How to Think About Deconstruction
Large numbers of Americans today are departing from the church and sometimes the Christian faith. About 40 million adults who used to attend church no longer do. For the first time in 80 years, the number of adults who don’t attend church outnumber those who do. This is such a radical shift that the authors of a recent book on the topic refer to it as The Great Dechurching.1 Along similar lines, about 30 percent of Americans no longer identify with an established religion (the so-called “Nones”).2
For the first time in 80 years, the number of adults who don’t attend church outnumber those who do
Given this cultural milieu, perhaps it’s not surprising that a number of Christians have publicly stated that they are deconstructing their faith. The word “deconstruction” can mean different things in different contexts, but here I’ll be referring to its meaning as an overall rejection of the Christian faith. This is often, but not always, followed by an embrace of atheism, agnosticism, or skepticism.
In the past several years, several high-profile Christians have publicly renounced their faith, including Jon Steingard (former singer of the Christian band Hawk Nelson), Joshua Harris (author of the influential book I Kissed Dating Goodbye), Marty Sampson (former Hillsong worship leader), Abraham Piper (son of pastor and author John Piper), and Bart Campolo (son of speaker and author Tony Campolo). As Christians, we naturally feel saddened by these announcements, and for some it shakes their faith. Many of these deconverts once had thriving ministries, which we may have benefitted from. To see them walk away from Christianity can strike a blow to our confidence. How should we think about and respond to these incidents when they happen? I believe the following three points are helpful.
Deconstruction Is Not New
First, it’s important to keep in mind that there’s nothing new about Christians, and even church leaders, turning away from their faith. The apostle Paul mentions at least three people who took this path during his years of ministry. In 1 Timothy he describes two individuals named Hymenaeus and Alexander who had rejected “faith and a good conscience” and consequently had “suffered shipwreck with regard to the faith” (1 Timothy 1:19). In his second letter to Timothy, Paul refers to a man named Demas who had deserted Paul because “he loved this world” (2 Timothy 4:10). To keep things in perspective, it’s important to remember that people have been deconstructing since the time of the apostles.
As we have opportunity, Scripture exhorts those of us whose faith remains strong to try to restore those who have wandered. This can be quite challenging, of course, and the results are ultimately in God’s hands. Yet, Jude encourages us to “be merciful to those who doubt” (v. 22), while Paul writes that “if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently” (Galatians 6:1).3
One of the best things we can do in this case is to be a good listener. As author Jana Harmon wisely observes,
Just because someone calls themselves an atheist or skeptic doesn’t mean that we can presume exactly who they are and what they believe. It is important to take time to listen to their individual perspectives, to hear what they believe, why they believe it, and to understand their views and objections to God and faith. Listening toward understanding not only allows you to value who they are and what they think, it also reveals personal issues that are often lurking beneath the surface of intellectual objections. Careful listening gives you a pathway toward meeting them where they are.4
Unfortunately, it is sometimes the case that doubts and questions have been swept under the rug of a believer’s life until they fester and finally result in deconversion. As one pair of biblical scholars have noted, “In some Christian settings there is such a zeal for pure doctrine that it is very hard for people to admit that they have questions and misunderstandings, and it is difficult to find a friend who will sit and listen and talk things through.”5 While not compromising biblical truth, we should create environments in our churches and friendships in which people feel free to express honest questions and doubts.
Questions and Doubts Are Part of the Christian Life
I haven’t seen those who have deconstructed say this explicitly, but I suspect that many of them believe that their questions and doubts indicate that they have (or surely will have to) turned away from the Christian faith. But as Os Guinness points out, “Doubt is not the opposite of faith. Unbelief is.” Christian philosopher Travis Dickinson adds, “Having doubts, even serious doubts, does not mean you don’t have faith. Faith and doubt are not opposites like black and white. In fact, doubt seems to require some measure of faith or at least belief. Think about it: if you didn’t believe in Christianity, then there would be nothing to doubt. . . . doubt only makes sense in the context of belief and faith.”6
Whenever we hear of someone deconstructing their faith because they have doubts, we should be reminded that this is a common experience in the lives of God’s people. Abraham and Sarah doubted that they would have a natural-born son, Job doubted God’s goodness, Moses doubted that he could lead the Israelites out of Egypt, the psalmists often questioned why God was taking so long to act, and Thomas doubted that Jesus had risen from the dead. All of them continued to walk with God despite their doubts, and we look to them today as role models of the faith. Like the father of the demon-possessed boy in the Gospels, believers’ experience of faith often follows the pattern, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).
Why doesn’t God instantaneously remove all of our doubts or all the obstacles we encounter to belief? Dominic Done may be right when he suggests,
I think the reason is because God values intimacy over resolution. He wants us to know him, not just know about him. Belief in God looks more like trust than certainty, because trust is the language of relationships. And so, God invites us to trust him in all seasons. Not only through enchanting mountains where faith is as natural as breathing, but when he leads us into long, desolate valleys, where doubts squeeze the life from our soul.7
The Road Back Home
One final point of encouragement in relation to those who walk away from Christianity is that they can come back. Author John Marriott relates the story of Darrin, whom he calls a “reconvert.”
Darrin “prayed to receive Christ and was baptized at the age of seven. He read the Bible, evangelized others, and, according to him, tried as hard as he could to live as a Christian.” As time went on, however, he became convinced “that the Bible taught that God chose some people to go to heaven and condemned others to hell, even before they were born. . . . Wanting no part of such an unfair and capricious God, he left the faith.”
Darrin connected with other skeptics online and became a regular contributor, for years, to a website devoted to debunking Christianity. Then suddenly, to the surprise of his friends, he posted the message below to his website:
Sometime last week, I realized that I could no longer call myself a skeptic. After fifteen years away from Christianity, most of which was spent as an atheist with an active, busy intent on destroying the faith, I returned to a church (with a real intention of going for worship) last Sunday. Although I know I may struggle with doubt for the rest of my life, my life as an atheist is over.
He went on to say:
Briefly, I grew tired of the lack of explanation for: the existence of the universe, moral values and duties, objective human worth, consciousness and will, and many other topics. . . . I realized that I could not answer them no matter how many long nights I spent hitting the books.
Today, Darrin belongs to a theologically orthodox church and is serving the Lord. As long as a person remains alive on earth, there is always hope that they will return and once again serve God and enjoy fellowship with his people.8
Christopher L. Reese (MDiv, ThM) is a writer, editor, and journalist. He is the editor-in-chief of The Worldview Bulletin and cofounder of the Christian Apologetics Alliance. He is a general editor of the Dictionary of Christianity and Science (Zondervan, 2017) and Three Views on Christianity and Science (Zondervan, 2021) and his work has appeared in Christianity Today, Bible Gateway, Beliefnet, and other sites.