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Deconstructing Faith and Christianity

What It Is, Why It Happens, and How To Get through It

By Grace Ruiter

Deconstruction might be a buzzword right now, but deconstructing Christianity is not new. A decade before I ever heard faith and deconstruction in the same sentence, I was a teenager reading Genesis 1-3 commentaries alongside my science textbook and trying to string them together. My wondering didn’t stop at Genesis. And I feared I was doomed to lose my faith because I couldn’t stop questioning it. Everyone around me appeared so certain of their beliefs. I felt like I was the only one struggling. 

These days, I don’t have to look far to find other people who have questioned and picked apart their faith. In fact, it seems like deconstructing Christianity has never been more popular. So what’s going on? There are no easy answers. But it’s worth unpacking what deconstruction is, why it happens, and what’s out there to help you through it if you find yourself deconstructing your faith. 

You might be here because you’re in the midst of faith deconstruction yourself. Or maybe you’re here because you want to understand why others are deconstructing Christianity and what it might mean for the church. Maybe you know someone who is in the midst of deconstructing their faith and you want to support them. Whatever brings you here, I hope you come away both challenged and encouraged, with both clarity and questions.

What you should know about faith deconstruction

What is faith deconstruction?

Faith deconstruction is an unraveling of stories and assumptions that weave together your understanding of God, the universe, and your purpose within it. If you think of Christian faith as a home, pursuing tough questions about your faith is a bit like tearing away the carpeting and knocking out the drywall to see the bones that lie beneath. It pulls apart your beliefs to reveal what they’re made of and what holds them together.

This process can be messy and complicated and hard. Like many renovation projects, it has a habit of growing into something different than you intended when you started. (There’s a point in nearly every home improvement show where a “surprise” discovery midway through the project creates obstacles or changes the plan.) Your deconstruction “after” pictures might not turn out the way you expected. But the results of the work can be beautiful, rich, and faithful. 

When I was growing up, my mom used to say that truly reorganizing makes things look worse before they look better. Sometimes we hide our messes behind a facade of order. We cram everything into the back of the closet and shut the door. The room looks clean to everyone else. Meanwhile, finding the pair of shoes you want to wear in your disaster-zone closet is a full-on archaeological dig. Bringing the mess out into the open allows you to sort through it and reorganize. It’s your one-way ticket out of daily closet excavation.

Faith deconstruction is essentially spreading out your messy, tangled pile of beliefs so that you can search for the truth. When your search uncovers evidence a belief you hold isn’t true, then you may end up setting that belief aside. But deconstruction doesn’t necessarily mean throwing out or reevaluating everything you believe.

Christians deconstruct specific ideas and beliefs without ever stepping foot outside conventional Christianity all the time. You may study a particular book of the Bible in a Bible study and change the way you interpret it. Or you may change your mind about a specific topic, like women in church leadership, after deeper study. These smaller changes may feel more like spring cleaning than demolition, but they are still a form of faith deconstruction. 

Why do people deconstruct their faith?

There are many different reasons people wind up deconstructing their beliefs. 

Learning new information may cause you to reevaluate your existing beliefs. When I learned about the scientific evidence for evolution, for example, it prompted me to question the way I previously understood the creation story in Genesis. Similarly, being introduced to new perspectives can prompt you to ask different questions about your faith. 

Each of us has a worldview—a backpack of stories and ideas that we carry around to help us make sense of the world around us. When you encounter something that challenges your worldview, it can feel like being asked to poke holes through your backpack, or throw some of your favorite things out of it.

Think of the rich young man who asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. This man had been adhering to the ten commandments since his youth. And he respected Jesus as a teacher. He really wanted Jesus to guide him—right up until Jesus told him to sell his possessions and give his money to the poor. Shocked, the man went away grieving. He didn’t want to give up his possessions. 

Like the rich young man, a lot of people would rather reject ideas that don’t fit with what they believe than risk tearing holes through the way they make sense of life. 

Yet sometimes you learn about something that makes too much sense or impacts you too deeply for you to set it aside. So you decide to adapt your worldview to accommodate the new information. But to do that, you have to reevaluate some of the other stories and ideas you’re carrying with you—pull at their loose threads, rearrange them, see if they can be contorted to coexist with your new idea. 

In other words, sometimes you have to deconstruct (and reconstruct) the ideas you carry around to make space for new beliefs and experiences in your worldview. 

