I don’t know a way to start this without some level of personal detail, but I’ll try to be brief: I grew up in a church somewhere right of John MacArthur which, these days, things MacArthur is a progressive. If you know the Lincoln area at all, you’ll know the church. That there have been multiple staff members credibly accused of serious sexual sin is a matter of public record. There are a number of other things that could be gotten into as well, but I won’t here because frankly it isn’t worth it.
Suffice to say, by my senior year of high school, I was a very angry, very confused young man who didn’t really know what to think about things. I’d seen and experienced enough ugliness and genuine cruelty to make me suspicious of Christians and Christianity. I’d also been raised by obviously virtuous, devout, pious Christians and so I also found it hard to ditch the faith altogether. So what happened is that over the years between 2005, when I left that church (my parents made me leave because they knew if I stayed through high school graduation the next spring then I probably would never darken the doors of a church again), and 2009 or so, I was doing a lot of thinking and reading and trying to sort out what I thought about the faith. Today I suppose we’d call that deconstructing.
Some of the questions that I struggled over during those years, just to lay my cards on the table, included faith and science issues, gender roles, LGBT issues, inerrancy, the exclusivity of Christ, and the doctrine of hell. Those are the main ones I remember, anyway. I’m sure there were others that I’m forgetting.
For the beginning phase of this I was attending the local megachurch, which was affiliated with Willow Creek. I was reading Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt (I visited Solomon’s Porch once and got coffee with Doug), Tony Jones, Donald Miller, and Rob Bell. I was also reading Schaeffer and Lewis and Chesterton and John Piper and Mark Driscoll and, once he started publishing books, Tim Keller. (I know it’s all white guys. I’ve expanded my reading habits since then.) Additionally, I had struck up an epistolary friendship with Matthew Lee Anderson. Though my deconstruction was mostly over by this point, I also became good friends with Steven Wedgeworth at the tail end of that process.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I eventually got involved in an RUF at Nebraska with a stellar campus minister, I began attending a local PCA church that had just recently particularized after being planted in 2000, and I spent two summers at the Rochester L’Abri.
I share all that because it helps define the sort of spaces I was in while doing what we’d now call “deconstructing.” The key elements:
- Family that provided a place I could come home to and feel welcomed to, even when I wasn’t sure what I believed.
- Christian friends and leaders who gave me space to think, weren’t threatened by my questions, and obviously wanted to understand where I was coming from, all while also commending orthodoxy to me.
- Intellectually diverse communities and friendships that presented me with the best version of certain ideas and forced me to do the hard intellectual work of thinking through issues rather than simply reacting to brands and messaging.
Deconstructing in the Ruins
Now here’s the thing: If I was doing all of that ten years later, it would have been infinitely harder, I think.
College campuses feel more extreme today in many cases and often are less open to conservative viewpoints.
Many Christian communities have less moral credibility because of #ChurchToo and their general indifference to the sins of Trump, sins that they condemned loudly in Bill Clinton as well as their response to the ongoing debate around racial injustice. This all makes it feel much easier to bail on church than it would have been 15 years ago, even if you were someone like me who had seen some pretty awful stuff locally. Back then, it was easier to maintain the belief that my church was extreme and the issue was a few bad apples. The movement as a whole was OK. It’s harder to maintain that belief now.
Moreover, communities had splintered in ways that meant they were all far more homogeneous. That’s the point that especially concerns me as I look at the ecclesiastical scene in the US right now. When you have more intellectually diverse communities, it forces everyone to stay intellectually honest and to rein in their worst impulses. But when trust breaks and communities splinter, everyone starts to self-radicalize. And the result of this is that we all end up becoming worse versions of ourselves.
To get specific, I’m (obviously, lol) not a clone of Matt or of Steven. But I’ve been influenced by them. When I’m thinking through a problem, I have their voices in my head. And I have respect for both of them. I take them seriously. So if I’m coming to a position that they would disagree with, I’m doing a lot of mental math in my head along the way to make sure that I’m embracing the best version of that position and that I know why I’m not landing where they do. And all of that mental work is really important because it helps me to understand the problems with my own argument and to better understand how someone would arrive at another position. That work forces me to reckon with my own weaknesses and limitation.
What is happening in our civil institutions today (and our ecclesial too) is that as they all become homogeneous, their members no longer have to do that sort of mental work to justify their positions to themselves. Their views are increasingly self-evident to them and reinforced by their media consumption. They don’t have to think, “oh, Steven would say x about this. How do I respond?” because they aren’t in relationship anymore with people that would say x.
This means that, when they meet someone from their church or ministry that is going through the process I did 15 years ago, it is much harder for them to understand the person, listen well to them, or even to not feel threatened by them. Of course, these kinds of responses basically guarantee that the deconstruction will go in a fairly specific, fairly common direction.
I’m not sure there’s a grand takeaway to all this. I’m mostly just sad and alarmed at what I’m seeing and, especially, am grieved over what all this means for the people going through the same process I did but who were born 10-15 years later. I suppose a few brief exhortations would be to stay curious, take ideas seriously, resist ideology, and cultivate intellectually mixed friendship groups. I’m not sure there’s anything to do about the large scale problems because I’m not sure what force there is that could counteract the trends that are already in motion. But each of us can, within our own heart and mind, choose to not be ideologues and to care enough about ideas and people to treat both with seriousness and respect. That would be a good start.