Conversations on Spiritual Deconstruction and the Shifting Landscape of Faith by Allison Vander Broek
I’ve been doing a lot of listening this last year, spending a significant portion of my time listening to other people talk about their changing views on faith—their deconstruction and reconstruction as we like to call it in one of my favorite Facebook groups. What we mean by deconstruction/reconstruction is the process by which people question or dismantle aspects of their faith and, in some cases, how they put it back together. These conversations center on a few main questions: How do you dismantle toxic aspects of faith? What happens to people whose faith undergoes a massive transformation? Do they keep attending church or leave it completely? How do we even have conversations on spiritual deconstruction? And how do we do that respectfully without trying to “fix” people? As a millenial, an exvangelical, and a scholar of religion, I see these questions and these conversations as tied up in the current trends we’re seeing in American religion today—especially with millenials.
A brief note on why these conversations are particularly poignant to me: Now that I reflect on things, I’ve been deconstructing aspects of my faith for the last decade. And I left evangelicalism altogether the summer of 2015. It was a relatively amicable split, and after a few months away from church, I happily settled into attending a local Episcopal church. Or at least I thought I’d had a fairly amicable split from evangelicalism—only to have anger and grief bubble up uncontrollably nearly two years after leaving. In the midst of that, I realized I needed some sort of outlet for these powerful emotions and questions. In many ways, this story is typical for a lot of evangelical millenials.
Like Shane Versteeg described in his post last week, one of the core issues at play here is authenticity—millenials searching for and demanding a more authentic spirituality. In some ways, this shift makes me somewhat hopeful about the impact millenials might have in the church. But though millenials are becoming leaders in the church, we must also acknowledge that millenials are leaving the church. While I applaud efforts of those church leaders willing to take a hard look at the church and at what needs to change, I have to admit that I’m currently skeptical of the ability of American Christianity to bring millenials back in any significant numbers. And I have to say—I never saw church as a safe place to ask the questions that I listed above. But if church leaders want to change that, I think the best place to start is to listen carefully to what millenials (and also Gen-Xers and Boomers—this isn’t solely a millenial phenomenon) are saying about deconstruction/reconstruction and about what has gone wrong with American Christianity. There have been a few places in the last year where I’ve seen such important and honest conversations taking place.
About a year ago, I stumbled upon a Facebook group for Exvangelicals. As the title suggests, the group is for people who have cut ties with evangelicalism. It’s kind of a weird group—we’re all very different and now hold a range of religious beliefs—a good number of the group’s members are atheists and agnostics, some who have migrated to other Christian denominations, still others have converted to other faiths. It’s not always pretty and people often disagree with one another but the group places such a high priority on listening that it somehow all works. It’s a truly beautiful space—atheists, agnostics, progressive Christians, and others listening very carefully, supporting each other, and teaching, learning, and healing together.
The other resource I’ve leaned on is podcasts—the Liturgists podcast, Exvangelical podcast, and most recently, Derek Webb’s The Airing of Grief. This last podcast has been particularly compelling for me the last few months. Webb is a former Christian musician (a member of Caedmon’s Call back in the day), and his latest solo album deals extensively with themes of spiritual deconstruction. In the podcast, Webb invites people to call in and have candid conversations with him about “spiritual de- and reconstruction.” As with the Exvangelical group, the people who call in have ended up in vastly different places—some still religious, some not. And one of the podcast’s recurring themes with both these camps is that spiritual deconstruction isn’t undertaken lightly. Questioning faith isn’t easy or fun—there’s a reason Webb calls the podcast “The Airing of Grief” after all. From the podcast it’s clear that many millenials are leaving the church not because they’re lazy or misinformed, but because they’re asking honest and tough questions and finding the church’s response lacking. And that’s why podcasts like Webb’s and Facebook groups like Exvangelical are such important forums for millenials like me.
These aren’t easy conversations, but for me, it’s been a relief to find these spaces where conversations are held without attempts at proselytization and without an agenda. These are spaces where questions are welcomed and encouraged and where people can end up in different places spiritually and it’s all okay. At least for this millenial, that’s what authenticity looks like when it comes to faith and the future of the American church.