[This article also exists in podcast form. You can listen to it on Pondering Purple, HERE.]
One might think that “People Raised in Intensely Christian Environments” might naturally develop an ironclad faith of their own. In many cases, they have. In others, their proximity to a world in which spirituality takes center stage has led to something called “deconstruction”—a phenomenon widespread enough in Christian circles to warrant further exploration. I’ve been wanting to tackle the topic for years, as it so closely touches many of the teens and young adults I work with, but I think I was waiting for the subject to feel less risky. Silly me.
A few introductory notes:
- The goal of this article is not to disdain those who are in the process of exploring their family’s faith.
- The goal of this article is not to offer a three-point plan for rescuing a struggling faith.
- The goal of this article is to begin to explain a growing trend toward deconstruction among People Raised in Intensely Christian Environments—to answer some questions and provide some context.
- The goal is also to introduce you to some of those who have deconstructed or are in the process of deconstruction—to give a face to the often-maligned practice of questioning one’s faith. There is an extensive collection of brief, first-person accounts at the end of the article. Please take the time to read them if you’d like to better understand the journey of those who have walked the deconstruction road.
- If you are one of those, I see you and respect you. You are worthy and important and valuable. You are not “less.”
- If you love one of those, perhaps this information will help clarify how The Church writ large has done some harm, and how we as individual representatives of Jesus can be more authentic and compelling reflections of the love and truth with which he has entrusted us.
D e c o n s t r u c t i o n.
It’s a word that has become part of the Christian culture-war lexicon in countries like the United States in recent years—fostering intense, sometimes savage interactions between two general factions (painting broadly here): those who see it as a step People from Intensely Christian Backgrounds need to take in order for their faith to become authentic and personal, and those who consider any degree of deconstruction to be anti-Christ and dangerous.
What is deconstruction? The definition will vary depending on the mindset, purpose and impetus of the person using the word.
- To some, it means exploring the most minute details of historical Christianity in the hope of exposing that faith itself as a fraud.
- To others, it means dissecting one’s passed-down faith in search of fallacies in order to rationally embrace or reject it.
- To others, it means stripping down a passive, “inherited” faith to its historical roots and theological core in a quest to understand what it was truly meant to be.
The latter is the kind of deconstruction I’m referring to here.
Imagine a modern home built on a historical frame. The process of peeling off layers of wallpaper, scraping off coat after coat of paint, tearing up linoleum and removing drop ceilings—it all leads to a clearer understanding of what the structure used to be before generations of homeowners with different visions and agendas added their disfiguring touches to it.
This is the form of deconstruction I see most often. This is the kind of deconstruction I actually support.
Not for the cynicism or rejection that make it necessary, but because of its potential for rebuilding.
For so many people I know who were raised in intensely Christian environments, faith feels like a decrepit building they’re being forced to live in, whether it be out of loyalty or obligation. And for many of those, deconstruction has become an almost compulsive quest to excavate the building’s “bones.”
Though not without spiritual risk, deconstruction can foster an intentional, meaningful kind of “faith rebirth” that is more intimate, sincere and grounded than the kind that languishes under layers of centuries-long remodeling efforts.
Done right, deconstructing is not “throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” as the saying goes. It is sifting through the muddy bathwater of cultural, social, political and philosophical Christianity in search of the “baby,” so to speak—the original meaning and manifestation of faith. In search of the theology Jesus preached and embodied. In search of something that is more than conflicts, posturing, and power. In search of a bedrock that can’t be altered by cultural whims and historical variance.
Deconstruction is, as Josh Packard puts it, “unbundling” faith.
Think in terms of the bundles you might get from your cell phone provider. “You want a phone plan?” they ask as you walk in the door—and you suddenly feel like the field mouse watching a hawk circling overhead. “Here’s a great deal: we’ll bundle the plan you wanted with an Amazon gift card and one year of free Apple TV. “
What you wanted was a phone plan. What you walked out with was a manipulated investment in an online store and a subscription to a channel you’ll probably never watch. That’s bundling—and the same has become true in many manifestations of the Christian faith. So when the “bundle” of unrelated elements becomes too weighty or confusing, unbundling becomes not a choice, but a necessity to the person who doesn’t recognize what he or she signed up for.