Deconstructing past beliefs to make space for new knowledge may involve growing pains. And there’s not any guarantee you’ll get all the right answers by doing it. But it’s ultimately a type of growth. You have to be willing to change and reconsider what you think if you want to grow. You probably can’t answer all your hardest questions about faith correctly. But you won’t get any closer to answering them without grappling with them. 

It’s tempting to stop here and let faith deconstruction sound like it’s simply a healthy exercise in growth and self-improvement. However, that’s not the whole picture; it’s not even the most important part of what leads to deconstruction for Christians to recognize or understand. 

Although people deconstruct faith for all kinds of reasons, I think failures of love are why people actually leave the church most often. 

Many stories of faith deconstruction emerge out of deeply painful experiences with church and Christians. Doubt enters in through the wounds inflicted by the church’s failure to love; it festers when the church seems to judge or ignore our open wounds instead of helping them to heal. People are hungry to love and be loved, but for all the church’s claims of being a loving home for all, the church often seems to fail miserably at actually loving people. 

Personally, I believe there is still deep love to be found in the church. And more importantly, I believe in the profound love and grace Jesus provides. But I can’t be sure love is what someone will find when they walk into any church. I wish I could. 

Does deconstructing Christianity mean you aren’t a Christian?

Not at all! You can deconstruct Christianity and still stay Christian. I did. Acknowledging my questions was not the slippery slope to militant atheism I feared it would be. Is my faith the same as it was before deconstruction? No. But in many ways, it’s stronger. If you want to follow Jesus beyond deconstruction, there’s a path for you, too. 

How you reconstruct your beliefs once you’ve pulled them apart is up to you. There’s no requirement that you reconsider all of your beliefs to qualify for the deconstruction club. 

You can come to the conclusion that the core of Christian faith is true and also decide that some of the beliefs you once thought were Christian truth might not have been right. You might never question that Jesus is your Savior, but you can still have a lot of questions about what that ought to mean for the way you live. You can be a Christian and also acknowledge that people have used Christianity to cause a lot of harm. 

I know there’s something about this that still feels like a loss of faith, or at least a loss of innocence. But there’s also liberation in pursuing Christ without trying to defend everything people do in his name. And there’s clarity in being able to commit wholeheartedly to what matters most about your faith. I actually set higher expectations for God’s love and grace now than I did before. 

I’m not going to say it’s a good idea for everyone to deconstruct their faith. But if you find yourself reevaluating what you believe, I do think it can lead to amazing growth. The process of deconstructing and reconstructing invites you to ponder what faith really means to you. Looking beyond your tradition of Christianity opens you up to new ways of experiencing the Divine. And when you consciously decide to carry a belief with you, you don’t take it for granted.

The one place you really are unlikely to land when you deconstruct faith is in the exact same spot as you started. In other words, you may come out of deconstruction a deeply religious Christian, but not with the exact same understanding of your faith as you had before. And that’s okay. You can’t grow if you don’t change. And if what you’re ultimately pursuing is truth, you don’t need to be afraid of discovering you didn’t have the whole truth all along. 

How can you prevent people from losing their faith?

You may worry that people you care about will decide to leave Christianity behind if they start to deconstruct their faith. Maybe some of your loved ones already have. And it may feel like they are leaving you behind, too. 

You can’t control someone else’s faith journey. What you can do is be loving, kind, and empathetic to everyone in your midst. Give the people around you a taste of what it’s like to be loved like you’re loved. If the failure to love leads people to lose faith, the persistence of love beyond when it’s easy bolsters and rekindles it. 

Listen sincerely to people as they share their spiritual experiences–the good ones, the hard ones, and the ones that defy our neat categorizations. 

When someone brings a question they’re struggling with to you, wonder with them. Acknowledge your own wrestling. Share what you believe if you’re asked, but resist the urge to rush to an answer or dismiss the question as unimportant to ask (even if you think it is). An unimportant question for your faith might be a very important one for someone else’s. 

Many Christians have tried to protect their faith by shutting questions down and locking away stories and ideas that might encourage asking more of them. This doesn’t work. 

Suppressing challenges to your beliefs ultimately roots faith in fear. It suggests you either don’t believe God is strong enough to handle hard questions, or you don’t believe God cares enough about you to show up when you’re struggling to see him. 

