A little light Sunday evening musing for you. Overall, I’m writing today because I’m wondering if there is any church community locally anyone would recommend where I might fit. Friends and mentors have suggested I might seek a United or Lutheran church, or even Catholic. I’m Mennonite by culture and history, and evangelical by my life’s tradition and I would like to stay in a church within the Evangelical Mennonite Conference if at all possible.
My musings have led me to desire to more closely match with a church that is able to offer openness to the types of questions I’m seeking to explore with other believers. I’ve been told I need to take post secondary education to find an atmosphere to discuss the theological questions I have. I have one year of bible school and I’m not so much interested in more formal education at this point, but rather in seeing if there is a “progressive” church group with which to learn and grow together.
After this year, more than ever, I can tell I’m not alone. I’m not sure who is reading this who is also searching, like me, but if you’ve found some way to journey with others who are growing or are creating safe space that is meaningful to you – let me know.
One unifying factor among people I’ve talked to who feel the same way as me is the feeling of going through the process of faith deconstruction.
Deconstruction is the opposite of both construction and destruction; it is the responsible identification of the constructed elements of one’s faith and then taking them apart in order to see the underlying layers of construction wondering what might be useful again and in what configuration.
Josh de Keijzer
When I started using the term deconstruction, in my local circles, it’s made some people uncomfortable. Often discomfort is a cue, not to be afraid of something, but to ask questions, learn more, and really become aware of whether the discomfort is an alert to real danger or the brain’s signal that, hey, we’re about to learn something new. Ask an educator or psychologist you know about experiencing discomfort, or frustration, before a learning or developmental breakthrough. Fascinating stuff.
So, let’s deconstruct deconstruction. As far as I can tell, deconstruction became a term used in Christian circles in the 60s and 70s, starting in Europe when the younger generation at the time left the churches of the time in droves. I’m less familiar with evangelicalism in Europe. Instead, I took a look at the history of evangelicalism in the west.
As European immigrants set down roots in a new land, Protestant evangelicalism dominated the new people groups and imbued them with a sense of identity and passion for sharing the Gospel. Thus, evangelicalism had a stronghold on most of the United States from the 1700s on. I could cover 200 years of history, but what most of us quickly zero in on when talking about the history of evangelicalism is the dramatic growth of Protestant Evangelicalism in the 1940s and 50s to which the obviously prescribed icon would be none other than Billy Graham.
Graham’s movement of revival was catalyzed by the social change of the post-war period, including the neo-evangelical movement which was fostered in the bosoms of religious faculties of major institutions such as Princeton University and defined by evangelistic rallies called “crusades”, the creation of religious broadcasting and televangelism, as well as a new wave of Protestant seminaries such as Fuller Theological Seminary.
Graham also founded the publication Christianity Today, still popular today, and said that it would, “…plant the evangelical flag in the middle of the road, taking a conservative theological position but a definite liberal approach to social problems. It would combine the best in liberalism and the best in fundamentalism without compromising theologically.”
If we view a similar recent timeline, we can compare evangelicalism’s growth with the secular movement which rooted in North America prior to the turn of the century in 1900. Secularization of society was boosted with the roaring 20s, then grew quietly especially in law and higher education for decades and saw another growth spurt in the 60s when the popularity of Graham’s crusades began to wane.
In the 60s, neo-evangelicalism began to shift as fast is it had been growing, and more charismatic theology began to surface and spread across various evangelical factions (a common example many would know in this part of Canada would be the Association of Vineyard Churches).
And through it all, here in the Bible Belt of Canada, a crop of especially tight-knit church communities based on a particular brand of evangelicalism remains prevalent. The Evangelical Mennonite Conference is affiliated with the Mennonite World Conference and the World Evangelical Alliance (founded in 1951) and has 38 of its 60-odd churches located right here in Manitoba. One local evangelical college saw record-breaking years of freshmen enrolment as recently as 2000 and reported high enrolment in both 2014 and 2018.
It has been well documented that church attendance in the west – evangelical churches are no exception – has been on the decline for years, especially among young people and many attribute the decline to the rise in secularization, without taking into account that leaving a church does not necessarily equate to leaving a religion. Many former church-attenders would say they still subscribe to the faith tradition of the church they left, or have chosen to believe something different, replacing faith in God with atheism, humanism, or other belief structures.
