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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.

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Allison Vander Broek

Allison Vander Broek is a historian of American religion and politics. She recently graduated from Boston College with her doctorate in history. Her dissertation, Rallying the Right-to-Lifers: Grassroots Religion and Politics in the Building of a Broad-Based Right-to-Life Movement, 1960-1984, explored the origins of the right-to-life movement in the 1960s and its rise to national prominence.

8 Comments

  • mstair says:

    “… only to have anger and grief bubble up uncontrollably nearly two years after leaving.”

    As I watch the heads my United Methodist Church members turn grayer and whiter, the children’s sermons attended by fewer and fewer, I see the results of the ‘bubbling up.” If you please, elaborate a little about the particulars of the anger and grief … ?

    • Allison Vander Broek says:

      I grew up pretty active in the church and stuck with it through college and into my first few years of grad school. But after watching people I knew from church supporting/defending/excusing/ignoring Donald Trump in the course of the 2016 election cycle, I felt horribly betrayed and angry–it felt like everything I’d been taught growing up about the Bible, Jesus, etc. was all a lie. I was actually shocked by just how angry and betrayed I felt and am still trying to sort that all out. From people I’ve talked with in the last year or so and from what I’ve read, this isn’t an uncommon experience for formerly evangelical millennials. Granted I’m also a bit of an odd duck as I’ve ended up in a small Episcopal congregation that’s mostly older folks and probably not where you’d expect to find too many millennials–but I dearly love that church and the people there.

      • mstair says:

        Thank you very much for your honest reply. I truly understand your perplexion over the latest election. What we thought was true … we learned was not. This would lead you to question the upbringing of your faith and the people who were responsible for it. It reminds me of the incredulity of the white christian racial response in the 1960’s over the mere suggestion that Christ desires His Church to be an integrated assembly. It caused me to wonder (and still does) how they could regard The Scriptures as The Authoritative Word of God and obviously skip reading many parts of it? I see that your coming along-side of The Anglican collection of The Body of Christ now (as was the walk to Emmaus) will be an illuminating journey – providing a needed perspective for The Exvangelical Members. I pray that you continue to tell them what you learn …

  • Mark William Ennis says:

    Wonderful article. Thank you.

    Please let me know what the site is for Exvangelicals. I would be interested in reading what is written there.

    • Allison Vander Broek says:

      Hi Mark. Thanks for your comment and glad you enjoyed the article. The group is a closed Facebook group called Exvangelical which you can request to join if you’re a former evangelical. The group grew out of the Exvangelical podcast–https://exvangelicalpodcast.com. That’s also a good place to start to hear some of the varied conversations that are going on in the exvangelical community.

  • George E says:

    It would be helpful if you explained more about how the conversations are difficult. What are the difficulties? Can you give examples of conversations you find difficult, and what are the elements of difficulty?

    • Allison Vander Broek says:

      Hi George. Thanks for your comment. I think these conversations are difficult for a number of reasons. When I was an evangelical, I found these conversations difficult because I didn’t feel like there was space for honest questioning in the church. Too often, my questions about faith/spirituality/the Bible were met with quick, “easy” fixes (eg. pray more, read this book, listen to this sermon, read this part of the Bible, etc). These responses just left me feeling alienated and ashamed. The Facebook group and podcasts I highlighted have a totally different feel. People with vastly different religious beliefs (who we’re often told shouldn’t get along with one another–growing up I was taught to fear atheists, for example) navigate conversations about religion and other potentially tricky issues with incredible grace, humility, and understanding.

      I think one of the big reasons I find such conversations about faith, deconstruction, and the state of the church in the US difficult now is because I’ve realized the magnitude of trauma caused by some churches. I think a few years ago I had a fairly naive view of Christianity. I saw it mainly as a force for good and, at worst, as a sort of benign entity in society. In listening to some of the conversations in the podcasts and groups I highlighted above, I realized that many people have experienced immense trauma at the hands of the American church. And the decision to leave faith or change denominations is very complex and difficult for a lot of people. I think this adds an urgency to having frank and open conversations about the state of the church and why millennials and others might be leaving–there’s a lot at stake here.

      Hope that answered your question–it’s hard to pack this all in to a short blog post.

  • RLG says:

    A response to George E’s last comment or question. What are the difficulties in conversations between evangelicals and exvangelicals? As I see it, the most common difficulty for the exvangelical is that the evangelical has great difficulty granting any credibility to the ex’s position. The evangelical (or call him/her a Christian) wants to quote Scripture, or other Christian sources, as proof of the Christian position. To believe differently than what Christianity claims, just doesn’t make sense to the Christian, because they think they have God’s word on it and He can’t be wrong. Evangelicals don’t really want to listen to the exvangelical’s argument, or it goes in one ear and out the other with no attempt to understand, because they are already working on their counter argument. Perhaps, the exevangelical doesn’t believe the Bible is the inspired word of God. After all, all religions make the same claim for their Scriptures. So quoting the Bible for many exvangelicals is no more assuring than quoting the Koran is to the Christian. Most (not all) Christians just can’t understand (or want to understand) how someone could leave the faith they once loved. But it happens, and with good reason.

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