Responding with fear to a struggling Christian’s questions treats faith like it’s fragile and those who dare question it like they are reckless at best. Fostering a climate that only has space for blind faith and stories that support it can even make daring to wonder feel a bit like betrayal or failure. To turn on your brain and think deeply about your faith for a minute shouldn’t feel like a risky endeavor. 

Curiosity can still sneak through the crevices of the walls you try to put up to protect against different perspectives, anyway. Sometimes the walls even encourage more curiosity. When nobody is telling you to avoid it, reading an academic work sounds like homework; however, a banned academic work sounds like a juicy secret you need to uncover.

Ultimately, I think the failures of the church and of Christians to act with love and grace have done way more damage to people’s faith than edgy movies and books. And I believe love and grace will do more to heal us than avoiding hard conversations. 

People raised to love God and love their neighbors notice when Christians seem more concerned with putting people on trial in a culture war than they are with loving their neighbors. Can you blame them for questioning the church’s sincerity? If this is what Christians do with the gospel, they wonder if it’s really such good news. 

However, people also take note when Christians in their midst do go above and beyond to love their neighbors. I know this made a big difference for me. I have love for the Christian faith because of the love I’ve experienced and witnessed within it. That’s why it grieves me so much when others don’t receive the same gift. Love helped me believe there was truth to be found in the mess of my deconstructed faith. It gave me a reason to hold on. 

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Is deconstructing Christianity bad?

If faith is important to you, you might feel a little afraid of deconstruction. The word deconstruction sounds a bit, well, destructive. By definition, it involves tearing something apart. So the idea of “deconstructing Christian beliefs” might seem like it could only be bad news for Christians.

However, Jesus, Moses, and Elijah did a whole lot of deconstructing false beliefs about God and God’s people in biblical times. Jesus challenges people’s beliefs about who God is and how to live faithfully in almost every Bible story we read about him. I often wonder what Jesus would have to say to us today. One thing I’m sure of: he’d challenge all of us.

Obviously, it’s not the same as having Jesus here on earth to tell us exactly what to do. But God is still speaking. And just as God spoke to and through prophets and teachers in the Bible, God speaks to us today. Sometimes the message is that we need to do some deconstruction and reconstruction; sometimes the church needs reformation. 

Whether tearing a belief apart is a bad thing depends on the belief, why you’re disassembling it, and what sort of structure gets reconstructed where it once stood.

Removing mold and decay from a home involves dismantling significant parts of the structure. But getting rid of the mold and decay makes the home a much healthier place to live in. 

At its best, faith deconstruction is an opportunity to separate what is true and good from what is harmful and false. It is a way of uprooting weeds that have been allowed to twist themselves around your faith and choke out love, truth, and grace. And for the broader church, it is a valuable opportunity to listen and learn.

However, deconstruction is not inherently a good thing, either. At its worst, faith deconstruction uproots love, truth, and grace, allowing weeds to run rampant. You can end up giving harmful beliefs more space to grow instead of taking them out of the picture if you’re not careful. 

Deconstruction without any reconstruction–building a set of healthy beliefs and practices to anchor you and help you move forward–can be just as harmful as religious fundamentalism. 

It’s much easier to criticize things than to defend them. You can always find flaws. And we need to be able to honestly point out things that are causing harm or could be made better. But sometimes we get so focused on what’s wrong that we define ourselves more by what we stand against than what we stand for. 

I find it helps me to check myself by asking, “Is love motivating me right now, or do I just hate what I think others are doing wrong?” 

Faith deconstruction books, articles, and resources

Note: This isn’t a list of every resource worth engaging with or considering on faith, the Bible, or the church. These resources specifically reflect the cultural conversation happening around faith deconstruction right now. There are perspectives on this list that I agree with and perspectives I don’t, often within the very same resource. There’s a good chance you won’t agree with everything here, either. However, if you’re in the midst of deconstructing your faith, now is a great time to consider new points of view on your beliefs. And if you’re here trying to understand what someone else is going through, reading stories of deconstruction is an excellent way to put yourself in their shoes.

