How not to burn bridges when people are questioning their faith
In a moment (or era) when so many people—especially young people—are deconstructing their faith, what do you do as a pastor or church leader? How do you even begin to respond?
Recently, Joe Terrell wrote a brilliant and beautiful post on the five real reasons young people are deconstructing their faith. I so appreciate Joe’s thoughtful, sane, and helpful analysis. If you haven’t read it, do yourself a favor.
Why deconstruction is happening is one thing.
But it begs a further question: What do you do about it? When you’re a pastor or church leader, the question becomes even more pressing.
The easy (and expected) responses include:
• Blowing it off
• Getting cynical about it
• Blaming, shaming, or vilifying those who’ve left as “not real Christians”
• Getting angry
• Telling the world what you believe more loudly than ever
And while it’s natural to both experience and give in to these impulses, nobody gets helped by them. Not the church. Not you. And definitely not a generation walking away from their faith. If anything, those responses only make things worse for everyone.
Getting angry at people who are losing faith, and dismissing or ridiculing them might score you points with the converted searching for a self-righteous affirmation, but it also speeds up the exit of people already on the way out. And getting louder and angrier about why what you believe is right accomplishes the same thing.
So, what do you do?
Here are seven responses you can embrace that can help you navigate the wave of deconstruction happening and, in the end, usher in some very helpful reconstruction along the way.
1. Remember That Deconstruction Doesn’t Always Lead to Deconversion.
It’s easy to hit the panic button the moment someone begins to question some of the tenets of Christianity.
And that’s a mistake.
As Joe Terrell points out, “First and foremost, deconstruction is not synonymous with deconversion. While everyone who deconverts from Christianity probably deconstructs first, not everyone who deconstructs deconverts.”
That’s so very true.
Personally, I’ve gone through periods of deconstruction in my own life. While I gave my life to Christ as a teenager, in my early 20s I began to ask really probing questions about the faith I grew up with. I went through a six-month phase during undergrad where I decided to really test my faith and—if it didn’t hold up—I’d walk away.
The opposite actually happened. My probing of Christianity led me to embrace it more deeply than ever, this time as a college-educated adult who would shortly experience a call to full-time vocational ministry.
I’ve gone through several other seasons even during my ministry where I had very deep questions about the Christian faith. Reading atheists, encountering other worldviews, and having conversations with skeptics opened my mind to other viewpoints, but each time led me to a more nuanced, deeper embrace of the person of Jesus and the historic Christian faith.
At the same time, those seasons led me to question some of my non-essential beliefs and practices as a Christian and as a pastor. They also coincided with seasons of growth in the church where more people came to faith.
I’m reminded that Jesus told us to love him with all of our minds, not just with all of our hearts and strength. Christianity can stand up to the most furious of questions. And when I’ve asked them or engaged with other people as they asked them, somehow my faith has emerged as more nuanced and stronger as well.
Finally, there are simple, shallow beliefs and practices we likely all need to deconvert from—things that have little to do with the authentic Jesus or historic Christianity. Narrowmindedness would be near the top of that list.
Having a deep and singular focus on Jesus is not the same as closing your mind. In many ways, it’s the key to opening it.
And, let’s honest, aspects of modern Christian culture certainly need to be deconstructed. To walk in faith is to constantly be evaluating whether certain beliefs, ideas, and attitudes are rooted in Christ or the culture.
So, deconstruction doesn’t inevitably lead to deconversion. Often, it can lead to reconstruction.
Sure, it doesn’t always. But it can. And it does. And when it does, everything—and everyone—grows stronger.
2. Know That While You’re No Longer an Authority, You Can Be a Guide.
When your worldview is being challenged, it’s natural to want to lean into your authority as a pastor or person in leadership in the church. After all, you not only hold the microphone and the power, you’ve studied this issue in depth. As a result, it’s easy to assume that everyone should just listen to you.
And while previous generations may have looked to their pastors as authorities, that has been changing for decades. Polling shows that pastors are increasingly being seen as irrelevant.
