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When people announce that they’re “leaving the Christian faith” or are “no longer believers,” I am sad. I am hurt. I am exasperated.

I’m sad because I believe they are stepping away from something that is good and beautiful and life-giving, even ultimate. I’m sad because their experience of Christianity was apparently less than that, often painful and misleading.

And if I’m honest, I am hurt because they are rejecting something I have invested my life in.

And if I’m really honest, I am exasperated because often their leaving seems shallow, ill-considered, hasty, and self-aggrandizing.

I realize that evaluating someone else’s faith journey, why-they-do-what-they-do-when-they-do-it might be ill-considered in the extreme. I should be praying for them. Sometimes I do. I should be patient and gentle with those who give up on Christianity. Often I am.

Joshua Harris

I didn’t listen to most of Christianity Today’s highly-regarded podcast “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.” Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll aren’t really on my radar. I don’t need more bleak stories in my life. Yes, I’m a Christian and a pastor, so perhaps I should be more invested. But that’s a bit like saying just because I’m a baseball fan I should also pay attention to cricket.

At a friend’s urging, I did listen to the bonus episode “I Kissed Christianity Goodbye” about the rise and fall of Joshua Harris. My familiarity with him is pretty limited as well. I remember his book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, making a splash in the late 90s, but not paying much attention. My dating days were over by then! As for the youth in our congregation, I didn’t think they cared much for him either.

Certainly I was not familiar with the ups and downs of his life, career, marriage, or faith in the intervening years. I confess to knowing next to nothing about “Sovereign Grace Ministries.” I am happy to keep it that way.

In case you missed it (and I did until the podcast) in 2019, Harris left his marriage and disavowed his Christian faith.

Listening to the podcast it becomes apparent that Harris didn’t disavow his hunger for the spotlight, his love of tweeting, and his entrepreneurial ways. In other words, he is still a thoroughly white American evangelical church leader — minus faith in Jesus Christ.

Deconstructing

Deconstructing is a popular word and activity these days. Deconstructing a faith that was foisted on people, that saddled them with shame, that was interlaced with American nationalism, that was superficial and stifling, riddled with hypocrisy and crushing authoritarianism. Deconstruct away — please.

Ex-vangelical is another term I increasingly hear. It appears that throngs of disillusioned, exhausted young people are cutting ties with their evangelical background. Their wounds and grievances are legion — racism, misogyny, manipulation, bullying, anti-intellectualism, the connection to hateful politics, the anemic response to Covid, a bloodthirsty, vengeful God, and so much, much more. Whether and how American evangelicalism will respond is an open question.

Everyone’s faith journey has valleys and deserts. I’ve taught many Intro to Christianity courses to collegians. Part of my job was to help them deconstruct. It can be shocking and painful, a little bit gleeful and freeing. Often there’s a tendency to be somewhat sophomoric and self-important. But finally to stay alienated and jaded is a destructive and unhappy place to be. Somehow there needs to be cautious rebuilding, some tentative and more mature faith. And deconstructing is never once-and-done. It’s a lifelong process.

I’d like to tell those deconstructing American evangelicalism not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Rejecting or realigning your evangelical faith need not include rejecting Jesus Christ. Don’t think that believers have no questions or don’t see the hypocrisy; that others have not been deconstructing for a long time. Your experience in an evangelical church need not be the totality of your experience of the Church of Jesus Christ.

American evangelicalism is not the sole or universal expression of the Christian faith. There are all sorts of other expressions of the Church — mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic, even Orthodox. Rumors of their death have been somewhat exaggerated. You’ll have to deconstruct some more to make a home there. You’ll have to make peace with lukewarmness and smugness, ambiguity and irrelevance, a quiet trust in symbols and rituals over words, and probably many other changes that will be jarring. Still, I’d urge you to try,

Audrey Assad

I don’t know much about Audrey Assad either. But I’m inclined to like her. She’s huge in certain circles, but somehow I missed her. Maybe some of you can cite her albums and know all the lyrics to her songs. Bravo. Like Harris, you can read all sorts of speculation and semi-gossip about Assad and her journey on the web. By and large, I haven’t.

I gained a little awareness of Assad through her work with the Porter’s Gate worship project. Then a colleague shared her song “Drawn to You.” The song and video became very meaningful to me personally — a balm, a beacon. In it, I hear Assad deconstructing and yet refusing to let go of faith. I found it mature and inspiring, realistic yet hopeful.

In her own journey, Assad actually did what I advised above. Several years ago she stepped out of her Plymouth Brethren background to become Roman Catholic. Then last spring, she shared she hadn’t been a practicing Catholic for years and was no longer a Christian.