Faith after doubt

From Faithward

  • Advice for When You’re Struggling with Faith: I wrote this as a letter to myself when I was in the thick of my own doubts. It’s what I needed to hear then, and it might just be what you need to hear now.
  • How Doubt Made My Faith Stronger: This is the story of how I got caught in doubt, why I clung to my faith, and how questioning my faith actually ended up making it stronger.
  • How Spiritual Direction Can Help You in Your Faith: Deconstruction and doubt can leave you feeling disconnected from God. Spiritual direction might be just what you need to tune back into the Holy Spirit. In this article, certified spiritual director Jill Sweet explains what spiritual direction is and how it can guide you when you’re struggling to discern what God is saying to you.  
  • Lament Toolkit: Lament is an important practice for all of us, but it can be particularly helpful as you process faith deconstruction. This toolkit introduces the practice and suggests ways you might engage with it. 
  • Three Tips for When You Don’t Know What to Pray: Prayer is a practice of intimacy. If you feel distant from God, it can be hard to know how to pray. Here are three tips for starting the conversation.
  • Intro to Contemplative Prayer Practices Online Course: Sometimes meditative ways of being with God are easier for noisy, doubting minds to enter into than other forms of prayer. They quiet our deconstructive instincts and help us feel God instead of thinking so hard all the time. Try this on-demand online course led by Tia Norman to see if contemplative prayer helps you find rest with God. 

Beyond Faithward

  • Faith Unraveled: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask Questions by Rachel Held Evans
    This was the first book that truly made me feel understood after I started to question my faith. Rachel Held Evans shares her journey from a conservative evangelical upbringing in the town where the Scopes Monkey Trial took place to making peace with doubt and embracing questions. If you can’t seem to stop asking questions about faith and it feels like you’ll never answer them, this book is for you. 
  • Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith by Sarah Bessey
    Sarah Bessey blends personal stories and theological teaching together to wrestle with questions that are at the heart of Christianity. As Bessey finds her way to faith at peace with uncertainty, she invites you to pave your own path to faith amid uncertainty.  
  • Do I Stay Christian? by Brian D. McLaren
    If deconstructing or doubting your faith has led you to ask, “Do I stay Christian?” this book could help you discern what to do. Brian D. McLaren explores common reasons to leave or stay within the church. He doesn’t tell you what to do. Rather, he tries to help you make your own decision about your religious identity.
  • Wounded Faith: Understanding and Healing from Spiritual Abuse edited by Rev. Dr. Neil Damgaard
    This book offers practical and personal guidance for both survivors of spiritual abuse and religious communities. Each chapter is an essay from someone who has in some way experienced spiritual abuse. I think this book is worth reading for anyone who is part of the church, especially church leaders. It provides important advice and insights on welcoming and supporting spiritual abuse survivors. Additionally, understanding spiritual abuse will help you to recognize it. 
  • Spiritual Abuse Recovery Workbook by David Henke
    This workbook will help you recognize, break free, and recover from spiritual abuse. David Henke draws on more than 40 years of experience and research to provide this tool for those looking to recover from spiritual abuse.

The Bible

From Faithward

  • Understanding the Bible: How to Study Scripture with Dr. J. Todd Billings: In three engaging and digestible lessons, professor and theologian Dr. J. Todd Billings breaks down how to understand the Bible and wrestle with its complexities. You’ll learn how you can get more out of reading God’s Word, work through differences in biblical interpretation, and ultimately, become more like Jesus.
  • Amazing Asian, Latin American, and Black Theologians Who Write About Reformed Theology: Nobody comes to Scripture with complete objectivity. Theological training and willpower will not turn you into Spock. So your identity and experiences shape how you approach your faith. As a result, only looking to white Western men for theological guidance is going to mean you miss out on some things. Check out this list of Asian, Latin American, and Black theologians to expand your theological diet.
  • 1 Corinthians 13 Bible Study: This Bible study examines America’s failure to love Black people in the way defined by 1 Corinthians 13. Rev. Dr. Denise Kingdom Grier invites you to journey from unloving to loving through biblical study, personal reflection, and engagement with Black voices and stories.
  • Building God’s Church Together Bible Study: Study the biblical foundations for creating healthy, Christ-centered partnerships between men and women. This four-part Bible study invites you to examine gender roles in the Bible, including some of the more difficult passages for modern readers to understand.

