From time to time, I have opportunity to talk with people about what resonates with them in terms faith and how their experience of faith has changed over the years. Some people say that faith has never really been a part of their lives – at least, not in any practical way that impacts them on a daily basis. Others are very religious, attending church every Sunday and taking part in several church-sponsored activities during the week. There is a subset of people, though, that have some variation of a story that starts with them growing up in a relatively conservative church setting. They became frustrated with a person or with rules or the things being said not lining up with the things being done. These are the people that became burned out with the church, or that felt they didn’t belong. Some of them say that they could never be good enough for the people in the church that they grew up in.
When you talk to people who are in this space, a lot of words come up. Jaded. Frustrated. Disillusioned. Confused. Done. Whatever energy they had to devote to the pursuit of the divine has been sapped. After several attempts to find a spiritual community and continually feeling like a poor fit, many make some combination of logical conclusions. I’m broken. God doesn’t care. God isn’t real. Church is irrelevant. What’s the point?
It’s sad and it happens all the time.
There is another group, though.
They are an even smaller subset of this jaded, frustrated, disillusioned group that either have more energy to continue the pursuit, have more luck at finding others who share their perspective, or are just stubborn enough to keep going in spite of incessant dead ends. As few as they are in number, it’s rare to find them existing in a vacuum. They’ve either found a few friends to share the journey with or they’ve connected with a spiritual community online; somehow, they’re connected to something bigger.
People who identify as being in this group don’t look like the Christians you’ll find down at the church on Main Street. This might be why they don’t feel welcome there. They also tend to bust outside of any mold that we culturally hold to about what it means to be a Christian. They drink. They smoke. They curse. Sometimes – at least twice a month – they miss church because they’re partying too hard on Saturday night. They believe in God more often than not, but they don’t claim to be biblical scholars. After feeling rejection from every mainline church they have attended, they begin a process that has come to be called deconstruction.
I love these deconstructionists and I think they are pursuing truth more intensely than any other Christian group I know.
The Questions No One Wants to Ask
There are any number of factors that might push someone into deconstruction. When a person experiences grief, loss, or trauma, existential questions about why something like that could happen often surface. When they ask how a loving god could permit this, there’s something about the pat answers of “Trust and obey,” that don’t seem to make enough sense. Not everything happens for a reason. Not everything is part of God’s will.
Some kids enter deconstruction because they have been given a faith that isn’t capable of expanding to include new ideas. The classic example is when the college freshman goes toe-to-toe with their biology teacher about how humans have evolved from simpler organisms. There are conflicts like these that some versions of faith are not elastic enough to accommodate. Faced with both contradictions of ideas and rigidity of beliefs, many conclude their only options are to dig in and believe the creation story as literal fact or reject it all as being incompatible with modern knowledge.
Other people have experiences that are incredibly powerful. Even moderately conservative belief systems struggle with what to do with the LGBTQ community. The most lenient take an approach that allows them most of their humanity but requires them to give up on love. These groups cite the idea that we are all called to give up something and our good and wise God decided to create our gay, lesbian, and transgendered friends with desires that – oh, by the way – we believe to be sinful to actually act on; you can think it, just don’t do it. As dogma increases along the conservative spectrum, so does the damage done to people. Still, there are LGBTQ Christians and allies that believe it can’t be that simple and start their own process of deconstruction. Other issues – capital punishment, christian nationalism, politics, abortion, capitalism – can all have similarly powerful effect.
What deconstructionists have in common is a willingness to ask the questions that few churches seem to want to ask. The blessing in disguise here is a freedom from the constraints of group psychology that are so prevalent in the church. In my experience, deconstructionists who happen to find a spiritual community where they feel comfortable almost unanimously report that the safety to questions is essential to keeping them connected. How different this is from the feelings of rejection, isolation, and insufficiency they feel at traditional church communities.
Christians often give church culture an incredible amount of power over their lives. We have relieved ourselves of the burden of figuring out what living as someone inspired by Jesus actually looks like, and offloaded this to the church. Among the duties that we expect our pastors to fulfill is to teach – which is defined as reading and interpreting scripture and then presenting it back to the congregation in a way that aligns well with our current belief system. Challenges to the contrary should be mild and rare. We want our churches to have ten or fifteen doctrines that express our collective beliefs and that new people must affirm before they can be members.
We have allowed church to become the arbiters of right and wrong. It is the church that determines who is in and who is out. Do you believe these doctrines? Do you do what they say? Do you give money to the church? Then you’re in. Otherwise, you cannot be fully fledged. You cannot be accepted.
Questions, like the ones the deconstructionists start to ask, become threats. The status quo must be maintained at all costs if most churches are to work. It is a dangerous thing to question the doctrines. How can all of the people who have signed up as members of this church be wrong? If even one of these doctrines turns out to be false, then perhaps they all come crashing down. Church doctrine and church membership become about staving off the anxiety of being wrong about life and, more importantly, the afterlife. There is strength and comfort in numbers.
This is why evangelism works. If we can get more people to join our tribe then there is a real validation to what we’re doing. Whether we frame it as though we’re doing something right or that God is blessing us for being faithful, there is a strong sense of satisfaction and security.
It’s numbing in a way.
The church does many fantastic things and I’m not about to tell you if you find yourself happy and at home in your own congregation that you’re doing anything wrong.
But, I can’t help but point out the self-justifying effect that the Church mediates for its members. I think the church for many people has become about validation of self rather than service of others. Ideas like hell and Judgement Day are scary and they’ve been ingrained in our understanding of faith over the past 150 years like never before. Finding a group of people who think like you and believe like you has a way of assuaging any anxieties. Even if we’re wrong about something, surely God won’t damn my entire church to hell.
Deconstructionists Are Different
And, this is where the deconstructionists are different. They have learned to cope without the numbing effects of pledging allegiance to an interpretation of scripture. They have learned that the uncertainty that comes with not ascribing to a particular set of beliefs ban actually be a place of inclusiveness and love that feels remarkably Christ-like. As they learn and grow in relationship with others who journey alongside them, they aren’t asked to force fit their experiences into neat containers. They’re allowed to be messy. They’re allowed to play with ideas and concepts. It’s OK for them to believe that hell is a metaphor or that the story of Jesus being born to a virgin was just one of many such stories in those days. It is OK to understand that God made you gay and for you to marry the love of your life.
Perhaps deconstructionists are onto something. Perhaps being scandalously and unapologetically inclusive is, in fact, the right thing to do. Perhaps the stories of the Bible point to progress rather than maintaining things as they are. Maybe it’s OK that connecting with the divine be thought of as a journey and not a moment when you pray a prayer or sign a paper.
Maybe God is as big as the deconstructionists imagine her to be.
Yes, it’s a gamble. It might mean that they’re damned to hell for all eternity. But, it’s a life of unencumbered generosity, of limitless human compassion, and a sense that there is something bigger than all of us – all of us – holding it together. Whatever that is, it’s good and it’s worth trying to connect with. Deconstructionists believe that, in the end, Love wins. They believe that connecting with another human, feeling with them, being present with them, is more powerful that seeing the other through the lens of an agenda directed at their own self-assurance of jewels in their crown.
They’re willing to give up on certainty to pursue truth, to embody love, and to welcome all.
I don’t know, but that sounds an awful lot like faith to me.