Deconstruction: the church influences only as much as it can be trusted
Over the last three years, more and more of my friends and family are expressing tentative doubts about their faith. These are friends I’ve known as Christians and often met in the context of Christian activity like church, student groups, etc.
These are the kinds of issues they’ve brought up:
- The effectiveness or value of purity culture for girls growing up in the church
- Whether or not raising money to send out foreign missionaries is actually helpful (or even biblical)
- Whether or not premarital sex is actually wrong
- A simple lack of interest or perceived benefit in traditional church activity
- If the story of Moses’ birth wasn’t ripped off of the legendary birth of Sargon of Akkad
- The level of acceptance for LGBT members of the church
- How authoritative the Bible is
- If God is real
It’s interesting to me how this wave of critical thought has seemingly come at once — even if it may just be that some of us held our thoughts privately for a few years.
These doubts do not come from cultural Christians who never previously questioned their faith. Some of these came from people whose family doesn’t have any faith to speak of. Some of them came from those who went to ministry schools that preached and practiced the out-there stuff like faith-healing.
Basically, these weren’t newbies asking newbie questions.
Interestingly, many of these people felt they didn’t have anywhere or anyone they could trust with these questions. These friends tell me their questions are usually met with silence, or responded with canned answers failing to reach the heart of what’s being asked. Sometimes questions are met with open hostility, even questioning the legitimacy of the asker’s faith.
Deconstruction is the norm
All of these thoughts exist on the spectrum of deconstruction. If you’ve never heard the term before, deconstruction is the examination and possible rejection of any (or all) parts of your faith.
The idea isn’t new, nor is it “bad” (depending on your perspective). Some deconstruct with the purpose of finding a better alternative within the faith, and some deconstruct to escape faith altogether.
To me, the pattern of widespread deconstruction is indicative of the “adolescent” phase of evangelical Christianity. To those who feat it, it may seem like those youth group cautionary tales of wayward teens who rejected their parents’ faith, got into drugs or got pregnant, and represented all the sin and danger ahead.
Western evangelical Christianity is growing from a child into a teenager — not content with the territory laid out, but looking to explore and understand the world beyond. This is not wrong. However, it does require a different approach than many of us grew up with.
The exploration stage is likely a mix of both the natural exploration of faith as well as the influence of postmodernism. While postmodernism calls for deconstruction for its own sake, deconstruction is not a recent phenomenon. Shedding an old belief for a more powerful substitute is as old as the hero’s journey. Yet somehow the evangelical church today seems deeply unprepared for the inevitability of deconstruction.
I still see many older Christians believing the correct answer to challenging issues is to build cultural walls higher, protecting their kids from thinking too hard. By making the fence higher, they end up creating timid and weaker kids whose faith can’t stand on its own.
Like teenagers, deconstructing believers seek empathetic understanding of their issues but only hear dogma. Having time-tested orthodox beliefs isn’t wrong. Delivering those beliefs without love is. It reeks of wanting to be “right” more than wanting to help.
It must be said that truth is real and some things simply are right or wrong. There is no genuine help without truth — but attitude says everything. It tells the listener whether or not you’re acting out of insecurity in your own position and beliefs or acting from a selfless desire to better the other person.
Like teenagers, deconstructing believers have often had their trust betrayed. When encountering a difficult theological issue, believers can look past it because they ultimately trust their God, their leaders, and their community. The weight of the struggle is less than the strength of their trust. When trust starts to crumble, the weight of their struggle is overwhelming.
If a leader gets caught up in an extramarital affair, if an entire leadership structure is complicit in covering up scandal, or if the honest confession of a sin or struggle results in rejection — it creates a crisis of faith. The crisis isn’t only for the participants but also the observers.
Like teenagers, sometimes deconstructing believers (while often mistaken) simply have noticed something their parents have missed. What if the holy spirit is speaking to some of those who are deconstructing and the old guard hasn’t noticed? This isn’t necessarily a fault of the current leaders. The parts of the Body have different functions. Maybe the arm has performing its function so well it hasn’t noticed what the ear has been hearing.
Spoiler: it isn’t really about the questions
There will not be a quick end to the pattern of deconstruction, because it’s not about any one question. This generation wants to know if it can trust the church, and trust takes a long time to build.
The church has hierarchy, but it is not hierarchy. Raw appeals to authority don’t work. If you want to know what hierarchy without trust looks like, ask anyone how they feel about their government.
I’m not letting deconstructing believers off the hook entirely. Some are weathering their disappointments while others are withering like the seeds on rocky soil.
Often I hear from people wanting a “conversation,” which can be another way of saying “I want you to validate me and my behavior.” But sometimes it truly is “please show me you understand what I’m going through before trying to fix me.”
The kind of adult this deconstructing teenager will grow into depends on how it’s parented now. If church leaders choose the passive attitude of “oh, you teens and your trends!” then you can expect a future church who looks exactly like the culture around them.
Conversely, a leader who quietly panics and says “no, we don’t talk about that nonsense!” is absolutely bound to lose the respect and trust of the ones they hope to guide. They may stave off negative behavior in the short term, but soon enough the child will leave to look for moral guidance from someone who isn’t afraid of difficult topics.
It’s not about appeals to authority, and it’s not about having the right answers. The right guidance will be from someone who, with humility, is fearlessly willing to approach any question.
Don’t worry about having airtight apologetics. Demonstrate trustworthiness. It’s not about what—it’s about who.
Any Christian who wants the church to continue (and even grow) will ask themselves “what makes me trustworthy?”