Evangelicals couldn’t have picked a worse time to be having a faith crisis. Hardly a week goes by without news of another disaster. Mass murders, climate change, racism, war — this is a moment when people need faith strong enough to lean on. And yet this is the decade in which many Christians in America have decided to deconstruct. I have been one of those Christians, and today I’m still trying to understand how it happened to me.
Deconstruction is hard to define. The term was born in 1960 by a French philosopher named Jacques Derrida (who himself even refused to summarize deconstruction) in the context of postmodern philosophy of language. It described a process by which the meaning of language itself is questioned by breaking it down into simpler ideas. Simply put, deconstruction is “the process of questioning one’s own beliefs that were once considered unquestionable.”
And it is all the rage.
As author Kurtis Vanderpool wrote in the Christian magazine Relevant last year: “A few years ago deconstruction was a new term gaining some ground in the public. Today, it is a culture-wide phenomenon with thousands of books, podcasts and social media accounts dedicated to it. … Every other week, it seems, there is new buzz about the next prominent Christian influencer that is renouncing their faith and stepping into a new life.”
In addition to Relevant, just about every major Christian news outlet has given attention to this trend. Christianity Today, Religion News Service, Focus On the Family, Desiring God, the Holy Post and The Gospel Coalition have all published content about this topic, most of them full of hand-wringing.
There is no reliable estimate for how many Christians have deconstructed. According to deconstructionist podcaster Mike McHargue, about 43% of people will go through a major faith transition at some point in their life, and up until recently, those transitions were least likely to happen among conservative evangelicals. Not any more.
For some, deconstruction means deconversion — a renunciation of faith, or what old school types would call apostasy. But that’s not always the case. My deconstruction journey did not result in deconversion. But it was painful and long. I summarized it in a book recently released by Moody Publishers called Fractured Faith: Finding Your Way Back to God in an Age of Deconstruction.
In 2013, I left my church because I believed its leadership was corrupt. That began the slow deconstruction of my faith. I anticipated it would be awkward, but I never expected the amount of pain I experienced.
The first few months after my split I thought I was OK. I had good answers for those who asked about what happened. I looked to God to right what I thought was wrong. But the longer I waited the more skeptical I became. God went quiet on me. Because I had left my church community, I had very few friends to turn to in my pain. The few people I knew who had also left the church were carrying the same protective stance I had. We were all so lost and we barely knew it.
What started as anger against the leaders soon morphed into anger at God. Where was God in my pain? Why wasn’t he stepping in on my behalf? I resented him for seeming so aloof during those years. I soon hid my anger by isolating. I spent a lot of time alone. I turned to any means I could find to numb my pain. I stopped reading my Bible like I had been so used to. I quit looking for another church.
Eventually, I got sick of myself and I hurt too much. I started going to counseling. I met people who had walked the same road I had and still believed. They didn’t judge me for my struggle. They accepted me despite what I considered was a major flaw in my faith. I learned about grace. I quit listening to preachers who yell and started listening to more thoughtful and contemplative thinkers who seemed to know God intimately. I took my time. I slowed down. Eventually, I reintegrated into a faith community that remains evangelical and Bible-focused.
In that time of questioning, I noticed several themes among the community of deconstructors.
The most common was disillusionment with church leaders. Men (it seems always to be the men) we thought were honest and God-loving turn out to be hypocrites just like everybody else. It’s not that we expected our pastors to be perfect, but our pastors were so adept at preaching such a different message than what they were living. Pastors of evangelical mega-movements who preached a gospel of dying to self were found to be living only for self. Leaders who taught unconditional love had so many strings attached to their love they suffocated everyone around them. Preachers who hollered from the mountain tops about the sufficiency of Christ to satisfy us completely were found to need the comfort of a 10-bedroom home and a private jet for their complete satisfaction.
Then there was politics. While Christianity worships a savior who took every effort to separate his teachings from the day’s politics, many of our present-day Christian leaders model the antithesis. Christian nationalism grew out of a hunger for more power and money, and it has been the near-death of American evangelicalism.
Christ’s call has never been about political power. It has always been a call to mercy and compassion, a call to self-sacrifice in a culture familiar with fighting for self. It’s a call to the cross where we willingly die to self for the sake of others. It’s a call that sounds foreign in today’s multicampus, well-lit churches.
The decay from the top of the Christian pyramid has left a stench so thick it’s hard to take American Christians seriously. We are living through one of the worst decades of leadership failure in the American church. The cost has been devastating.
It took the millennials to bust the evangelical movement. In many ways it’s the millennials who have suffered the most. They are the ones leading the deconstruction movement. Their questions about faith and Christianity are legitimate. Their disillusionment is palpable.
Our churches failed them. We trained them to play the part of popular Christian speaker or worship leader, but taught them nothing about humility, self-sacrifice, or what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the cost of discipleship.
No wonder young evangelicals deconstructed. Their spiritual foundation was not solid enough to sustain life’s difficult questions.
Many deconstructionists question my deconstruction experience because I have landed back in church. Among the deconstruction crowd, some insist that this experience is only valid if it results in deconversion. I don’t agree. While the result of deconstruction has been faith-bolstering for me, the process of deconstruction has been agonizing. I still struggle with going to church. I am still extremely skeptical of Christian leadership, perhaps rightly so. It’s Jesus that I can’t let go of.
It has taken a long time and a whole lot of pain to get here. I suppose that’s why I wrote my book. I believed it would help other Christians who are deconstructing find a friend along the journey. As a pediatric ER doctor, I have dedicated my life to rescuing people from harm and death. I hope my book will help rescue someone’s soul from the agonizing pain of deconstruction.
Right now, it feels like we could all use the help.
Lina AbuJamra is the author of Fractured Faith: Finding Your Way Back to God in an Age of Deconstruction. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.