I’ll never forget the drive home from a friend’s house that changed everything. It was late and I lived about 30 minutes away. This drive wasn’t uncommon for me, it just happened to work out that most of my friends didn’t live in my area. I made this drive a thousand times but why was tonight so different? I was zoned out deep in mind as usual when a thought burst into my mind. What if everything I believed was wrong? What if when I died and met God He would say that I actually believed the wrong thing and I’d be damned to Hell where I’d burn alive forever? The panic began to set in. My heart started racing, the walls were closing in fast and a deep sense of dread came over me. What if I’m believing wrong, I thought over and over again. My evangelical training kicked in and I thought about all the times I was told that I could know for sure where I would go when I died but those memories were drowned out by new thoughts. How could I actually know that I was right? All of the sermons I listened to, the apologetics podcasts I soaked in suddenly crumbled around me. After being in the church for 25 years, none of what I was taught could satisfy this question.
I didn’t know it yet, but I was beginning to deconstruct.
If you’re in the Evangelical world chances are you’ve heard about this phenomena known as deconstruction. It seems to have swept the Church by storm and it seems to have come out of nowhere. As someone who has grown up in the Evangelical movement and has all of the badges to prove it (The homeschool badge, the VBS badge, the AWANA badge, the worship team badge, the…you get the point), I’ve spent the last decade deep in the trenches of rethinking my faith having discussions via coffee, podcasts, blog posts and I’ve fielded thousands of DM’s on my Instagram account @thenewevangelicals from people who feel stuck, scared or angry. Sometimes it’s all three at one time. I’ve worked with pastors planting churches, I’ve been on leadership teams, I’ve lead small-groups, I’ve helped create structures for Churches to focus on discipleship and I’ve spent countless hours behind a drum kit leading worship for over a dozen churches (I counted). I can safely say deconstruction has been here for a while but people didn’t feel bold enough to actually say what they’ve been thinking out loud. Because of this newfound boldness, deconstruction has come to the forefront and has forced the Evangelical machine to look at it square in the face.
Dr. David Gushee who was a former evangelical until he got kicked out for writing a LGBTQ+ affirming book called Changing our Minds told me in an interview earlier this year that he estimates around 20+ Million Evangelicals are in some way deconstructing (or rethinking) their faith. Maybe you’re one of them. This phenomena isn’t actually new but because we’ve been under the thumb of fundamentalist thought it seems to have exploded on to the scene. The truth is, the seeds were planted decades ago and we are finally reaping a harvest of a wayward Evangelical church that is too concerned with conservative politics than it is about the historic Christian faith it’s a part of. The Evangelical Church overall hasn’t looked fondly at deconstructing. For example, the Gospel Coalition (A leading publication in the Evangelical Space) is releasing a book later this year titled “Before You Lose Your Faith” with title chapters such as “‘Progressive’ Christianity Was Even Shallower Than the Evangelical Faith I Left” and “Hell: Skeletons in God’s Closet?” (A direct shot at popular book for deconstructionist called “The Skeletons in God’s Closet: The Mercy of Hell, the Surprise of Judgment, the Hope of Holy War” by Joshua Butler). Instead of listening to people who grew up in their own congregations and holding space for them to be fully honest and safe enough to come to their own conclusions (weren’t we always told to search and study for ourselves?) they’ve instead circled the wagons, doubled down on their dogmas and have treated deconstructing like they treat most things they find threatening; they have defined it on their terms and have been quick to speak against it.
But what exactly is deconstruction and if you’re going through it, how do you survive it?
First, it’s important for our context to understand that deconstruction is a very big umbrella term. Similar to how Evangelical is a massive term that includes people who have major theological disagreements (Both John Macarthur and Kenneth Copeland would be considered Evangelical) deconstruction has people under its shade that probably see things vastly different. Some are on the way out of the Christian faith and want nothing to do with it. However, there is a there is a massive amount of people that are deconstructing because they want to keep their faith, not lose it. So for the rest of this piece, let’s assume that’s our audience.
