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What Does It Really Mean to ‘Deconstruct’ from Evangelicalism?

American evangelicalism

This week on the Gravity Leadership podcast, pastor and author Skye Jethani explored some of the factors influencing why people are “deconstructing” from American evangelicalism, whether they are rejecting all or part of it. Jethani believes that one key factor influencing this rejection is the moral failures that people are witnessing in the church.

“One of the dilemmas that pop American evangelicalism is having,” said Jethani, “is a lot of especially younger people…are looking at the leaders they’ve put on these pedestals, and they’re recognizing they have really rotten fruit…And then what ends up happening is you meet someone from another tradition, whether Christian or otherwise, who holds very different theology, and you go, ‘Oh my goodness. They have more compassion and love and grace and maturity and fruit of the Spirit than I’ve found in my evangelical tradition, so I’m going to jump ship from that one to this one.’” 

Deconstructing from American Evangelicalism

It’s helpful to note that people use the term “deconstruction” in different ways. Some, like Joshua Harris, have used the word “deconstruction” to mean leaving Christianity. Another author defines it this way: “Deconstruction is a careful and deliberate examination of one’s beliefs from the inside. It’s about coming to terms with what you believe outside of your inherited beliefs. It’s about growing INTO your faith, not out of it.”

So at its most simple definition, deconstruction is a modern way to describe doubting or questioning. Whether or not it means leaving a belief system entirely seems to depend on the person using it. 

American Evangelicalism, the Marketplace and the Medieval Roman Catholic Church

Jethani believes the word “evangelicalism” “has been problematic for a while because it’s become associated with a certain cultural expression of Christianity that is not solely gospel-centered.” In the same way that social media reveals the negativity that has always existed in human nature, evangelicalism has always had what Jethani calls “ungodly undercurrents.” Now, certain events in culture have revealed evangelicalism’s unhealthiness.

According to Jethani, the evangelical church in the U.S. has somewhat ironically fallen into some of the same errors as the medieval Roman Catholic Church. “The abuse of power, the exaltation of leadership, the financial shenanigans that went on, the selling of indulgences,” he said, are all abuses of which we can see parallels today.

One example of what he is talking about is the celebrity pastor. During the Reformation, the Protestant church got rid of the Catholic priesthood and replaced it with the priesthood of all believers. But, said Jethani, “We have completely abandoned the idea of a priesthood of all believers, and so many American evangelicals now live their faith vicariously through their celebrity pastor.” So when a leader like that dramatically fails, as many have, the consequences are devastating.

We can see an unhealthy focus on money and power, says Jethani, because American evangelicalism tends to value pastors for their charisma, influence and giftedness, instead of their spiritual maturity or their strength of character. Jethani said that when he was involved in Christian publishing a little over 10 years ago, an executive once told him, “In today’s Christian publishing environment, Eugene Peterson never gets a publishing contract.” The reason was that, while he might be doing good work as a pastor, Peterson did not have the kind of influence modern evangelicalism values, such as a megachurch or a lot of followers online. 

Complicating this problem is the instability that pluralism has introduced to our society. It is healthy to question assumptions and to allow for diverse points of view. But the fewer common, assumed values people in a society have, the more choices they have to make about what they believe and, therefore, the more anxiety this introduces into their lives. 

Eventually, people can get to the point where it’s easier to choose fundamentalism (whether on the liberal or conservative extremes) instead of thinking through their doubts and questions well. So some of the problems we’re seeing in evangelicalism simply arise from a desire for stability. 

Help When Deconstructing

Jethani was careful to point out that all traditions have their own “unique problems.” Sometimes leaving a tradition is the right choice, but, “It isn’t just like, white American evangelicalism is toxic, and everything else is ok. We just have to diagnose the toxicity in each of these traditions and recognize and disciple accordingly.”

For those struggling with the state of American evangelicalism, he recommends seeking out connections with brothers and sisters who are following Jesus and who will show you grace as you struggle with your questions. This in fact was an enormous help to one of the podcast hosts when he was in seminary, something he called “a desert experience.”

“I remember meeting Dallas Willard,” he said, “at a time of really a big deconstruction for me, and just thinking, ‘I don’t know how I answer all these old questions that I used to be certain about, but what I do know is, I want to know the Jesus Dallas knows…I had never met somebody in whom the fruit of the Spirit was so palpable and thick.”

“In my experience,” said Jethani, “what has helped dramatically is to root your faith far more in immediate, incarnate, intimate relationships, rather than merely hitching your wagon to an institution.”