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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.
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 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,
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.