Why have I chosen to try to lead this discussion of deconstruction with such a historical focus? I don’t know. Maybe to show that deconstruction has been happening corporately in our faith traditions just as much as it has been happening individually. And this isn’t a shock. And I could be going back hundreds or even thousands of years here, just be happy I focused only on the last hundred. Throughout history, on a collective level we see organizations break down and build up themselves up again differently and, of course, this is a reflection of what is happening on the individual level.
Evangelical author and professor of Biblical studies, Pete Enns, reflects on James W. Fowler’s Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (see For More Reading below).
What I see in Enns’ reflection is the allusion to an intense period of strife especially indicated between adolescence and adulthood:
Stage 3 – “Synthetic-Conventional” faith (arising in adolescence; aged 12 to adulthood) characterized by conformity to religious authority and the development of a personal identity. Any conflicts with one’s beliefs are ignored at this stage due to the fear of threat from inconsistencies.
Stage 4 – “Individuative-Reflective” faith (usually mid-twenties to late thirties) a stage of angst and struggle. The individual takes personal responsibility for his or her beliefs and feelings. As one is able to reflect on one’s own beliefs, there is an openness to a new complexity of faith, but this also increases the awareness of conflicts in one’s belief.
This adolescence of faith (does anyone else call it that?) is a particularly vulnerable time. It’s the age where we see the most amount of young people leaving churches. It’s where we start to see through the facade of Christian leaders who are unwilling to confront the more confusing aspects of theology with us. It’s where we start to suspect there is definitely something hinky going on, a corporate charade with individual buy-in. I read a story once (I think it was by Adrian Plass) about how, figuratively speaking, everyone is coming to church with a briefcase, carrying it with outward confidence, vocalizing mutual assurance of its contents: proof of faith. But when asked to open it and show what is really inside, most are less confident, shying away from, even refusing to, open it. This is, of course, because it is empty.
The story means that for most of us, it is incredibly difficult to transition from a personal identity that conforms to religious authority to taking personal responsibility for our faith. And that’s nothing to be ashamed of.
But it is uncomfortable. And it is something to lean into. It is where the deconstruction happens.
What if that is also where the shaming happens? Telling someone you are struggling with conforming to your religious leaders is the equivalent of being called a doubting Thomas, lukewarm, backsliding in your faith. If you want to engage in critical thinking about religious doctrine, scriptural context, or whatnot, you are labeled a dangerous liberal.
But deconstruction can’t be stopped just because someone tells you not to question. So deconstruction happens anyway and instead of knowing what to do and how to help people grow into maturity, young people are increasingly finding themselves ostracized from their homogenous group or leaving the group of their own free will. (This happens to older people, too!)
Has anyone else been through this? What helped you? What made things worse?
Has anyone seen this happening corporately, which can be more painful and confusing than on an individual level? Anyone part of a church split has seen this happening. Maybe we should normalize and create some safe space for churches undergoing a division; it need not all be negative…
Is there a church in Manitoba that is thinking progressively that you know of? This is my bat signal. Please respond. lol
There have been two distinct times when I thought I was on the verge of a very real identity crisis. Once, after I had been seeing a cognitive behavioural therapist for many weeks and had broken down a lot of complicated issues into bite size pieces for their productive, albeit painful, exploration. And a second time after I realized I was finished having children and had my first ever distinct crisis of faith. Thank goodness my counsellor led me through an exercise of reconstruction after the deconstruction her and I had done together. She literally had me cut out cardboard puzzle pieces and write down the pieces of my life, my priorities, and goals. That way I could hold them, name them, and put them back together again to make a complete picture. As an exercise, I connected with it strongly.
Anyway, I’m excited to share the years long journey of my deconstruction. I think I’m at the tail end of it and can feel myself solidifying on my version of faith… maybe. 🙂 In no way do I claim to have all the answers or any shred of “proof” in my briefcase. But this is the whole point. Let’s do away with pretence and forget about doubling down on fundamentalism, which shames progress in areas of new growth.
For More Reading:
YOUTUBE video: What does ‘The Social Construction of Reality’ Mean?, by Dr. Dennis Hiebert (I had to include this one for fun; maybe will reference it more in another post, but I couldn’t resist. It’s a good chew for the brain!)
Do you have reading for me? Send me some suggestions, not that I have time. 😉