According to a 2019 study, only 52% of monthly churchgoers consider clergy trustworthy (that number drops to 23% among those who attend less than once a month). Remember, these are people who attend church. 57% of churchgoers said their pastors were honest and intelligent (compared with 27% and 30% among infrequent attendees).
It’s also far more likely for churched and unchurched people to trust other experts before they trust their pastor for advice. According to Gallup, only 25% of non-Christians trust clergy, which puts pastors behind newspaper reporters (32%), and only a little ahead of television reporters (23%) and lawyers (21%).
Those are pre-COVID numbers. I can only imagine that trust has been further eroded in the wake of more scandals, cover-ups, and political buffoonery.
However, even though you’re likely not viewed as an essential ‘authority’ as a pastor, you can be a guide.
Pastors who rely on their authority demand trust, and, as a result, they usually don’t get it. Not in this culture.
Guides, on the other hand, don’t demand trust. They know it has to be earned.
Guides position themselves as helpers, as people who can assist on a journey, not the end-all, be-all sources of authority.
People who are asking deep questions look for guides, and by being willing to take their questions, engage in conversation, and point out helpful markers along the way, you can earn people’s trust.
Years ago, the culture started shifting to what Seth Godin calls ‘permission marketing.’ In Seth’s words, “Real permission works like this: If you stop showing up, people complain, they ask where you went.”
Do you know why they do that? Because you helped them. They value you because, as a guide, you helped them figure out where they were in the journey and perhaps what’s ahead.
In a post-modern, post-Christian culture, pastors can be guides. And guides are the future.
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3. Avoid Triumphalism: Don’t Be Defensive, Glib or Superficial.
There’s a growing trend among some Christian pastors—especially conservative evangelical pastors—toward what you might call triumphalism. By triumphalism, I mean excessive overconfidence in the righteousness of a cause and the dismissal of anyone who might disagree.
At its worst, it’s complete ridicule or dismissal of people who can’t see it your way. At best, it’s an arrogant smugness about how right you think you are.
In every case, it’s an affront to the Gospel and authentic Christianity.
It also happens to be counter-productive.
If you really want to turn off people who are already suspicious of pastors and churches, be defensive, glib, or superficial.
You’ll send them running in the opposite direction that you’d hope they would go.
4. Stop Judging—Be Sincerely Open to Sincere Questions.
I used to be a lawyer. I’m actually decent at it.
Whenever someone questions you, the natural response is to judge their question and provide an immediate counterargument that you’re sure will send their objection down in flames. This approach works well in a courtroom.
I also realize it’s completely the wrong move for the cultural moment we’re in. It’s likely the wrong move for those of us who follow Jesus too.
The best thing you can do is to be truly open to people’s sincere questions.
Don’t rush to answers. Don’t judge them for asking.
As Brian Zahnd points out in his book, When Everything’s on Fire, the trend of deconstruction is so deeply rooted in current Western culture that “being angry at people for losing their faith is like being angry at medieval people for dying of the plague.”
Deconstruction is pretty much in the water supply these days, friends.
And, though this may be hard to hear, people often (but not always) have really good reasons for questioning their faith and wanting nothing to do with mainstream Christian culture.
As a result, sometimes the best thing you can do is listen, affirm the question or concern, and thank them for sharing or asking it. And then, maybe, let the questions linger.
Move them into a community where questions are welcomed. Where people are allowed to be themselves. Where no one shoots down people for asking probing questions or raising legitimate grievances.
You know this instinctively because it’s exactly how you want to be treated when you have a concern, objection, or problem.
To find an empathetic listener who takes you seriously, especially if that person is in a position of power or influence, is game-changing.
I’m not saying you don’t have beliefs or convictions or that you’re no longer tethered to the truth. But truth doesn’t scream down people’s throats.
No, Jesus’ truth is fused to grace, and his grace is fused to truth.
But you know what most people who are deconstructing get from the church? Neither grace nor truth.
Instead, they get judgment.
Very few people get judged into life-change. Most people get loved into it.
