A New Rite of Passage
Ah, the faith deconstruction story—you know it by now. A Christian of notable public platform has a crisis of faith. Tough questions turn into doubts and before long, doubts translate into 1,500 words on Instagram about a “journey” that culminates in public repudiation of Christianity. This is the new rite of passage for the ex-evangelical, often being heralded as an act of authenticity by those with progressive leanings.
The first public deconstruction story that really caught my attention was that of David Bazan. Performing originally under the name Pedro the Lion, Bazan was an influential artist in the underground Christian indie/alternative music scene in the early 2000s. Over time, however, he began to rethink his views on faith and eventually began vocalizing his process of faith deconstruction publicly. This hit home for me the first time I listened to his 2009 album Curse Your Branches. On the opening track Hard to Be, he believably croons,
Wait just a minute, you expect me to believe
That all this misbehaving grew from one enchanted tree
Helpless to fight it, we should all be satisfied
With this magical explanation of why the living die
And why it’s hard to be a decent human being
Sadly, Bazan’s deconstruction narrative wouldn’t be the last I would encounter. Since then, I’ve witnessed a number of public figures from the church world repudiate orthodox Christianity in some form or another—figures such as ex-pastor Joshua Harris, social media personality Jen Hatmaker, Jonathan Steingard of Canadian CCM band Hawk Nelson, and ex-Mars Hill worship leader Dustin Kensrue (to name only a few). In fact, such cases are becoming so common that Sarey Martin Concepcion and Dan Koch have created the website soyouredeconstructing.com for people seeking guidance and support as they trod this increasingly well-worn path of faith deconstruction.
Elements of Faith Deconstruction
As we continue to experience this groundswell of sorts, it’s important that followers of Jesus understand the nature of what is happening when people deconstruct their faith. As I’ve observed stories of this variety, a few identifiable elements typically stand out. Put briefly, they are:
- A felt-release from structures of ecclesial authority and binding community over issues of trust. Oftentimes, the person deconstructing their faith feels they’ve been let down in some way by a church or Christian institution. Tragically, many such cases involve a relationally toxic environment in which those in authority behaved in destructive ways without being held accountable. In light of the resulting perceptions, the person now places greater trust in their own feelings and intuitions about Christendom. Generally speaking, this metastasizes their culturally ingrained propensity toward a self-referential search for authenticity.
- An embrace of the moral, social, and ethical sensibilities of mainstream progressive culture. In the face of complex social and cultural issues that impact people’s lives, the church is often portrayed as having responded in a manner that is either irrationally bigoted or embarrassingly inadequate. Having not found what they’re looking for, the person deconstructing their faith will then look elsewhere for answers, and adherents of progressivism are all too ready to provide them.
- A tipping point at which the individual “comes out” publicly, which is met with an overwhelming and varied response. Amidst the outpouring of reactions, this is hailed by many as an act of authenticity while others lament it as a tragedy. Essentially, this final step sends a signal to the world that the person now identifies with a different, more progressive tribe.
Looking at Ourselves in the Mirror
At the level of cultural analysis, there is much that could be said about the basic elements of a deconstruction story. It isn’t unreasonable to question the presumed authenticity of every deconstruction narrative. Why, after all, does every such “act of authenticity” result in basically the same thing: conformity to the norms of progressivism and its accompanying disparagement of conservative evangelical Christianity? That’s not exactly “thinking for yourself,” as if such a thing is even possible.
At the same time, though, we must remember that we in the church belong on the receiving end of hard questions as much as anyone else—or more than anyone else, in fact. Because of the nature of the church’s truth claims, our culture is right to hold us to a high standard, even if this is often done in a less-than-gracious spirit. Not only that, we should be willing to ask ourselves hard questions. The perceptions revealed in stories of faith deconstruction present us with an opportunity to evaluate our churches and our lives. Therefore pastors and church members alike would be wise to ponder the following questions honestly and humbly in the harsh light of a cultural moment where deconstruction stories are not only possible, but plausible, influential, and compelling.
- Are the structures of authority and community in our churches designed to foster trust? Whether we hold pastoral office or live as a committed member of a local church, we must be the kind of people who can be trusted by those who bring hurts and questions to the table. True, not everything we say and do will make people happy. But that’s because the Gospel is, by nature, offensive (1 Cor. 1:23). Our personal character and institutional integrity, on the other hand, must exhibit God’s standards and thereby minimize cause for offense. May our churches never plant reasons for suspicion in the hearts and minds of those whom God has entrusted into our care, particularly when they are in danger of wandering from His fold. Trust is vital for any relationship. Speaking of that…
- Do our churches provide discipling environments where people can develop life-giving relationships? Our culture is starved for meaningful relationships and people will look just about anywhere for some semblance of human connection. Sadly, the church has not always been known as a place where such relationships can be built. One of the most unfortunate developments in the American evangelical church is the widespread functional neglect of the biblical doctrine known as the priesthood of all believers. Practically speaking, this doctrine calls the church to treat every member as adding unique value to the fellowship of the saints. Instead churches opt for mere pragmatism, trying to mimic the coolest, most successful churches by hiring a team of highly skilled experts to replicate “what works.” To be clear, I am not against churches assembling a competent staff (after all, I myself work for a church). My purpose here is to highlight the sad fact that, instead of equipping the saints to do the work of ministry (Eph. 4:11-16), we’ve settled for doing ministry for the saints. The former creates an environment where real, lasting relationships are built. By contrast, the latter creates an environment where people consume spiritual goods and services provided by an elite team of ministry experts, which makes for a distinctly non-relational environment. This type of church is easy to write off. Many who are deconstructing their faith have been burned by exposure to ministry environments where desirable results were prized more highly than the quality of relationship. It’s much harder, however, to walk away from a community where life-giving relationships are being developed under the authority of the Word and by fellowship at the Lord’s Table.
- Are we giving good, true, and beautiful reasons to embrace the now-countercultural theological and ethical framework of historic Christianity? It is true that many issues—LGBTQ+ issues in particular—require Christian dissent from mainstream culture. However, it is too common for Christians to make rash blanket statements about moral disintegration across the cultural landscape. Conversely, it’s not common enough for Christians to thoughtfully show why God’s purpose for gender, marriage, and sexuality is good, true, and beautiful. It is critical, then, that we focus on what is foundational more readily than we harp on what is wrong. As a child of the 90s who grew up in a conservative Christian environment, I saw my share of pearl-clutching over American culture’s moral decay, which is not exactly a glowing testimony for Christianity’s claim to the good life. However, I did see an alternative version of the good life on TV shows like Friends. Through the show’s compelling narrative arch and likable characters, the embrace of consequence-free sexual promiscuity was presented to me as an exciting and unconventional ideal for an emerging generation. Many of the people who are deconstructing their faith also grew up witnessing this dichotomy of claims about what is good, true, and beautiful.
To be realistic, asking such questions and responding to them faithfully will not make deconstruction stories disappear. The wheat will continue to grow alongside the tares. It has been this way since the earliest days of the church and it will not cease until Christ returns. But that’s not the point. The point of these questions is to remind us that God has called every Christian to the work of construction. Paul referred to himself in 1 Cor. 3:10 as “a skilled master builder” who laid a foundation for the church by making known the mysteries of Christ. Centuries later, pastors and church members are still being called to build upon that foundation. Our aim, then, should be to construct firm churches by stewarding God-ordained methods of ministry to the best of our ability. Perhaps the Lord will use our work to multiply stories of His grace and redemption in this generation, so that the church might be built up in faith to confess its most precious mystery:
Christ has died;
Christ is risen;
Christ will come again.