While I’m prone to be kinder to Assad than Harris, I still don’t understand why you have to make public announcements like this at all. Beware of practicing your no-longer-piety on social media. But then maybe I simply don’t understand what it’s like to be a media personality.

So I am sad about Assad and peeved at Harris. Nonetheless, all of us need leeway and love on our journeys. And theirs aren’t over yet. As someone in the Reformed tradition, maybe I should toss the perseverance of the saints into this conversation.

To everything there is a season. A time to break down and a time to build up. A time to keep and a time to throw away. A time to tear and a time to sew. A time to deconstruct, and I hope there is a time to reconstruct.


I found Assad’s interview with the National Catholic Reporter to be helpful. It may also give some idea of the sorts of crises and questions that go into deconstructing. In the interview, she says “Unfolding” is the song that best expresses where she is at now.



Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

9 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I loved this. “Listening to the podcast it becomes apparent that Harris didn’t disavow his hunger for the spotlight, his love of tweeting, and his entrepreneurial ways. In other words, he is still a thoroughly white American evangelical church leader — minus faith in Jesus Christ.” And “While I’m prone to be kinder to Assad than Harris, I still don’t understand why you have to make public announcements like this at all. Beware of practicing your no-longer-piety on social media. But then maybe I simply don’t understand what it’s like to be a media personality.”
    I have been in contact with a high school classmate from 50 years ago, who grew up in the bosom of the Dutch Reformed church, secretly lesbian, enduring the pain of the judgement, and eventually came out and left the church for the rest of her life, BUT NEVER STOPPED BELIEVING and NEVER LOST HER FAITH in God through Jesus Christ. She has been private about it, and felt no need to broadcast it. I have been impressed in recent years by all the LGBTQ people who are alienated from the church but who, if you ask them, have never lost their belief in God, and don’t at all BLAME God, and who maintain their respect and honour of Jesus and often even their love of Jesus. It’s to widows, orphans, and the poor that the God of Israel is convincing, not the philosophers and celebrities, and that’s how God seems to want it.

  • mstair says:

    “a faith that was foisted on people, that saddled them with shame, that was interlaced with American nationalism, that was superficial and stifling, riddled with hypocrisy and crushing authoritarianism.”

    Aren’t those perceptions of things we “nevertheless faith-keepers” actually cherish …?

    “a faith that was predestined on a people, that informed them of regret for sin, that was exampled with American traditions , that was simple and proven, honeycombed with curious paradoxes yet the assuring sovereignty of God Himself.”

    For the true believer, is kissing it goodbye even possible…?

  • Mark says:

    Thanks for scrolling though disturbing but also in a way liberating realizations and emotions. A 10-year-old in our family recently asked if he could undo his baptism (!). Without realizing it he is deconstructing the little bit of religion he has already been exposed to. He goes to a Catholic school which may account for some of his negativity regarding the faith. I console myself (I am very close to him but try not to force any unhelpful discussion) with the realization that, whether he knows it or not, he has one thing right: With Jesus you are either all in or all out. Then again, this is JESUS, so no one is ever all out.

    • Kathy Van Rees says:

      This is a kind and thoughtful reply, Mark. I’m grateful you are in this equally thoughtful 10 year old’s life.

  • Kathy Van Rees says:

    Thank you Steve, for yet again, inspired thoughts and words. My nearly 88 year old husband (who has a close connection to Pella, and begs me to drive him there again. It would NOT be as fun a trip as it is in his imagination) is a big big fan of your words.

  • James Schaap says:

    Wonderfully and beautifully thoughtful.

  • Thomas Bartha says:

    Thanks Steve. Really a fine piece of writing, capturing a lot of things where you have again helped to put into perspective some of what I’ve been thinking.

  • Valerie Van Kooten says:

    For so many of us, walking away is impossible. I find myself echoing the words of Peter, who appeared to be doing a little deconstructing himself, when he cried, “To whom else can I go? You alone have the words of eternal life.” Jesus has us in the palm of his hand and ruined me for anyone or anything else.

  • David Bosscher says:

    The Psalms of David seem full of faith crises brought about by a God who doesn’t respond in the way that we want or expect. Our own spiritual/cultural expectations can place insane demands on God but impossible to humanly explain circumstances – illness, death, divorce, etc – also tear at the fabric of our faith. Yet, it is that very faith fabric that offers a way through both foolishness and heart wrenching crises.
    Thanks for a very well-written and helpful essay.

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