philosophical skepticism often blame others (parents, youth group, evangelists) for failing them and demonstrate "intellectual laziness, intellectual dishonesty or willful ignorance" by spouting old and often superficial critiques of the Christian faith.
Brent McCracken of The Gospel Coalition writes on its website that deconstruction is going with the flow of dominant culture – another form of mix and match, build-your-own religion, a "bourgeois iteration of mainstream consumerism" and the "go it alone" spirituality of the privileged. (McCracken is the group’s communications director and lives in California.)
He challenges those tempted by this trend to resist, be countercultural and follow the radical way of Jesus – self-denying, generous, chaste, loving enemies, embracing the image of God in all people, and trusting wholeheartedly in Jesus and His way of reconciliation. He seems to suggest deconstruction is a copout from the narrow way.
If deconstruction means leaving trust in Jesus as the pathway into Trinitarian life, disbelieving the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting, and exchanging it for the disenchanted secular mindset of the dominant culture in our country, then certainly our beloved friends and family making these choices are cutting themselves off from some of life’s highest goods, deepest truths and most beautiful visions.
This is truly a loss to be grieved – as it is (in Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s terms) a closing off, a subtraction, a lowering of horizons. Deconstruction often entails a loss of relationship and community in an already terribly lonely world. It can mean severing a bond with the communion of the saints and our heavenly Father Himself.
The wilderness is a disorienting place, and reorientation needs more than 40 days for many.
Karen Swallow Prior taught literature at Liberty University in Virginia for over 20 years but now teaches at a Baptist seminary in North Carolina. This summer she wrote for the Religion News Service about deconstructing her faith in a way that focuses not on her own experience, but on the failures of contemporary churches.
She compares the rot discovered under the veneer in her bathroom to the rot in so many churches – the abuse, the cover-up of abuse, the racial strife, the ugly disputes and painful divisions. "Deep rot. Dangerous rot. That kind of rot requires major deconstruction."
There is a danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. But she says, "It is our job to help hold those babies – but it is also our job to help dump that dirty water down the drain." Deconstruction is necessary for reconstruction, and it’s excruciatingly difficult work. Messy, and a bigger job than expected.
Overall this seems more common or at least more public in American evangelicalism than our Canadian scene. But the revelations, for example, of Ravi Zacharias’ sexual misconduct, and Indigenous children’s bodies in unmarked graves across our country suggest we have our own cultural baggage to sort out. We must become the repentance we commend to others.
So what might reconstruction look like, in a collective sense?
- We need to learn to listen, and listen attentively to stories that are deeply troubling. We can withhold judgment, refrain from being defensive and yet still be discerning through reading books like Swoboda’s After Doubt. The wilderness is a disorienting place, and reorientation needs more than 40 days for many.
- We must confess the failures of our churches and our own complicity in those failures. We must repent and ask forgiveness from God and in some cases from our detractors.
- We must live up to the standards of God’s Kingdom and call leaders to account. Boards must be proactive and courageous in addressing the weaknesses and crimes of leadership.
- We must affirm the vital role of the Church in society. At their best, churches heal, help and train people to be salt and light in their families and neighbourhoods. People leaving the Church is a loss, but people joining hands in ministry together is a gain – for everyone.
- Put Jesus Christ first, as He reforms the Church and calls all sinners to receive His grace and hear His call to service. Any other focus is idolatry.
The trend to deconstructing faith is a sign of the larger cultural skepticism toward Christian faith, and it is a challenge to a gospel witness that includes dying to temptations of privilege, prestige and popularity, and rising in steadfast practices of caring for the poor, sharing Good News and listening patiently to those who find the way difficult.
Deconstruction at its best may be a deeper participation in a person’s own baptism, a dying to a distorted faith and a rising to a renewed vision of the gospel – Christ’s Kingdom of love, light and life.
We think our cover stories would be great to discuss with your small group or Bible study. Point members to www.FaithToday.ca/DeconstructingFaith. Let us know how it goes (editor@FaithToday.ca)!
- What is your own experience with deconstructing faith or walking with those who are?
- Our writer explores the benefits and the challenges of deconstruction. Are there more positives or negatives you would add to the conversation?
- How can your church become an even safer place for tough discussions around faith and culture?
Peter Schuurman of Guelph, Ont., is an adjunct professor of religion and theology at Redeemer University and executive director of Global Scholars Canada, which supports Christian scholars in public universities worldwide.
Our webinar with Peter Schuurman from Oct. 5 is now available.