Deconstructing can be defined like this; Rethinking and taking apart the theological systems we were taught were absolutes. For many of us, we were taught certain absolutes about the Christian faith and we were told if we question these beliefs we are on our way out of the faith. A few examples include Hell as eternal conscious torment, LGBTQ inclusion, Systematic Racism and the Bible. We were taught specific dogmas about each of those topics and strongly warned that if we ventured off to the chosen path, we would surely find ourselves outside of the Christian faith. But is that actually true? Turns out….no, it’s not.
As many of us grew in our faith by listening to theologians, studying the Bible for ourselves and reading Church history, we discovered that many of those topics are elastic, not rigid. Turns out there are several perspectives on Hell. It turns out there has been great work done in academia about LGBTQ inclusion. It turns out that many christians have been advocating for social justice before we were born and it turns out the fundamentalist view we were taught about the Bible is actually not absolute and is more of a minority view in Christian thought, not a majority view.
As we begin to have our minds opened and widened it’s hard not to feel cynical at a Church that for decades convinced us that the only safe place in the world was inside its four walls when in reality they were sometimes the most dangerous. I can’t tell you how many stories I get weekly from people who were gaslighted by the evangelical church, who were physically and emotionally abused and who were brainwashed into believing a world view that they are still trying to heal from decades later. There are valid reasons to critique the evangelical church and we should not shy away from it.
Deconstruction gives us room to breathe. It allows us to look back at our evangelical heritage and to be honest about our questions and to ask them without fear of being cast out. Let’s face it, we all have questions. We’ve all wondered how we can have the “absolute truth” of the Bible while the U.S currently houses 400 denominations inside of it. That’s 400 different christian branches all claiming to have it right. How does that add up?
But deconstruction is not easy. It’s scary, it can cause severe anxiety. So how do you navigate it? Here are a few pieces of advice.
1. Be patient with yourself. Deconstruction is essentially you mentally jumping off a cliff without being able to see the bottom. How deep is this hole? What’s at the bottom? A soft cushion or hard cement? It’s ok to be worried, it’s ok to feel unsure. It’s normal. Trust that the divine is big enough for your concerns, your doubts and your questions
2. Explore the Christian faith. This might be shocking to some of you but the modern Evangelical Church is a brand new branch of Christianity in the grand scheme of things. There is a rich Christian tradition behind it from the Eastern Orthodox Church to the Catholic Church to the Mainline Protestant Church. All three of those branches have similarities and major differences but are all considered Christian. The waters are deep and wide. Wade in.
3. Do the work. We live in one of the most privileged times in human history in regards to our access to information. At our fingertips are writings, videos, teachings and lectures by the leading scholars and theologians of our time. The best part? Access to them is free. While the work can be tedious and arduous, the work is accessible to anyone with the internet. Make time to do the work. You won’t regret it.
Maybe you’re a pastor or church leader and are staunchly against deconstruction. I would encourage you to listen to those of us who are going through it. We didn’t ask for deconstruction to happen to us. We aren’t doing it so we can be rebellious or “sin” more. We want to be faithful to Jesus and have found the evangelical empire at odds with some of the most obvious and clear teachings of Jesus. We are asking for a seat at the table, for our voices to be heard and for our perspectives to at least be considered.
For sake of brevity, I wanted to skim the surface of deconstruction. There’s so much more to be said, so many layers to unpack but for now, consider this a crash course.
Tim Whitaker is the founder of The New Evangelicals. The New Evangelicals are centered around Jesus and making room at the table. We challenge the Evangelical Institution to be more like Jesus by extending empathy, love, mercy, and grace to all of their neighbors. We participate in open source theology that makes room for each other and allows for good faith dialogue to better understand the complex world around us. Tim lives in New Jersey with his wife and son.