Those who have engaged in conversation about deconstruction with me have brought something intense to the process. There’s an obvious reason for that. Children raised in ministry have steeped in the Gospel all their lives, but they’ve also seen behind the curtain of faith façades and been witnesses to the artifice, the workaholism, and sometimes even the hypocrisy that is hidden from the world but in plain view to them. They’ve seen the conflicts in Christian circles and the contradictions between public words and private behaviors. They’ve questioned the cultural impact of what they might call “colonial” missions and sometimes seen a pursuit of significance or a quest for power trump devotion to loving as Jesus would.
Perhaps the greatest motivator of deconstruction I’ve seen among the adults raised in ministry that I work with is un-Christlike Christians and the warped motivations that seem to contradict the basic tenets of what the Bible teaches.
Today’s young adults are viscerally attuned to justice and equity. (In children of cross-cultural missionaries, these traits have been amplified by their exposure to global humanity.) So, MK or not MK, when People Raised in Intensely Christian Environments see some elements of the Christian world appearing to endorse bigotry or oppression, they logically blame the God those people are purportedly serving.
After countless conversations with teens and young adults raised in The Church, I’ve discovered that the politics of faith can play a huge role in their perception of Christianity. And I’ve seen it be central to their abandonment of faith as well. They simply can’t find a coherent connection between what they were taught growing up in Christian environments and what they’re seeing embraced today by some of faith’s most vocal proponents. The political manifestations of modern Christianity and the cult-like adoration some of its members show for demonstrably morally deficient public figures (whose behaviors seem to fly in the face of everything they were taught about the character of Jesus) are just baffling to them.
So they doubt God. Because his heart is supposed to be the foundational factor that shapes the Christian faith.
- When they witness cruel and offensive attacks by Christians on social media, they blame God.
- When they feel abandoned by their own parents for the sake of “the call,” they blame God.
- When their former communities shame, reject and isolate them because of their sexuality, they blame God.
- When their suffering is met with absolute absence of empathy or comfort, they blame God.
- When they’re excluded from the leadership roles they were created for because of their gender, they blame God.
- When they witness abuse being swept under the rug, they assume God himself is okay with it. After all, if his people are doing it…it must be God-sanctioned, right?
Yes—there are innumerable internal and external factors that shape a person’s view of God and relationship to faith, but the power of human behavior to elevate or destroy the faith of those who are in a season of questioning cannot be overstated.
Because of the complexity and acuteness of what People from Intensely Christian Backgrounds have experienced, they’re perhaps even more prone than others to engage in some serious deconstruction. And they tend to bring a heightened fervor to the process.
To understand this fervor, we need to consider the context in which they grew up and the world that shaped them. To the average church-going child or teen, faith is just one aspect of life. To the children raised in the world of ministry or in intensely Christian environments, faith is intimately woven into every facet of their existence.
It is the job their parents do. It is the heartbeat of their community. It is the source of the unachievable “shoulds” they carry like boulders on their shoulders. It is the motivation of the family’s sacrifices and image-managing. It is the reason they may move so frequently and suffer innumerable losses every time. It is the extra shame added to failure and the eternal value added to success.
To People Raised in Intense Christian Environments, faith is not just a series of activities and engagements, it is the spine around which their lives are built. It is the purpose, the demand and the reward of their existence.
Many of the questioning people I engage with absorbed the faith of their parents during childhoods spent in opaquely Christian circles. Like their family name, it became tied to their identity. It’s all they know. But for some, there are questions they haven’t found answers to yet—contradictions they can’t make sense of yet—and it’s gotten to the point where they can’t live with those discrepancies anymore.
But they can’t just casually begin second-guessing everything they’ve believed for so long. They need to be propelled over the First Hard Step of deconstruction by something that is more intense than their worry about being labeled disloyal or heretical. In order to cross the threshold between the stability of passive believing and the disorientation of in-depth questioning, they will typically reach for one of three galvanizing emotions:
Anger — like anger at the pressure to perform, at the apparent contradictions between public and private behaviors, at the pain inflicted by Jesus-followers in what was supposed to be the safety of Christian communities.
Fear — like fear that they’ve bought into a lie, that they’ve been manipulated into believing an illusion, that the movements faith has launched have done more harm than good and that they’ve somehow been complicit in that.
Defiance — the kind that can tell detractors and well-meaning prayer warriors that they have no right to opine about what’s happening, that it is a necessary step they’re not afraid to take, and that no passive-aggressive attempts to steer or deter them will succeed.
Anger, fear and defiance are powerful forces. And because they’re the impetus that can allow a steeped-in-Christianity person to push past the resistance to doubt they’ve been taught all their lives, those emotions can make the entry into a deconstruction phase look belligerent and aggressive. It can feel wounding to those who love the deconstructors the most.