Be forewarned: Being more open to people’s doubts and questions may lead you into unfamiliar territory. And that’s okay. You may need to become more comfortable with saying, “I don’t know” or “That’s a great question I’ve never considered.” But never view humility or empathy as a weakness – it’s an undeniable strength.
5. Find the Story.
While deconstruction often presents as an intellectual or logical journey, underneath you’ll usually find emotion. And that emotion is often linked to a story.
Usually, the story has some hurt behind it. The hurt can range from disappointment and bitterness to heartbreaking stories of abuse.
When you’re processing with someone who is deconstruction, listen to their story—all of it. And don’t try to make excuses or attempt to delegitimize their experience. The hurt is real to them. And it should be for you, too. Spiritual abuse and wounds that come from spiritual authority figures cut deep into the very core of our being.
Depending on the story, the response can and should range from empathy to apology to reporting and investigation (in the case of abuse). Above all, listen, and, as appropriate, act.
People often mask their emotions with logic. But a logical argument never heals an emotional wound.
6. Encourage People to Follow the Logical Trail.
As much as story and emotion drive so much human behavior, there’s also a logical element to deconstruction. And some of the logic is compelling.
That said, the question becomes where the deconstruction leads.
As many have pointed out, deconstruction itself is a never-ending process. You see through Christianity, but embrace … what? And what happens when you see through that? Then what?
Again, tone is important, but many people who are deconstructing don’t take the time to think through where it all leads. They’re leaving, but to where? They’re fleeing, but to what? If conservative Christianity struggles with triumphalism, progressive Christianity struggles with existential nihilism. And, make no mistake, fundamentalism exists in both camps.
Left unchecked, spiraling deconstruction can leave a person with nothing and no one to hold onto.
So ask why. And ask what.
Most people are three questions from their worldview collapsing. While that can be true of Christians (see below), that’s also true for the new world deconstructionists are embracing too.
7. Read More Deeply.
One of the reasons being a pastor is harder these days (there are many) is that information is everywhere.
A generation ago, a pastor was respected because he or she went to seminary and was trusted as a reliable source of information about faith, God, and Scripture. The best pastors were masterful at helping people figure out life too.
Then the internet happened.
Suddenly, anyone could access information on anything anytime. And they did.
This means almost everyone you’re speaking to on a regular basis has likely researched the key issues important to them, often beyond what you might have the bandwidth to do. More likely than not, a Christian in the process of deconstruction already knows the “expected” answer to their theological queries and concerns.
So, what do you do?
Well, counterintuitively, resist the urge to become an expert in everything (which by definition, you can’t be). For these reasons and more, it’s a sure path to ineffectiveness.
Keep up on culture enough to be aware of what’s happening and how to approach it. But that’s not where the real power is.
Instead, go deep into your faith. Dig deep into theology – both the classics and modern voices. Study the Scriptures more deeply through the lens of history and culture. And, yes, read and listen to thinkers outside of your theological, denominational, and political “tribe.” Approach differences of opinion and grievances with a desire to understand, not to wage combat.
And, perhaps most importantly, plumb the depths of your own relationship with Christ. Admit to your own struggles with doubt, uncertainty, and hard questions. And, if you’re brave enough, share some of those from the pulpit.
Do this consistently over years and you will begin to exude something the world desperately wants and need—hope, faith, and something deeper than the shallows everything else seems to provide.
You’ll be witnessing to a truth, rather than just talking about it non-stop.
You’ll have more than just thoughtful, nuanced conversations.
You won’t be defending your faith nearly as much as you’ll become a trusted guide for people seeking faith. Deconstructing Christians don’t need another voice trying to shame them back to faith (and that never works anyway). Most of the time, they just need to know they’re not alone.
In that spirit, a guide—someone to walk alongside them—is what people processing deconstruction really need. And becoming a more thoughtful, humble, and encouraging leader is what positions you to be that guide for them.
This article originally appeared on CareyNieuwhof.com and is reposted here by permission.