Beyond Faithward

  • The Bible Project
    The Bible Project is a great place to start if you want to study the Bible. It’s a totally free online resource with videos, podcasts, blogs, classes, and all kinds of other resources to help you deepen your understanding of Christian Scripture. The project does have a Christian perspective, but can be a helpful tool for skeptics as well.
  • Introduction to the New Testament: History and Literature (Yale Online Course)
    If you’re looking for a secular perspective on early Christianity, consider this free online course from Yale. You’ll learn about the historical origins of Christianity and explore early Christian literature from both within the Bible and beyond it.
  • Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again by Rachel Held Evans
    The Bible contains some really challenging and hard-to-swallow stories. And especially after you’ve been through a period of doubt in your faith, opening it up again can feel heavy. Rachel Held Evans takes on the challenge and invites you to join her as she wrestles through some of Scripture’s toughest passages.
  • The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right by Lisa Sharon Harper
    Lisa Sharon Harper invites you into a vision of the gospel that is whole, good, and thick with meaning. If you’re struggling to find a “very good” gospel in the church today, this book might help you see where it’s been hiding in the pages of Scripture and the lives of God’s people.
  • Indigenous Theology and the Western Worldview by Randy S. Woodley
    A Cherokee teacher, former pastor, missiologist, and historian brings indigenous theology into conversation with Western theology. Don’t let the heady title scare you away. It’s an accessible read that introduces you to a different way of looking at faith and God than the Western church often teaches.

The church

  • Empty the Pews: Stories of Leaving the Church edited by Chrissy Stroop and Lauren O’Neal
    I don’t recommend this book to encourage people to leave the church, but to shed light on why so many people do. It’s worth listening to the stories of those who have made the painful choice to walk away from faith and understanding what led them there. Hard as they may be to hear for some of us, these stories matter.
  • The Most Dangerous Form of Deconstruction (Christianity Today) by Russell Moore
    You might think your convictions on Christianity haven’t budged in decades. But Russell Moore isn’t so sure. In this article, he asserts that all of American evangelical Christianity is deconstructing in some way. It’s just that not everyone realizes they’re doing it. And Moore believes that the deconstruction happening among people who don’t think they’re doing it might actually pose the most danger to the church of all. He makes a compelling case.
  • Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez
  • There’s a good chance you’ve heard of this book. Maybe you’ve even encountered a scathing review of it. But if you haven’t read it yourself, I encourage you to give it a chance. Du Mez recounts the recent history of white evangelicalism in America. Along the way, she shows how American values have corrupted the church and displaced the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as the core of American evangelical faith. Du Mez is a historian, not a theologian. She doesn’t provide solutions. What she does do is expose some fundamental and important problems.
  • When Narcissism Comes to Church: Healing Your Community from Emotional and Spiritual Abuse by Chuck DeGroat
    Narcissistic leaders and systems wound people deeply. And ministry leaders and churches are not immune. Chuck DeGroat draws on more than 20 years of experience counseling pastors with Narcissistic Personality Disorder and people who have been hurt by narcissistic ministry leaders and systems. He takes a close look at narcissism in ministry leaders and churches, offers compassion and hope for those affected by its destructive power, and imparts wise counsel for churches looking to heal from its systemic effects.
  • The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby
    Jemar Tisby traces how the American church has helped create and maintain racist ideas and practices throughout its history. We need to recognize how racism has shaped the church as we know it if we ever hope to free the church from racism’s grip. Reading this book will help you understand not only what the church needs to atone for from the past, but also what it would take to build a more equitable, inclusive church in the future.
  • Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery by Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah
    Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah unpack the extensive impact of the “Doctrine of Discovery.” Through this doctrine, fifteenth-century church officials gave Christian explorers the right to claim places they “discovered” as their own. That these areas were already inhabited by someone else didn’t stop them. Thus, “discoveries” often went hand in hand with the colonization, slavery, and dehumanization of minority communities. Charles and Rah call for truth-telling about these painful injustices to pave the way toward healing.
  • The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill Podcast
    This podcast from Christianity Today is essentially a case study in church gone wrong. It tells the story of how Mars Hill and its leader, Mark Driscoll, grew into a major influence in evangelicalism, fell prey to corruption and the allure of power, and ultimately fell apart. Along the way, the podcast examines how spiritual abuse can run unchecked “for the sake of the gospel,” the dangers of toxic theology, and so much more. Content warning: spiritual abuse is a central theme of this podcast. As a result, some episodes may be be re-traumatizing for some listeners. 
  • Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans
  • This book is a good read if you love Jesus but struggle with church. Rachel Held Evans was disillusioned with church, too. So much about it seemed to have little to do with Jesus. She didn’t really want to go anymore. And yet she couldn’t quite give up on it. In this memoir, she shares her journey toward understanding and finding her place in the church once again. Evans doesn’t sugarcoat the messiness of community, but this is ultimately a story of hope beating cynicism. It might offer the hope you need, too.
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