Yet in many cases, that entry needs to happen with that much bluster in order for the person tethered to a lifelong contextual faith to have the courage to step back in the hope of seeing more clearly. It isn’t only what she does on Sundays that’s at stake. It’s the very marrow of her existence, her world view and sense of self.
This is where the intensity of deconstruction comes from. They’re pushing through so much to allow themselves to doubt that the horsepower behind it sometimes seems off-putting or combative.
For the parents and loved ones of People Raised in Intensely Christian Environments, deconstruction may look like a step toward rejection of everything upon which they’ve built their family’s life. It may also cause feelings of failure or shame, particularly as others in their circles learn about what’s happening in the family. I’ve seen the same tragic scenario play out again and again: Jesus-loving parents who are so disturbed and overwhelmed by their child’s deconstructing that they choose not to have meaningful conversations, awkward debates or even basic connection with their kids. They’d rather sever ties than have to walk alongside their children through the arduous and unpredictable journey toward answers.
Deconstruction is not easy—not on the people engaged in it and not on those who love them. It may be uncomfortable. It may be painful. It may be lengthy and inconclusive in the end. But I believe that if it’s happening—despite the agony, effort and losses associated with it—that means it must be absolutely essential to the deconstructing person’s life.
If you love someone in the process of deconstruction, I urge you to consider the following (incomplete) list of postures.
- Initiate communication.
- Intentionally interact in conversations and activities unrelated to the spiritual realm.
- Don’t get angry. Don’t belittle. Don’t make ultimatums.
- Ask the deconstructing person if talking with them about faith is okay and what the rules of engagement should be. (They may ask that they be the ones to bring it up, so every conversation they have with you isn’t tinged with the worry that you might raise the topic.)
- Remember that this person you love is so much more than his or her faith. That remains true even if faith is crucially important to you.
- If your love of and delight in that person is dependent on a shared faith, question yourself, not them.
There’s no sugarcoating it: deconstruction, for some, can lead to a temporary or permanent walking away from the family’s faith. I’ve known people raised in Christian homes whose journeys have led them to agnosticism, atheism or even other religions.
I’ve also seen deconstruction lead to a different kind of heart-held Christian faith—maybe the renewal of convictions that had gone stale, joining a denomination more in line with what they read in the Bible, finding a more private experiential connection to God or even coming to a faith not expressed in traditional church gatherings, but in a life devoted to embodying God’s heart for this planet.
Some of the most vibrant believers I’ve ever met have gone through the process of deconstruction. Some of the most vibrant non-believers I know have too.
Yes, there is risk to second-guessing faith. (I’ll dare to say that there is also a huge risk to staying enmeshed long-term in a religion that has lost credibility to us.)
The risk is something the deconstructor is willing to accept, either because faith as he knew it has become a toxic thing or because she’s looking for the kind of truth that can stand up to scrutiny.
Despite the very real risk of deconstruction, there is also the potential for something beautiful and redeemed to be born of the process—even if it doesn’t perfectly match what a person’s parents taught or expected.
And yet, what is faith if it is merely adherence to an inherited religion? What is faith if it is just a veneer to avoid offending those who fed it to us in our youth? What is faith if it is embraced out of expectation instead of true belief? What is faith if it is a socio-cultural identity and not a core relationship with an unseen God that transforms, motivates, offers inner healing, imbues life with meaning and quenches our human thirst for and dependence on the Divine?
To be honest, I’ve engaged in a bit of deconstruction myself in my lifetime. The first round was when I was a teenager and young adult—I realized in those years that disentangling myself from traditional Christian pressures and shame would allow me to live less “traumatically” as the survivor of various forms of abuse. It took some serious counseling and deconstruction to realize that my doubts were made of man-inflicted-wounds, not God-failures.
My most recent “digging down to the bones of Christianity” was prompted by an urgent desire to understand the nature of current cultural trends in which faith is brandished as the rationale for abuses and other un-Christlike behaviors. I needed to redefine for myself the core of who Christ is, why he came, how he loves me and how I can best embody his traits in the spaces I occupy.
My years of conversation, exploration and study have led me to a clearer understanding of God and allowed me to eliminate without qualm many of the manmade attributes and purposes that contradict his heart—the heart so accurately displayed in the life and actions of his son.
In some spheres, Christianity has become known as a hybrid of moralistic demands, disdain for others, hypocritical posturing and power-conscious ladder-climbing. I understand the doubt of those who have observed these traits up close. Can those truly be the outward expression of authentic Christian faith as described in the Bible and embodied in God’s son?
