“I’m not walking away from Jesus, but I’m done with the church.”
Perhaps you’ve heard this statement, or made it yourself. I sure have. Fed up with what seemed to be a culture of hypocrisy, I concluded that the Holy Spirit must not be real if so many Christians who claimed to know Christ were so terrible to doubters like myself. And so, for a time, I left.
Fortunately, God eventually led me back into the fold, and into the Anglican church. But the years of spiritual floundering are still a vivid memory. I deeply sympathize with those whose trust in the Church is still too raw to even consider going back.
Deconstruction isn’t just part of my faith narrative; it’s become a cultural phenomenon in contemporary Christianity. In their efforts to understand and perhaps prevent it from happening in their own churches, high-profile organizations like The Gospel Coalition write about it frequently. The problem is, there’s no way to write about such a deeply personal event in a way that rings true for everyone who’s lived it.
Why do people leave?
In an article cleverly titled “Prone to DeChurch, Lord I Feel It,” Trevin Wax writes:
In the way we talk about dechurching, it seems like personal agency disappears. We talk as if dechurching is a phenomenon that just happens, much like a snowstorm or hurricane blowing through and leaving the landscape changed. The reality is, dechurching is the result of personal choices extended over time. Dechurching doesn’t happen to someone, as if people are passive spectators. Leaving the church is something people do.
The statistics in The Great Dechurching demonstrate that the decision to leave the church, for many, isn’t always conscious. For a good number of people who’ve dropped out of church, the process is like a slow leak in a tire, or drifting away due to a change in life circumstances, inconvenient schedules, and superficial relationships. There may never be a conscious choice to “walk away.”
In my story, there was no one incident that made me leave (although for some people, there is). Rather, it was a series of things that added up over time. And yes, the decision to leave was deliberate on my part: no one forced me out. And I didn’t want to leave, either. Staying felt like settling in an unhealthy relationship because there wasn’t anything better.
Again, it’s impossible to write about this topic in a universal way, so I can only speak for myself here. My mistake when I left the church was thinking that I didn’t need it; that I could do this Christian life by myself, which is unbiblical. However, it’s an understandable conclusion to make when Christianity gets marketed as a “personal relationship” with Jesus that puts far too much emphasis on individualism than is healthy or wise. A “personal relationship” with Christ is communal, not a solo endeavor.
Settling for the simple answers
I sympathize with those whose experience in the church has left them spiritually battered and bruised. But most of today’s dechurching is the result of our wayward hearts, not church leader scandals. The human heart tends toward sin, and when we walk down a disobedient path, we’re inclined to rationalize our direction and decisions. “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,” the old hymn goes. Most of us haven’t borne the brunt of church scandals, at least not personally, which means if we rely on these stories as the reason for our churchlessness, it’s likely we were searching for the slightest justification to do what we wanted in the first place.
This is where he begins to venture off into slippery territory. By and large, he’s not saying anything entirely untruthful here. Many people do leave Christianity because the gospel message is too narrow. The temporary pleasures that the world offers seem much more alluring.
But it’s wrong and dangerous to make that seem like the primary motivation for deconstruction narratives. It skims too lightly over the actions of the Church that left people “spiritually battered and bruised.” Well, why did that happen, specifically? Because the pastor refused premarital counseling for a couple living together before marriage, and it was clear that they didn’t take the biblical sexual ethic seriously? Or was it something more sinister, more ugly, like sexual abuse by the clergy, or other inappropriate behavior?
That’s uncomfortable to talk about, but we do no one any favors by pretending as if the Church has not been responsible for any battery and bruising.
Here’s the “line of fire” from Wax’s article that has gotten people so riled up on social media:
We think people are leaving the church today because of all the church scandals. But it’s possible we hear more about church scandals today because people seek to justify their decision to leave.
That stings. Again, there’s a partial truth here – many people are looking for any justification whatsoever – but it’s not the whole story. Not even close. And to treat that decision so flippantly is quite damaging to the credibility of this author as a compassionate, empathetic voice. Which is a shame, because I otherwise enjoy his work.
Tackling a topic too big for words
The problem with writing about deconstruction is that no one can ever do the topic justice. Each deconstruction journey is so personal and complex. The only deconstruction experience anyone can write about accurately is their own.
This is such a nuanced topic that deserves compassion and empathy. The biggest mistake anyone can make when talking about it is forgetting to be kind to those whose legitimate suffering has affected their faith. If you know, you know.
Also, though? There’s painful truths for everyone that need to be addressed. Abusive churches must be held accountable. At the same time, It is an act of love for healthy churches to draw clear lines between holiness and sin. And healthy churches can do both of those things. Moreover, we can do a better job making an effort to talk with deconstruction-ers, rather than always about them.
We’re nowhere close to being done talking about deconstruction
Deconstruction stories are important because they highlight what many churches do badly (handling sexual abuse and domestic violence is a big one). Of course, people will still choose to leave, and should be free to do so. But let it be because the gospel is just too narrow or unbelievable, and not because they were “spiritually bruised and battered.”