Last week, The Gospel Coalition published a piece by Joshua Ryan Butler on the reasons people deconstruct their faith. In it, Butler claimed that people who are deconstructing their faith are (most of the time) doing so for one of four reasons: church hurt, poor teaching, desire to sin, or street cred. Handily enough, these four root causes are listed in order of legitimacy: church hurt is absolutely one of the most common reasons that people I know are deconstructing; poor teaching is problematic as well, although I am not sure Butler and I would agree on what “good teaching” is; desire to sin is not one I have encountered in my discussions with deconstructing friends; street cred is absolutely laughable.
One of the issues with the discussion around deconstruction is that the people who are preaching and teaching about it, namely pastors, have a dog in the fight: it is sort of like asking a dairy farmer if you should become vegan. They obviously don’t want that, and their livelihood is directly affected when people leave the church. I know this conversation well, as my own family is and has been deeply involved in ministry. My dad is my pastor. So while I grapple with my own issues with the church, I am doing so in an environment that is still very much Christian. I do not take deconstruction lightly, nor do I wish for churches to die. I want the church to flourish, and flourishing requires weeding out that which is harmful.
Church hurt, as previously mentioned, is perhaps the most powerful driving force in deconstruction, but I want to emphasize that this is not merely a case of people getting their feelings hurt and leaving church in a fit of sensitivity. For me, the hurt against which I am recoiling is harm that has been done to other people, namely people on the margins. I am a straight, cisgendered, white, middle class woman. I have a lot of privilege. The church hurt that I could not tolerate was the way that the church treated LGBTQ people and the lack of responsibility it took for racial harm it had both committed and permitted. We are loath to acknowledge and sit with the ways in which we have harmed people; it is uncomfortable and frankly, it feels awful. Easier, exponentially, is it to move right past the hurt to the forgiveness and unity. That is not how it works, though. In order for healing to take place, we’ve got to root out the cancer. It hurts. It’s painful. It takes a lot of time. But if the cancer is not eliminated before the wounds are stitched back up, it will just continue to fester and grow.
Faulty teaching has also caused people to walk away from the church, though most of the people I know who have left the church for this reason have done just that: left the church—not left God. There are many, many people who preach that you cannot do one without doing the other (again, namely people whose livelihoods are dependent on church attendance and membership), but that is not true. What we need is community with other people who love God, and that can be found in a multitude of places. Some of the holiest moments of communion I have had are not in church pews, but over backyard beers and on long walks with friends. They are over shared meals and caring for each other’s babies. They are in living rooms, not sanctuaries. This is not to say that community cannot be found in church, but that church is not the only place community can be found.
As for the teaching itself, I have found that the toxic combination is bad teaching and absolute certainty; not merely inaccurate theology, but tight-fisted, arrogant theology that denies all possibility of wrong. I recently looked through the “lifestyle statements” of several local Christian organizations: churches, schools, nonprofits, etc. They were riddled with words and phrases like infallible, inerrant, six-literal-days, certainty, and truth, and operated on the presumption that they were the ones with the corner on truth itself. These statements allowed very little space for differences in understanding and even less space for the possibility that the writers of these statements might be wrong. That is the teaching that turns so many people away from the church: not just inaccurate teaching, but dogmatic, hard headed teaching. Arrogant teaching. Conflated teaching. Teaching that leaves no room for doubt or wonder. Teaching that demands conformity.
My dad is my pastor, and while I am—admittedly—biased, he is a very good one. He and I do not agree on everything, but one thing that I deeply appreciate about his preaching is how often he says, “This is the way I understand this text. I might be wrong.” We need more of this.
The assumption that people deconstruct so that they can comfortably justify their own sin deserves consideration. One of the examples Butler uses is students who begin to deconstruct when they start having sex with their partner. These individuals, according to Butler, conveniently decide to reevaluate their beliefs because they don’t want to stop having sex. I’d like to offer an alternative perspective. Perhaps these people are reevaluating the truthfulness of the things they have been taught are black and white; perhaps they are learning to see shades of gray and learning to deal in nuance.
One of the areas in which bad teaching has really done a number on people is sexuality. Women, particularly, are taught that our bodies are dangerous. These messages are usually dressed up in language about how our bodies are special and precious, but the underlying message is: our bodies are live grenades, most valuable when no one has touched them (at least until we are married, and then the opposite is suddenly true), and they do not belong to us. We are taught to fear our bodies, and then, in turn, we learn to hate our bodies. This is what happens with fear: it turns to hate.
I remember signing a purity pledge when I was in 7th or 8th grade. I had barely started puberty, and I participated in a ceremony where I pledged my body to a person I wouldn’t meet for another six or seven years. I did not even have the language to properly understand my body before I promised it to a stranger. Parents were there. It was humiliating. I was one of the lucky ones who had not suffered abuse and was not already sexually active; I can’t imagine how awful that night was for my middle school peers who had either been sexually abused or had already had sex. I was scared; they must have been devastated.
Perhaps this “desire to sin” issue that Butler cites is simply an extension of his earlier point about bad teaching. Maybe, it is less a desire to sin than a shift in understanding about what sin actually is. Many of the people I know who are deconstructing are deeply convicted of both their own sin and our collective sin. We are deeply concerned with the way people are treated and the ways we have failed to love our neighbors. We are burdened by the ways we have upheld systems of oppression and the ways we have capitalized on our privilege at the direct expense of our marginalized neighbors. We do not desire to sin, but the sins we were warned about in church (premarital sex, “backsliding,” etc.) are not the ones we see harming our neighbors.
The assumption that people who are deconstructing their faith are doing so for street cred is really. . . wild. Especially considering that deconstructing very often means losing and mourning an integral part of your upbringing, identity, and community. Deconstruction is painful. It often comes with a side of rejection and loneliness. I don’t know what streets Butler is referring to, but so far I have not found them. Deconstruction feels more like wandering in the wilderness than palling around on the streets.
Personally, I would like to petition that we add the current state of the American church to the list of reasons why people are deconstructing. Without fail, every person I know who is deconstructing is doing so in part because of the nationalism and rugged individualism that is all too commonly preached from American pulpits. We watched Trump rise to power spouting racist, xenophobic, fear-mongering propaganda all the way while evangelical pastors cheered him on and shouted their support and we could not stomach it; we have attended churches with American flags framing the cross on the altar; we have witnessed the preaching of personal conversion and individual freedom that completely neglects to consider or address communal responsibility or social justice. We aren’t looking for street cred, we are desperately trying to escape the nationalist trappings that plague so many American churches today. We want nothing of it.
On a final note: the people I know who are deconstructing their faith are, in many cases, the people who take their faith the most seriously. These are not people who are in any way flippant about God. They are people who love Jesus and love justice so much that they are willing to walk away from everything that is comfortable in an attempt to love God and love their neighbors well. They are leaving the church, and if you let them, they will save it, too.