I am comforted to know that there are throngs of people out there who quietly live out their faith as God intended—with intentional compassion, attentiveness to others, adherence to biblical values and tireless effort to become more like the Jesus with whom they share an intimate, life-giving relationship.
So…if you find yourself in the process of peeling back layer after layer of flawed historical add-ons to a faith you don’t trust anymore—please keep looking for the humble, the helpful, the doctrinally sound, the spiritually coherent, the outwardly generous and inwardly peaceful.
It exists. I promise.
You just may have to dig a little more—or deconstruct a little longer—to find it.
When I told a friend that I was going to be writing on this topic, she immediately asked what my suggestions were going to be for those engaged in crucial questioning. But honestly, deconstruction is too personal for me to offer a three-point guide. It is too deeply influenced by myriad elements of the deconstructor’s life and will take on the form of all the unique joys, sorrows, achievements, failures, hopes and disappointments of his or her personal experiences.
So instead of offering steps and processes, I’d like to end by inviting you into the experiences of some of the People Raised in Intense Christian Environments who have deconstructed their faith—some of them Missionaries’ Kids, some of them Pastors’ Kids, some simply from deeply spiritual homes. Their names have been removed, but the determination and purpose of their deconstructing are no less striking.
You’ll note that their motivations for deconstruction tend to fall into three major categories—all worth exploring as we ourselves try to make sense of modern Christianity. They are:
- Having suffered neglect, abandonment or abuse at the hands of believers who were entrusted with their protection.
- Witnessing firsthand the hypocrisy of personal behaviors and political allegiances among believers they respected.
- Understanding God to be an uncaring, dictatorial, distant and demanding being whose expectations they could never satisfy.
Please read these accounts with empathy and a desire to understand better the heart and processes of those who have chosen the arduous task of peeling away the layers of a faith they thought they knew in order to uncover what lies beneath.
You’re invited to use the comment options at the end of this post to add your own story. (Any demeaning, belittling or spiritually aggressive comments will be deleted.)
The following is just a handful of the accounts sent to me.
To read the entire collection, please click the red title below. ⬇️
For me, the deconstruction started when I saw how few professing christians were actually demonstrating Christlike love. I saw so many christians full of baseless hate for the “other” that I grew tremendously discouraged in the church, especially as an institution.
That has brought me to a place, I think, of renewed desire to actually live out the faith I was taught. Seeing the failures of the church (as an institution) and the tribalism of so many “christians” gave me an increased motivation to actually live out our scriptural directives to speak justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.
I deconstructed because of the simple realization that I didn’t like God very much. He was misrepresented in significant ways by people in my childhood. But being honest about that led me to discovering firstly that he is absolutely wild about me. The faith I was taught had much shame and little love, but the God I follow is actually a God of much love and no shame.
What caused me to deconstruct was that the VERY people who said they were there to love and save the people who were lost were the ones who abused, neglected, and hurt me the most. This disconnect has led me to disillusionment and confusion with missions, God, religion, and life. I’ve still not fully deconstructed, though. I at least have a tiny bit of hope left that things will make sense as I heal and mature in the future.
[I deconstructed my faith because of] hypocrisies I perceived at my mission-run boarding school. I did not believe that what was being preached was being practiced. This led me to examine more closely what was being preached, to examine how practices that seemed contrary to my understanding of the Christian faith were being justified, and it just didn’t seem to hold water.
[I learned] the history of colonialism, once I started university. I wondered why the history of the country of my childhood had been concealed from me–especially my parents’ mission agency’s complicity in the oppression and marginalization of the country’s people. I began doubting other things I had been led to believe. I could not see a way to be a practicing Christian without affirming the well-documented anti-Christian behaviour of people I had been raised to revere as model Christians.
What I’m describing took place over twenty years ago. This time of crisis which has now come to be called “deconstruction” is, for me, a brief episode in a long story. A crucial episode to be SURE, but to relate that episode absent the larger context could lead to some rather misleading conclusions. Today, I am an ordained minister serving in a Christians mission organization, so there has *obviously* been some movement since those days of “deconstruction.”
Here are some of the reasons I started a journey of what some are calling “deconstruction.” 1) The Church’s response to abuse. 2) The Church’s manipulation of Bible translation choices and resulting intimidation tactics for those who question them as the Bereans did. 3) The Church’s pressure and intimidation at both ends of the political table.
