“Deconstruction” is a fairly new term to describe an individual systematically dissecting their faith, but people use it in different ways. The fluid nature of the term does not negate that something serious is happening in the life of the individual and sometimes the community. And that emotional turmoil may be the most important thing for us to hear.
Lifeway Research found 36% of Protestant churchgoers are at least familiar with the concept of deconstruction, 18% are somewhat familiar, 14% are not that familiar and 28% have never heard the term before.
Broadly speaking, “deconstruction” encompasses those with doubts about their faith, those who are rejecting their faith completely, those who are working out their salvation, and those processing hurts from other Christians. Let’s look at these four groups and consider ministry that may be helpful to each one.
Doubting Beliefs or Doctrines
As church leaders, we know God’s nature is perfectly consistent and unchanging, so theology is orderly. But we often gloss over the fact that faith is often not so neat and clean. When a father appealed to Jesus for deliverance for his son, he said, “‘But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you can? Everything is possible for the one who believes’” (Mark 9:22–23).
Jesus pointed out the father’s exact theological error. There is no limit to God’s power, so there is no “if.” Yet the father’s use of the word was a glimpse at the messiness of his faith. Then, as the father responded, he revealed even more: “I do believe; help my unbelief” (v. 24).
Jesus didn’t gloss over the messiness of faith. He stopped and pointed at the doubt about who he is, and then he offered hope. As we encounter people with real doubts about theological truths, the most helpful thing we can do is to point to Jesus Christ and offer hope.
Rejecting Beliefs or Teachings
Regardless of what triggers someone to examine their faith, they often reach a point where they recognize the life they want does not fit with Jesus Christ’s teachings. This was true of the rich young ruler. He knew, agreed with and practiced many of the same teachings as Jesus. Yet, when Jesus asked him to sell all his possessions, give to the poor and come follow him, the ruler would not accept: “But he was dismayed by this demand, and he went away grieving, because he had many possessions” (Mark 10:22).
This was a moment of deconstruction. His faith had been a nice, neat way of life until this moment. Yet there was enough doubt in his faith to prompt him to ask Jesus about the criteria for inheriting eternal life. He was not certain of his eternal destiny.
When Jesus asked the young man to leave everything to follow him, notice the grief in the ruler. On social media, when someone who has completely deconstructed their faith encounters others who have rejected Christian beliefs, the tone is often shared anger or dismay.
Today we would call the ruler a “good man.” Yet when he came face-to-face with the deity of Jesus Christ, he learned that any attempt to define his own set of beliefs was actually a rejection of Jesus. His deconstruction was a realization that he had chosen a different path.
When Jesus noticed that gap, he did not stop the ruler. But in that moment, “Looking at him, Jesus loved him” (Mark 10:21). As hard as this may be, our response to someone rejecting the Christian faith should be to love them and keep open the invitation to follow Jesus.
Working Out Salvation
When someone experiences trials or is tempted by their own desires, these are moments of testing. Encountering a test of faith is not a bad thing. In fact, James appealed to us to consider it pure joy (James 1:2). “The testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing” (vv. 3–4). In this moment of uncertainty, James exhorts us, “Now if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God” (v. 5).
This exhortation also helps us as we encounter others who may be pausing to weigh whether to obey God or pausing to consider their sin. We should pray that God gives them wisdom and even the faith to ask him for wisdom.
We may encounter people working out their salvation by zealously excavating every aspect of their faith. This dissection may be less about a trial and more about discovery. They stop taking ideas, stories and terms for granted. They want to know their real meaning. For some, this is a joyful digging into the faith. But for others, it is a test that makes them wonder what the answers will be and whether they will satisfy.
As we point people to Jesus Christ, we should have no fear. The truths they will find are characteristics of a God worth devoting their life to.
Processing Church Hurt
Sometimes a breach of faith begins when a person has been harmed by another believer or Christian leader. This not only elicits pain, but it also breaks trust. When the person inflicting the pain was a vocal follower of Christ, a pastor or a church leader, the mistrust often casts doubt on the faith itself.
When James wrote that we would face various trials, he didn’t limit their source to only our enemies. Some of these trials are at the hands of Christians. Just as we cannot create a viable faith by only picking and choosing some of God’s truth, neither can we choose to accept only some of the suffering that comes our way. All such moments of suffering are tests of our faith.
Asking God to make something good from the pain we have experienced requires faith. But the unfaithfulness of a Christian assailant doesn’t reduce the faithfulness of God. He can bring good from every instance of suffering.
Many churchgoers—especially those who are younger—are likely encountering some or all of these four types of deconstruction. When Lifeway Research asked churchgoers familiar with the term deconstruction if they had seen church attendees methodically deconstruct their faith in the last two years, 37% said they had, 47% had not, and 15% were not sure. Among those under age 50, almost half have noticed somebody in their church deconstructing their faith.
Let’s be slow to apply the deconstruction label to others and quick to be present with those who are in the middle of any questioning of faith.