In part 2 of this series, I wrote about “spiritual minimalism” or the idea of getting rid of unnecessary dogma associated with what a Christian must do in order to be a Christian. Today, I’ll write about deconstruction, or the act of wholly deconstructing one’s faith, including the gospel and other forms of modern and ancient belief systems one has inherited in their previous Christian faith. I must warn you, however, I am not this person nor do I ever want to be this person. I say that because, having known several of these people, and unlike what most people think about them, it is not a desirable process. I’m going to write this post with humility and grace, so much so that you might think I condone such an activity as to deconstruct one’s faith.
But honestly, I don’t even look at this as something which I condone or not. It is simply something that is, and so I describe the challenges of deconstruction as best as I can without judgment or condoning, because my goal in this series is not to do either of those things. My goal is to simply let you know what Spiritual Deconstruction is, and what it is not, and then to see if we can agree to disagree at times and build unity where we can. I also want to build a strong case for the gospel, as we have defined it thus far, being the central and ultimate focus of our walk with and in Christ.
I remember the first time I found out that a close friend of mine was deconstructing his faith. We were close. Very close. He moved with his family away from New England to the underbelly of the Bible Belt – the South. He, like me, had befriended Rob Bell literature in all of its glory, and as time went on, he began to really hold on to some of the main tenets of Rob Bell’s theology, which as his books rolled on and he left his church, became more and more loosely affiliated with Christ.
Another friend told me about it, and so I quickly reached out and began to pray for my friend. I did not judge him, and I did not scold him. It’s interesting that was the first time I had ever prayed for my friend.
Fast forward years later and I have numerous friends and family all around me who have deconstructed in such ways, and in different ways. In fact, one of the mistakes many make as they look at those who have deconstructed is that they believe they are all in the same club, laughing and partying and smoking weed together. This could not be farther from the truth. Deconstruction of one’s faith is hard and deep and makes those who do it sad for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they completely go away from faith, and sometimes they end up with faith,but admittedly it looks very different from the faith they had before and certainly different from the one you might have if you remain in evangelicalism or mainline Christianity.
There are, however, some similarities between those who let go of everything they have known faith wise and start from scratch.
First of all, they tend to start asking a lot of questions to people who are in the know. They don’t do it out of pride and arrogance, but out of a genuine desire to know God more. (Obviously this is not true 100% of the time, but generally this is spot on). They might have read a book by Rob Bell or Brian McLaren or Richard Dawkins or Richard Rohr or Francis Collins and they had questions. So they took those questions to those they trusted most.
Now here’s where there might be some disagreement. I don’t think reading those people, both the ones who claim Christ and the ones who do not, is wrong. This is the world that we live in. A robust, universal, educational fiesta of ideas, philosophies, traditions, and opinions. We all have access to such ideas and should have access to such ideas. If Christianity only holds up in the island abyss of its own fenced-in worldview, then it doesn’t hold up at all.
So let’s say this person goes to someone they trust, a pastor or a staff member, and asks questions they have based on some of their studies and reading. Two things then generally happen: Either the pastor/mentor doesn’t answer the question to the satisfaction of the mentee or the pastor/mentor flat out shuts down the questions and tells the mentee, sometimes gracefully and sometimes emphatically to stop reading the “trash”. So the question asker has no choice but to take the discussion outside of the church realm, which is really ironic because that person will begin gravitating to other free thinkers. Once again, I’m not providing a value for this happening, whether right or wrong, but I’m simply sharing that it happens. Now more than ever.
After the initial questions, the asker begins to dissociate themselves from their in-church relationships. This is not an easy thing, nor does it make them happy to do so. But they have simply not found the place and the people in their church to be a safe place (I know this is a buzz term) for them to walk on this journey any longer. Remember, at this point they typically have made no decisions and don’t have a desire to lose their community. Another important point here is that the people who we know and talk about that are deconstructing are typically people that have given immense amounts of time and money and their whole being to the church. Nobody cares or is shocked when someone who attends church once every few months deconstructs. People are shocked when friends of theirs do the unthinkable and begin to think differently.
I have friends who are gay. (I know immediately I’m stepping on a landmine here, so if I’ve written something wrong in that sentence, my apologies.) Without debating the rightness or wrongness of that, I have to confess that it is easier for me to make friends with people who I meet as gay or lesbian than it is for me to not judge someone who I know as straight and then changes during the time I know them.
The same is true as we talk about those who deconstruct while we fellowship with them. It can be difficult not to cast judgment and look down on them as they go through that process. They might even know that and maybe even have judged others themselves in the past, and so more times than not, they willingly and sadly walk away from the community of faith they’ve poured into for years.