The impetus for me to look at the brand of Christianity from my childhood was 1. Christian leaders using Scripture to control others in order to keep their positions of authority and 2. Christians who are locked in the Christian mindsets of the 1950s and 1960s who think those cultural norms are, in and of themselves, Christian. Any other than that way of thinking or being or acting is ungodly. Somehow the trappings of North American Evangelicalism are considered Gospel and the teachings of Jesus are completely ignored.
I started deconstructing in 2016 after I was working my way out of a toxic church environment in the US. It was the last straw. So many years seemingly wasted on a “calling” to a ministry whose leaders were abusive and toxic. I had seen behind the curtain of too many churches growing up in Mexico, only to find heaps of division, politics, infighting, and power grabs among the leaders that were revered by their congregations as saints.
As I quickly learned in my adult years living in the US, churches here were all the same, just with more gaslighting and manipulation. I went from extremely involved in church leadership to zero involvement in a day. This was around the same time Trump was running for office and the hypocrisy, sexism, and white nationalism in the church ran so deep and became so much louder that I couldn’t ignore it anymore.
I’m still deep in the deconstruction/reconstruction process but I currently do believe strongly in God and that He’s good. I hold the words of the Bible extremely loosely and try to live by the basic principles that Jesus preached and that’s about it. I’m both comforted and saddened that so many are in the same spot as I am. Grateful for the community and horrified at the religious harm that got us here.
Having been born in and loving a Muslim country, I questioned how a loving God would send whole people groups to hell. Trauma also caused more of my deconstruction, when I found my faith wasn’t big enough to heal wounds from boarding school separations and sexual abuse… I needed psychology too.
For me, deconstruction was incremental. As a newly-on-my-own teen, I did not want to bring shame to my missionary parents, and so decided to continue my faith journey, trusting that it was indeed true. But the rest of my life (I am 63) has been a progressively more thorough deconstruction, at the deepest level, largely spurred by disappointment with God’s people (and to be honest, with Him at times). Funny enough, at the end of it, I find myself doing much the same thing I did at the beginning – “God, I don’t get a whole lot, but if I don’t hang onto you, there isn’t anything else – so I am going to hang on with all my might.” And honestly, He seems to have never let go of me. Still in process…
Our son reacted differently. It got me to the core when, in 2014, he admitted to me that he no longer considered himself to be a Christian. My wife and I love and are proud of C and J (and let them know that). He also knows that we long for renewed spiritual life in them. They have spent their lives living lean, reaching out to the poor, homeless, and hopeless, including the last ten years in Africa. And we have hope, but until then we share, embrace, and love.
When my first child was two months old, unexplained anger surfaced in me. When Andrew cried too long, I felt like throwing him against the wall and bashing his head in. That’s when I first realized I needed counseling. I didn’t know the counseling would uncover deep childhood losses and boarding school injuries. The Bible taught that God loves me, but I didn’t know what that meant. My dad said he loved me, but he sent me away to boarding school and was too busy for me during the weeks I was home.
Now I’m seeking to find where God was in my lonely childhood. Wondering if I need to forgive more or if someone needs to ask me for forgiveness. Is forgiveness just another F word? As I blog about my journey to find healing, I’m connecting with other MKs and finding mutual encouragement and inspiration along the way. And a renewed faith in a God who loves me abundantly.
What caused me to deconstruct my faith:
- I saw massive inconsistencies between lives of scandals and touted doctrine.
- I saw complete irrelevance of Western doctrinal pillars and evangelical values in being a global worker myself as an adult in an eastern culture.
- And finally, Complex-PTSD reared its ugly head (without my permission!) to reveal my own unhealthy dysfunctional coping mechanisms, the direct fruit of spiritual beliefs forged by anxiety, scarcity mindset, and threatened egos that are rampant in conservative, fundamental white evangelicalism.
Where did it lead me?
- To stand in awe of how Jesus saw and honored women. To unashamedly embracing myself as a woman made in the image of God who is equal to men.
- I’m grounded now, embracing my body as my ally instead of hating it as a dirty thing.
- I care about this planet because I pray God’s kingdom come to earth as it is in heaven instead of waiting to ditch this world thinking it will all blow up anyway.
- It led me to realize the Holy Spirit is active and alive, God speaks to us and cares about all this intimately–speaking now experientially (not just head knowledge).
- I also now want to have children, TCKs, myself… Before all this I could only see heartache and pain in a TCK’s childhood. God has done a good work.
Access the rest of the personal accounts of deconstruction by clicking here: FIRST-PERSON ACCOUNTS
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