Charles Holmes – It seems like everyone is talking about “deconstruction” these days. There’s an increasing number of young people deconstructing their faith and leaving the church.
The subject of deconstruction is occupying social media feeds, where many are getting information about faith, church and Christianity from short, creative viral videos made by people who refer to themselves as “exvangelicals.”
One of the reasons young people inside and outside of the church are being driven toward these public documentations of deconstruction is their frustration and disillusionment with the current state of the church. Some of their frustrations and accusations are misguided and need to be corrected. However, many of the concerns they raise need to be honestly addressed.
A Time to Listen
To gain a full understanding of what we’re dealing with, let’s look at some pretty revealing data when it comes to young people’s relationship with the church. Two-thirds (66%) of American young adults who attended a Protestant church on a regular basis as a teenager say they dropped out for at least a year between the ages of 18 and 22, according to Lifeway Research.
Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research writes, “The reality is that Protestant churches continue to see the new generation walk away as young adults. Regardless of any external factors, the Protestant church is slowly shrinking from within.” He notes, “As those teenagers reach their late teen years, even those with a history of regular church attendance are pulled away as they get increased independence, a driver’s license or a job.”
What’s keeping many of these teens is their state of dependence; and when that changes, they start to drift. Two of the biggest reasons for them leaving and deconstructing are issues of racial justice and sexuality. For example, one in six adults in Generation Z identifies as LGBT according to a Gallup poll.
In June 2020, Yubo (a “social video live-streaming app”) polled 38,919 young people in Gen Z and found that 88% believe that black Americans are treated differently than others. Barna recently found that over half of Gen Z says that our country “definitely” has a race problem. Most in the next generation would say the church absolutely has a responsibility to address the race and justice issues going on around us in our culture and in the church.
We understand that the church is much bigger than overgeneralizations. However, many young adults perceive that the church has lagged behind the culture when it comes to issues of justice. There is the perception, even among churchgoers, that more pastors have skeletons in the closet when it comes to sexual sin. In the eyes of many, the church doesn’t have any moral ground to stand on. So, what do we do with all the deconstruction going on?
One of the trends I’ve noticed when it comes to matters of faith deconstruction is that many of those who talk about their deconstructions have deconstructed from the worst parts of Christian subculture, and rightfully so. There’s a need for healthy forms of deconstruction, some of which we see in the Scriptures through the prophets and the life and teachings of Jesus. Jesus Himself made radical critiques of the religious leaders of His day, bringing correction to their abusive and harmful religious practices.
This kind of good deconstruction continues as we survey church history. Many of the reformers died at the hands of corrupt religious leaders and systems that sought to silence the voices of common people and limit their ability to read and learn the Scriptures for themselves.
We see a good type of deconstruction during the abolitionist and Civil Rights movements where key Christian leaders called out the hypocrisy of those who wrongfully married Christianity with racism and power. Many in these movements lost their lives for calling the church back to the teachings and centrality of the Scriptures.
Many young people are deconstructing the harmful church culture they grew up in. This makes me excited because I believe God is giving His church the opportunity to live up to Jesus’s teachings. I also believe God is giving us the opportunity to no longer lead out of our charisma and power, but out of our weakness and repentance. As people deconstruct racism, injustice and abuse out of our church culture, may we respond with repentance and humility.
The prophet Isaiah wrote this about the character of God, “For the High and Exalted One, who lives forever, whose name is holy, says this: ‘I live in a high and holy place, and with the oppressed and lowly of spirit…’” (Isa. 57:15 HCSB). This text teaches us that God is holy and highly exalted above all names and peoples, has ultimate power and authority, yet dwells and identifies with the lowly, working on their behalf. Our greatest apologetic right now to those who are doubting and pointing their fingers at the church may be our humility, repentance and prioritization of the lowly.
As young people deconstruct unhelpful church culture, it’s vital that we help them reconstruct their faith around the person, words and life of Jesus. We must ask ourselves and young people if it’s fair to define the Christian faith by its worst examples and expressions.
The church may fail in certain moments, but the church never ceases to be the bride of Christ and loved by Him. Jesus has promised the gates of hell would not prevail against the church. As leaders, we must warn young people of the dark side of deconstruction. We must help them be mindful of when frustrations with church culture bleed into discontentment with parts of the Bible that challenge us or go against our personal preferences. We can set ourselves up as judge over those Scriptures and then defend that move using the resentment we may have toward unhealthy church culture.
For young people to reconstruct their faith, we must model both sound orthodoxy (beliefs) and healthy orthopraxy (practice). To do this, we must place sound doctrine and orthodoxy in its rightful context and historical location.
Orthodoxy is for the Lowly
Many of the voices who are leading in the deconstruction movement represent the majority context. Deconstruction can be a form of privilege.
It’s no accident that people in the Western part of the world are deconstructing the faith that has given many marginalized, persecuted and oppressed people hope for hundreds of years. To be able to pick and choose parts of the Bible we obey and listen to is a privileged behavior. This has happened all throughout American history.
For example, slave owners kept parts of the Bible that seemingly taught slaves to obey their masters while removing sections that demonstrate God was actually for the slaves’ physical freedom. Selecting which portions of Scripture to obey based on how they coincide with our cultural perspective is not the path to liberty for the oppressed. It wasn’t the Bible that led to abuse and harm; it was a deconstructed message that opened the door to the horrors of slavery and abuse.
A Path to Reconstruction
People will often accuse orthodoxy of supporting evils like white supremacy, injustice and abuse. However, if we take a close look at the Scriptures and church history, it has been orthodoxy and the gospel that has brought hope to marginalized groups and communities. For example, the Black church has rooted herself in the gospel and the Bible for hope and strength as a response to white supremacy and injustice since her birth.
If we’re going to move toward reconstruction, we need to prioritize the whole counsel of God. As we’ve seen throughout history, injustice, abuse and other horrid things have come not because we have taught the Bible too much, but because we haven’t taught and believed the Bible enough.
We must help young people who have serious concerns, doubts, and questions about the Christian faith by centering reconstruction around the person, work and words of Jesus Christ. Using the Scriptures, we must help them tear down harmful church culture, and then help them reconstruct their faith around the same Scriptures that have given people hope and strength to fight against the very things that are leading many of our young people away from the faith.
— Charles Holmes leads college ministry at The Summit Church in Durham, N.C. This article was shared with permission and was originally published at research.lifeway.com/2021/03/19/reconstruct-faith-in-a-deconstructing-culture