There’s a lot of talk about religious ‘deconstruction’ and ‘reconstruction’ at the moment, particularly coming from the #Exvangelical movement. We’re seeing high-profile Christian leaders, authors, theologians and musicians like Joshua Harris (author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye) and Marty Sampson (Hillsong writer) walking away from Christianity, and doing so publicly. 

Christians would label this as “leaving the fold” or “falling away”, but for many, and maybe for these former Christian leaders, these terms fail to represent the journey. In fact, they completely disregard the journey. They presume the end. The reality is, many people who are deconstructing their faith aren’t leaving the fold at all, they’re simply questioning what it is. Many people aren’t “falling away”, they’re simply peering over the edge to see what’s down there.

The terms ‘deconstruction’ and ‘reconstruction’ endeavour to call this process what it is: a journey. And yes, some end up leaving the fold or falling away, but some don’t, and I assure you that many of the folk on this journey are sitting in your church every Sunday morning.

What is ‘deconstruction’?

Many who grow up in a religious home eventually reach a point in adulthood where they feel the need to reevaluate the way they look at the world. Sometimes this is triggered by trauma, or higher education, or falling in love with someone outside the faith. For others, it’s simply a need to feel more ownership about what they believe and how it impacts the decisions they make.

Lisa Gungor in The Most Beautiful Thing I’ve Seen uses a beautiful analogy to describe this point:

Let’s say our faith was like a sweater. Yarn: our ideology. Weave: our tradition. This is how you wear it. Don’t change it, even if the sweater doesn’t keep you warm any more. Even if it’s too tight or the threads cut off oxygen at your neck. This is the way. Doubts and questions mean disrespect, and those are the seeds of evil, so just don’t.

But over the years, a thread comes loose and you try to just tuck it in alongside the others. You can cover the fraying up. You can pull the thread and think, ‘Oh, I don’t need this one, because it is harmful to me; it’s itchy and gets caught on corners.’ It comes out easily. And the sweater stays together. Then you pull another, and another, and soon you find all the yarn is gone. You have deconstructed the entire thing. You are left naked. People gawk and run away, and you feel two opposing things: the freedom of glorious nakedness, and the fear of the same.

Lisa Gungor, writing in The Most Beautiful Thing I’ve Seen (Zondervan)

Deconstruction is about intentionally pulling out those threads. Lining them up in a row. Look, there’s the Bible songs from Children’s Church when you were 7. There’s the knee-jerk reactions to your friend’s rejection of Jesus. There’s the belief that sex before marriage is a sin. There’s that sermon about homosexuality.

When you’re standing there naked, feeling both free and fearful, you don’t reach down and grab those threads and throw them in the bin (or maybe you do). You pick them up and think about them. You question whether you want to knit them into the next sweater.

The act of deconstruction can be traumatic, lonely and confusing. If you decide to throw out some of the thread, where are you supposed to look for more if not the Bible?

In the case of fundamentalist beliefs, people expect that choosing to leave a childhood faith is like giving up Santa Claus – a little sad, but basically a matter of “growing up.”

“But religious indoctrination can be hugely damaging, and making the break from an authoritarian kind of religion can definitely be traumatic. It involves a complete upheaval of a person’s construction of reality, including the self, other people, life, the future, everything.

“People unfamiliar with it, including therapists, have trouble appreciating the sheer terror it can create and the recovery needed.

Marlene Winell, PHD

I’m a huge advocate for the deconstruction process, both for those who have grown up religious and those who have not. Each one of us are born into a sweater, knitted together by the people who raised us. Sometimes those threads are Biblical, sometimes they’re not. My objective in encouraging others to pull apart their sweater, is to ensure people are making informed decisions about what thread makes up the item that will warm them into adulthood.

People are craving safe spaces where they can ask these hard questions. Traditionally, the church hasn’t been a place where people can do this. Answers are always derived from the Bible, and this begins to feel insincere and robotic pretty quickly. Thankfully, people are carving out spaces for themselves, meeting in online chat rooms and gathering in lounge rooms across the globe. They aren’t doing this alone.

I can’t help but ask, shouldn’t the church provide safe spaces for the genuine quest for searching too?

What is ‘reconstruction’?

Reconstruction is a matter of picking up the needles again, finding a new piece of thread, and knitting something together that makes sense.

Sometimes you’ll never finish that sweater, because you’ll find you’re always growing – a swelling belly during pregnancy (or after a big Christmas dinner), a shrinking body with age. You’ll start to find threads everywhere- in novels and secular music, in drunken conversations with strangers in the bar, in public lectures held by academics. Suddenly, the world becomes a treasure map, the Bible no longer the only prize.

Also published on Medium.