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W e are currently in a season of curious seekers wondering about faith. People are dismantling the faith they have been given and examining it closely. This is called faith deconstruction. Sometimes deconstruction results in picking up a faith that is very different from the one that has been held before; sometimes deconstruction means walking away from the faith community all together. Regardless, it has serious implications for the church, particularly in the ways that the body of Christ welcomes those who are asking big questions about faith. As someone with friends, church members, and fellow seminary graduates who are questioning or leaving the faith, I’d like to offer a few ways that churches can be hospitable in this time of deconstruction.

Learn more about faith deconstruction and how to get through it with this toolkit.

First, let me say that church leaders don’t need to be afraid of faith deconstruction. As those around us ask questions—or perhaps as we ourselves ask big faith questions—we have the opportunity to peer curiously at the components of both our individual faith and our communal faith. What is still true, and what needs to change for the sake of honesty and authenticity?

As people of the Christian faith, we are led to Christ’s resurrection, which I believe to be the very lived out expression of deconstruction and reconstruction. “‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up,’” Jesus says in John 2:19, referring to his own death and resurrection. Christ dismantled many of the expectations people had of the promised Messiah, and he reconstructed a narrative of true love and salvation.

As we anticipate that people who are deconstructing their faith are entering our church doors and sitting among us, we have to be tender toward them. Churches need to create hospitable space for those wandering and wondering among us as we seek to make space for both ourselves and others burying things that no longer serve them in their spiritual walk. Here are three ways that churches can do that.

1. Consider how to help all people feel safe.

In my own congregation, I often offer a simple greeting along these lines: “From wherever you’ve come, however you’ve come, to be here today, be welcomed.” Everything from our choice of language to establishing flexible seating is meant to help people feel welcomed and, more importantly, safe. In my experience with folks who are deconstructing faith, this is one of their primary concerns: “Is it safe to voice my questions here? Can I belong in this place when I don’t know that I believe what I used to believe? What do people believe here in this space?” 

Related: How to Offer Everyone Access to God’s Community

Your church might also consider the use of art—music, pictures, and even poetry—in making a safe, hospitable space. Including art within a Sunday worship context adds a dimension within the layer of the faith community that is a gift to those who are questioning. Theologian Jeremy Begbie, director of Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts, explains this as transcendence. He also names this as the dissonance that often adds to the richness of faith. I believe these elements, when brought intentionally into a worship environment, serve as a framework for inviting deeper reflection and granting permission for everyone to ask questions. All these considerations help folks who are deconstructing faith feel safer in a church setting.

2. Remember it is not your job to fix the doubts of others.

The first time I encountered someone questioning faith, I was sitting in a taco shop. My natural response was to try to immediately answer all of her questions with the theology that I knew. But the void that I was sensing within my friend really had nothing to do with her and everything to do with me. She said to me, “Anna, it’s okay that you don’t have all of the answers to my questions.” That was a humbling, grace-filled act on her part.

While it is not your job to fix the doubts of others, it is your job to walk alongside and offer support. I think of the disciple Thomas, commonly called “doubting Thomas,” since he didn’t initially believe that Jesus had appeared to the other disciples after his crucifixion and death. When Jesus does appear to Thomas, Jesus doesn’t criticize or preach theology to Thomas. Instead, Jesus gently invites Thomas to touch and feel, to face his questions and unbelief, to explore reality. Then comes the invitation to put doubts aside and believe. Jesus is the ultimate fixer and the best teacher, and he gives us this model of being present with and gentle toward those who doubt and question.

As I’ve continued to live among folks who are deconstructing, I’ve been finding my Reformed identity extremely helpful. We profess that we are “Reformed and always reforming.” Often I find Reformed folks to undervalue the second half of that sentence, but the reality is that the continued act of reforming is one of the most helpful tools we have in our present moment. Our work is not to ensure that everyone’s faith is manufactured in a streamlined, consistent manner; we don’t need to fix the doubts, per se. Instead, we are to care for people in the place that they are in—and maybe even be open to the possibility of changing with them. Culture and context are constantly changing, which means that how the church responds and acts in God’s love might need to change in some ways, too.

3. Listen well, and provide a safe space to be heard.

Elaine May, a colleague of mine, explains there are three levels of listening. The first is really about listening to make sure we understand what someone is saying. This emphasizes the importance of the listener. Do not just smile and nod, but actively listen! The second layer of listening often involves solving a conflict. This means listening to understand and trying to work toward resolution. The third layer of listening is about living within the perspective of the other. It’s about asking questions to grow our view of the other person’s world through their experience. This level of listening prioritizes curiosity and sets aside judgment. It’s been my experience that this level of listening is rarely used, but when it is, it creates an incredibly tender and sweet connection that results in a safe place for people who are deconstructing faith to feel truly heard.

It’s not likely that this level of listening will happen on a Sunday morning with a stranger. But I do believe it’s possible to practice this kind of listening within our own families and over time with new friends or even strangers. If you practice level three listening, it might not result in profound conversation right away. But it could establish your position as a safe person who is willing to listen when the time comes. And recognize that often the first step to listening well is getting to know someone and showing genuine care. That is something that every church and church member can work at on Sunday mornings.

My prayer in this age of faith deconstruction is that all of us are attentive to both our own spiritual journeys and the journeys of those who are wrestling with faith in our midst. This work will always be more than just a Sunday interaction. There are rarely quick fixes to faith deconstruction. But when we are attentive to those entrusting us with their questions and faith in any given moment, we lean into building a safe space that prioritizes relationships and connection and offers the hospitality of Jesus.

Annalise Radcliffe is director of Future Church Innovation for the Reformed Church in America. She is passionate about intergenerational ministry and believes that youth ministry is the work of the whole church, not just the youth pastor. She and her husband, Ron, are planting pastors of City Chapel in Grand Rapids, Michigan.