NOTE: This blog post is a slight deviation from my normal content and is based on an article written for a journal; as such, it doesn’t carry the same tone and length as most of my blog posts in this space. However, I felt the subject area was directly connected to the realities of ministering across generations and specifically to the youngest generations and a needed foundation for ongoing conversations on generational discipleship. I invite you to take some time, read this revised article, and consider how the information contained here might impact your own life and ministry.
“I don’t believe in God anymore.”
“I don’t know if I believe in God anymore.”
“I don’t know what I believe about God anymore.”
Over the past two years, I’ve heard these phrases more times than I can remember. I am hearing them all over social media, in magazine articles, blog posts, radio programs, podcasts, and sermons. While these statements are all nuanced with very different things being said, most of the time, every one of these labeled under one broad, sweeping term: Deconstruction.
Deconstruction appears to have taken mainstage as a “buzz word” or movement within the Christian and ex-Christian community. A significant uptick in attention to deconstruction coincided with the beginning of a global pandemic that moved many people from in-person community and into a much wider virtual community found in online communities such as TikTok, Instagram, and Twitch. Younger people (Millennial and Gen Z generations) quickly adapted to this form of communication, finding solace in a global community that “gets” them. Those who are deconstructing from their faith have used the platform to process, protest, and project their experiences into a wide audience, gaining traction among those who already felt frustrated and disenfranchised by the evangelical church.
The History of Deconstruction
While deconstruction has become a rather familiar term in evangelical circles of late, the concept of deconstruction has been around for centuries. Modern evangelical deconstruction centers around one’s faith in God and in the beliefs one holds about God. However, the term “deconstruction” did not initially refer to a theological context but rather a philosophical one. Coined by French philosopher Jacques Derrida, the concept of deconstruction referred primarily to questioning the conceptional frameworks of Western philosophy including social sciences, humanities and literature.1
By the late 1980s and into the nineties, we see the term applied to “the philosophy of religion” in academic circles and by the early to mid-2000s, the term becomes more common place in descriptions of experiences related to questions of faith and relevance.2 In 2016, Richard Rohr, a well-known leader in spiritual formation, published a work called “An Invitation to Grace” where he reflects on Walter Brueggeman’s work describing the Christian walk as a journey through the Torah (rules/law) to the Prophets (criticism for those rules) to Wisdom literature (resolution leading to wisdom).3 In his reflection, Rohr offers the following sequence for this journey: Order, Disorder, and Reorder and states that “Much of the chaos and instability of our time stems from many young and sophisticated people now beginning life in the second stage of Disorder and criticism, without first learning deeply from Order. It appears to be a disaster. The three stages must be in proper sequence for life to unfold somewhat naturally.”4 This sequencing has been seen by some as the catalyst towards the deconstruction journey with the second stage of disorder taking the focus as the modern evangelical version of deconstruction.5 And true to Rohr’s prediction, the location of young people in this second stage has become a major characteristic of the current deconstruction movement.
It is important to note that this movement or journey, however one might describe it, from initial understandings of one’s faith through a time of questioning or deconstructing into a time of reaffirmation or reconstruction is neither new nor is it unusual. Far from that, we see examples of this journey all the way back to the beginning of the Christian faith.
As an example from Scripture, we can look to the story of Peter found in Acts 10 where Peter has gone to the roof to pray and subsequently has a vision. In his vision, a cloth is being lowered from heaven and on it are a number of “unclean” animals and he is told by a voice to “Kill and eat” these animals. Peter immediately responds with “No” stating that these animals are prohibited by the law (order). The voice replies that Peter should no longer call things impure that God has made pure (disorder). Paul is left wondering about what all this could mean when low and behold, a group of Gentile believers shows up at his house and the Spirit of God tells Peter to go with them. Peter makes the following statement upon arriving at the host’s home: “You are well aware it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile (order). But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean (disorder). So when I was sent for, I came without raising an objection (reorder)” Acts 10:28,29.
In this Scripture passage, Peter questions something he has been taught as right and good and true his whole life and deconstructs it in order to arrive a new understanding (wisdom) through the Spirit of God. This pattern directly follows the prediction of Brueggemann, Rohr, and the deconstructionist path.
So the question becomes, why has deconstruction taken on such a life of its own as both a movement and a buzz word in recent times? And why, if is a natural journey of faith, has it become something of an affront to the evangelical church?
For this conversation, we must begin to look at the circumstances surrounding the deconstructionist movement over the last two years as well as the environment where this movement has found a growing community.
Deconstruction and Social Media in the Age of Covid
In March 2020, the normal gathering and communal practices of life in America were fundamentally altered. While this a global experience of all communities, those who found identity and continuity in times of gathering such as the church on Sunday mornings, this change was especially challenging. Moving community online proved challenging to those institutions that typically met in person. But for communities that were already formed online, the challenge was actually a boon to their burgeoning population.
Since March 2020, Americans have spent, on average, an additional 1-2 hours on social media per day as compared to pre-pandemic numbers.6 Social media platforms gained users at unprecedented rates with Instagram increasing by 16%, Facebook by 19%, and Reddit by 30%.7 But by far the greatest growth was on the social media application, TikTok, which grew its monthly usage by 38% (ibid). In the first quarter of 2020, when the pandemic began to shut down communities across the globe, TikTok had been downloaded 315 million times and in June 2020 it gained another 87 million users in just one month, effectively making it the app of choice for the pandemic.8
As a minister that works directly with younger generations, I have made it a practice to be where those generations can be found. As such, I was part of the great TikTok boon of 2020 and it was not long before I stumbled across Deconstruction TikTok. As of my writing this article, the hashtag #deconstruction had 208.5 million views and #deconstructiontiktok had 8.1 million followers.9 If you click on the hashtag, you quickly discover that the type of deconstruction being discussed is not Jacque Derrida version (philosophical) but the evangelical version of religious deconstruction.
