One of the major trends in Christianity right now is the idea of deconstruction. Now, this is not postmodern, Derrida-esque deconstruction. Simply, it is the questioning and rejection of certain tenets of one’s faith that one was taught. Many people have deconstructed their faith so far that they have left evangelicalism—they are now #exvangelicals. This is a thriving and growing online movement of people who have left the evangelical brand of Christianity.
Even though I write for the Evangelical Channel here on Patheos, that label does not always comfortably fit me. It is, however, perhaps the best way to categorize me. There are beliefs and attitudes and behaviors that are called “evangelical” that I neither subscribe to nor support. I have certain attitudes and beliefs that would not fit comfortably within evangelicalism. However, evangelicalism is my home; I was raised and educated in the evangelical socio-religious milieu. Evangelicals are my people; evangelicalism is my tribe.
It has been disheartening for me to see friends of mine, former colleagues even, deconstruct their faith to such an extent that they have abandoned not just evangelicalism, but Christianity itself. It is more disheartening, however, to hear the stories of those who lived within evangelical spaces and experienced reprehensible treatment from those claiming the evangelical label. It has been devastating to read and hear stories of church hurt, of rejection, of betrayal.
The most disheartening thing, however, has been people losing their faith in Jesus because of the actions and teachings of evangelicals. Jesus is bigger and better than any particular brand of Christianity; in fact, he is bigger and better than Christianity itself. To see people abandon Jesus (or worse, feel as though Jesus abandoned them) is a painful reality. To see my tribe hurting so many people grieves my heart.
A Reality We Must Face Honestly
This is reality we need to face honestly. There are some—many—even who have just dismissed deconstructing exvangelicals as just wanting to go and sin more. This is short-sighted, unfair, and cruel. Evangelicals have not done a great job understanding the movement. The fact is, many exvangelicals, if we were to listen to them, have something to say to us, something that might in fact help us live more faithfully like Jesus. We shouldn’t be so afraid of them and what they have to say about us that we just glibly ignore and dismiss their concerns. It’s much more difficult to hear criticism than it is to defensively build up walls to keep them out.
Why Do People Deconstruct?
From my reading, there are several reasons why people have deconstructed their faith. It does not seem like there is any one thing evangelicals are doing or teaching that is causing people to deconstruct. Rather, there are a variety of reasons, and for most people, multiple reasons have led to their deconstruction. Many of these reasons are valid; if these were the sum total of my own experience within the faith, I might have deconstructed also. Fortunately, they do not all represent my experience within the faith, but there are some legitimate truths that we evangelicals need to hear. Some of these reasons for leaving are:
- Unanswered prayer
- Biblical literalism and inerrancy
- Lack of concern for the marginalized
Some Introductory Thoughts
But before I dive into those specifically—which will be on another day—I want to make some general comments about deconstruction.
- Deconstruction is not new. It has been going on forever, we just didn’t have this name for it. It is fair to say that Martin Luther deconstructed his Catholicism into Lutheranism, and Calvin deconstructed Lutheranism into Calvinism. Protestants are the original deconstructionists.
- “Deconstruction” is a fad. I do not mean this pejoratively. It is a fad that has caught momentum and resonated with many people. It is a fad in the same way that seeker-sensitive ministry was a fad, or the Emerging Church was a fad, or New Calvinism was a fad. As many people found hope and new life in those movements, so too are people finding hope and new life in this one. And even when this moment is over people will continue to deconstruct. But like most fads, it probably won’t be a lasting movement.
- Deconstruction is not something that most people do intentionally. Rather, it is a word that usefully describes a process that has already happened. People only realize that they have deconstructed in hindsight. As Matthew Distefano writes:
First off, you don’t propel people into deconstruction. Anyone who has acknowledged that deconstruction is happening to them knows this. In case you missed the way I phrased that, let me repeat myself: Deconstruction happens to you. You don’t wake up one day and think, “Gosh, I’ve got a busy day. Gotta get the kids to work. There’s that leak in the bathroom sink that needs fixing. And oh, if I have time, I’ll thrust myself into an existential crisis and question my entire paradigm.”
- Deconstruction, in many cases, happens when people are not allowed to honestly wrestle with their doubts. They have been given too many bad, pat answers to deep theological doubts or have been told that they are sinning by doubting. Most evangelical spaces are not safe places in which people can deal with their doubts in an honest and authentic manner.
- Likewise, deconstruction is a normal part of learning. Remember growing up learning subtraction and you were always told that the bigger number goes on top so you can subtract the smaller number from it? And then you go on to more advanced math and learn about negative numbers and that the smaller number is often on top? Especially in your monthly budget? You learned something at a level you could understand it, and then when you grew older, you were able to understand something deeper. All learning is like this, including Christian learning.
- Deconstruction is not deconversion. Many people who have deconstructed their evangelical faith are desperately clinging to Jesus among the shattered remains of their deconstructed faith. Deconstruction can often lead to deconversion, but it doesn’t necessarily have to. Some deconstruct all the way to atheism, but not all. We don’t need to immediately fear for someone’s soul if they tell us they are deconstructing.
- American evangelicals could stand to deconstruct some aspects of their faith and culture. We can’t be so proud that we refuse to see areas in which we might be wrong, where might have a blindspot. We can’t assume that we are the only ones who have correctly interpreted Scripture, especially since we don’t even all agree all the time about what Scripture means. We need to examine everything we teach and do through the lens of the cross and deconstruct whatever doesn’t enter that field of vision. This should be an ongoing process. Reformed, and always reforming, they say.
Truly Understanding Exvangelicals
My goal is to better understand why people are deconstructing so that I can be a better pastor and a better Christian brother. I want to truly listen to and understand the concerns being raised by exvangelicals so that my church can become a better place for people to wrestle with doubt and feel safe asking difficult questions. I also want to be able to help my church prevent preventable things like abuse and prepare to handle such things in a compassionate and godly manner.
To that end, I will set off on a series of articles attempting to deconstruct deconstruction in an effort to represent fairly the concerns of exvangelicals and how evangelicals might respond. From the start it will be good for you to know that I will not agree with everything exvangelicals are saying; if I did, I’d be one of them. But I will seek to be fair as I wrestle with these weighty matters.
Next time I swing back around to this topic, I will discuss the question: What even is evangelicalism?
You can connect with me on Instagram, Threads, and Twitter (or whatever Elon’s calling it now) @revsteve83 or email me at email@example.com.