One of the main reasons this occurs, I believe, is the time they spent, “behind the curtain”. With all of the talk of spirituality and Jesus rising and praying for miracles, there is infinitely more resources (time, money, etc…) poured into things that the leadership controls. Once again, I’m not casting judgment but speaking one of the more obvious facts about the Western Church over the last several centuries. Then when it comes to politics, it becomes ‘incomprehensible’ that we would “allow man control of what God should have in his charge.” Along with seeing behind the curtain, and the questions that begin at a quick pace, the amount of leadership failures that have arisen in the last 30 years in church – including cover ups – force the deconstructionist to question not just his faith, but even the church. Pastors cover up for other pastors, and make hero worship amongst themselves a group sport. And the amount of overspending, sexual and power abuse, and financial mismanagement is unthinkable.
From here, the direction of the deconstructed one goes one of two ways: Either they have a loose affiliation with Christianity, but it looks more like universalism, or they walk away from the Christian faith all together. Many times they look fondly upon their time as a Christian, and many times they do not. More times than not, however, they are conflicted somewhere in the middle of a lot of different feelings and thoughts. They begin to feel more comfortable at a bar talking with friends about their jobs than at church talking about the next “great event” that’s about to happen. They begin to take control over what they can in their own lives, because they feel others have taken control over their lives through their manipulative leadership. My friend who I spoke about opening this post began to think of churches as being successful or not, only because the leadership was good or not, and having nothing to do with God’s providential hand guiding it.
Please note, once again, I’m not saying any of this is true or false, but I’m trying to give an accurate and fair analysis of what those who deconstruct their faith go through, based on friends and family I have, experiences I’ve gone through, and my own years of being “behind the curtain”.
Finally the person has undergone the change they’ve been seeking. Many times their change looks more human than divine, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Spiritual Minimalism looks similar at times. The humanist part is what scares me. Many times the deconstructor decides to drop the Christian worldview all together, and looks at themselves as a humanist. One might say, “If it’s good for humanity, than it works for me.” It is a stereotypical, yet almost unavoidable ending point to a search that started with a few questions. I don’t mean to reduce the experiences of those walking this journey, but alas, it is the finish line. Oddly, if Christians would look at what Jesus was actually doing, and would cease from transforming Paul into the “New 10 Commandments” of their faith, they would see that their walk, too, is amazing for humanity, and not just their four walls. But more on that in the next post.
I return to the words of one of my friends after they read Part 1 of this series: So where is the line?
I’m not sure if that’s the right question anymore. Another way of asking that question is “Is that person saved anymore or not?” Also, I think it misses the greater point. Perhaps the better question is, “Why would a person find themselves in a place like that in the first place?” “What went wrong in that person’s life/heart/brain/eyes where they no longer saw Christianity, at least the way it is being practiced in their particular context, as a viable option for their worldview?”
But what if we stepped back for a bit, and instead of trying to control everything as we like to do, what if we prayed for those who are dealing with such questions? What if you took the time every day to pray for the countless numbers of people in your life who struggle with their faith, and you asked the Spirit of God to reach out to them and to lead them? What if you prayed instead of guilted?
Does it scare you to give up that kind of control? It does me. I want to talk people into believing the way I want them to believe. But if I may be so bold, if apologetics were going to work in people’s hearts, it would have done so in the 80’s 90’s and 2010’s, when more people were practicing this art form.
The other thing you can do is pray for those in your church and teach them to obey the commandments of Jesus not only in classroom form, but also by example. Don’t wait until they start to slip away, and certainly don’t wait till they’re gone. Pray for them now. Talk to them now. Deal with some of their issues now in a loving way. Ask them to follow your example as Paul told his followers. I don’t mean to say that every time someone deconstructs, it’s the pastor’s fault because of how he or she dealt with the situation, but when a pastor or a church member doesn’t look honestly at things brought up to them because they’re busy planning a service and because “that’s ridiculous”, they resemble the priest or the Levite more than they do the Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).
Obviously the layout I’ve shared here is not everyone’s story, because a story is not a formula or a layout. A real story is very fluid in its path. So seek to “pray and empathize before you call out the lies” of those who are on that path. Unless they are a total tool, they are not seeking to destroy Christianity. You don’t have to get defensive. Unfortunately those who are total tools tend to be the Christ followers, who have forgotten that this is a Spirit Led gig and not something you can control. So please pray and empathize.
And if you are reading this and are on the path of deconstruction, know that you are loved. You are God’s child. You are struggling, yes, but you have not been abandoned. There is freedom when God leads, and slavery where man controls. So if nothing else, please stick to praying and empathizing with and for those around you as well.
And one more thing, no matter who you are:
I love you.