With the vast majority of TikTok users being from the Millennial and Gen Z populations, we can safely assume that the majority of the followers to this movement fall within those parameters. The creators of the content, as with all areas of life, fall between the extremes of outright rejection of God and religion to simply questioning the morals and beliefs that one has been raised to embrace. In any case, the popularity of the movement and the online community that it has created is formidable.
And therein lies the reason for the current focus on deconstruction in evangelical Christian circles, both by those who are in the stage of deconstruction and those who are calling attention to it from the pulpit. However, the reality of the situation is that those who are growing in maturity of faith and in their relationship with God have always moved through this journey, albeit without the vocal and visual support of a community who are processing with them. Which begs the question; how should we respond when we are met with someone who tells us that they are deconstructing?
Responding to Deconstruction
In my current ministry role, I have interactions weekly with people who identify as deconstructing. However, the differences exhibited in their individual journeys are as unique as can be. While some have decidedly come to a place of rejecting God and Christianity, most find themselves in a place of questioning and discernment. The majority affirm their belief in Jesus but are working through the nuances of their faith and how they should live it out in the world today.10
Here are a few experiences from my own pastoral interactions that might be helpful in journeying with self-identified deconstructionists.
- Assess what is being deconstructed – Because the label of deconstruction is being used to describe everything from deconversion and rejection to discerning and questioning, it’s important to actually listen to the individual and hear where they are on their journey. Don’t assume you know what the label means.
- Offer new language – Often those who are deconstructing label themselves that way because they don’t have other verbiage to use and are just adopting the terminology of the culture. I often speak to people about the concept of “decluttering” or getting rid of beliefs or teachings that have clouded their view of Jesus. Other terminology includes those offered by Brueggemann and Rohr as noted above. Helping the individual identify their unique journey helps them to truly discern for themselves where they are at rather than getting swept up in a cultural movement.
- Normalize the journey – It can be scary, especially for those who have grown up in a strict religious setting, to view the journey of order, disorder, and reorder as anything other than sacrilegious and heretical. To ask questions, to express doubt, or to reject certain teachings can feel wrong or sinful when, in fact, it can be a marker of spiritual growth and maturity. Assuring them that what they are experiencing is an important part of growing in one’s faith can offer the freedom needed to grow and discern.
- Offer to journey alongside– Nothing is more isolating than feeling on the outside of a group you’ve always been inside. By offering to journey with them, at their pace and in their way, without judgment or forcing them to move more quickly or slowly, we can become an important part of their spiritual community and offer the support and guidance needed for healthy growth. It’s not about making them agree with us but rather being a presence that consistently points to Jesus.
- Recognize God’s work – Ultimately, the relationship that a person cultivates with God of either acceptance or rejection is not something we can control. God alone can speak to hearts and bring answers to life’s deepest questions. Christ tells us that if He is lifted high, he will draw all humanity to Himself. Our job is to lift Jesus high; to love God and to love others. It’s His job to speak to their hearts.
As ministers and fellow journeyers, it behooves us to reject the posture of defensiveness or criticism that can sometimes accompany reactions to those who find themselves in the deconstruction movement. Instead, it is important that we recognize that none of us have arrived at a place of fully knowing as we are fully known and remain humble as we too allow God to challenge us, teach us, and shape us to become more and more the image of His Son. Deconstruction can merely be a step on our journey and one that, if done surrounded by the grace of God and love of community, can lead us to love God and love others even more; to do the work of the Father which is to believe in the one He has sent – Jesus Christ our Lord.
- Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopedia. “deconstruction.” Encyclopedia Britannica, October 20, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/topic/deconstruction.
- Dicenso, J.J. Deconstruction and the philosophy of religion: World affirmation and critique. Int J Philos Relig 31, 29–43 (1992). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01539179
- Brueggemann, W. The Practice of Prophetic Imagination: Preaching an Emancipating Word. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012.
- Rohr, R. (2016). The Invitation of Grace. Accessed online 1/4/22: https://cac.org/the-invitation-of-grace-2016-03-21/
- Vanderpool, K. The Age of Deconstruction and the Future of the Church. Relevant Magazine. 4/7/21. Accessed online: https://www.relevantmagazine.com/faith/the-age-of-deconstruction-and-future-of-the-church/
- Additional daily time spent on social media platforms by users in the United States due to coronavirus pandemic as of March 2020. Published 1/28/21. Accessed on 1/4/22 from https://www.statista.com/statistics/1116148/more-time-spent-social-media-platforms-users-usa-coronavirus/
- Growth of monthly active users of selected social media platforms worldwide from 2019 to 2021. Published 3/8/2021. Accessed on 1/4/22 from https://www.statista.com/statistics/1219318/social-media-platforms-growth-of-mau-worldwide/
- TikTok Statistics. Published 9/27/21. Accessed 1/5/22 from https://wallaroomedia.com/blog/social-media/tiktok-statistics/
- TikTok application, Accessed 1/12/21.
- Hardman, R. Deconstruction, Deconversion, and Ex-vangelicalism. Publishd and accessed 1/10/22 from https://www.randyhardman.com/post/deconstruction-deconversion-and-ex-vangelicalism
A version of this article was first published here by this author in the Shalom! Journal Brethren in Christ U.S, Winter 2022, Vol. 42, Issue 1.
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About this Blog
Refocus Ministry was founded by Christina Embree in 2014 as a blog and now a nonprofit coaching and consulting ministry. Christina serves with her husband Luke and three children as church planters and pastors at Plowshares BIC. She speaks conferences and churches around the globe and also serves as the Minister of Generational Discipleship with the Great Lakes Conference of the Brethren in Christ.