Adjust font size: Toggle Contrast Mode:
0117 Decon Blog

Exiting the church: What we learn when the deconstructed speak for themselves


Erik Strandness warns against the pitfalls of “putting God in a box”, whether that be on the liberal or conservative ends of the theological spectrum, and sees the stories of the deconstructed – such as Audrey Assad shared on Unbelievable? – as telling the consequences of this approach.

Stories of prominent Christians leaving their faith continues to be an ongoing problem. While a great deal of thought and research has gone into divining the reasons for this exodus, Unbelievable? has been on the cutting edge of discovery because of its willingness to allow them to speak for themselves, and while the portrait of a deconstructed Christian remains unfinished, the show has added much needed texture and color.

A recent episode featured the stories of two singer/songwriters heavily involved in the Christian music scene who had serious concerns about their faith but whose journeys took them in two different directions.

Audrey Assad was raised in a fundamentalist religious environment, went on to become Catholic, and then announced she was no longer a practicing Christian because of her concerns over protestant legalism and Catholic clericalism. Fr. Chris Foley also found life as a traditional evangelical quite empty but rather than leaving the church he was inspired to dig even deeper into its roots which ultimately led to his ordination in the Eastern Orthodox church. What additional light can the stories of these two thoughtful and interesting people shed on the issue of Christian deconstruction?

Deserting the Church

Most stories of deconstruction begin with the failure of the church to meet the intellectual, emotional and spiritual needs of its members. Sadly, many churches adopt a protectionist strategy to protect the flock by erecting electrical fences around the deposit of faith so that anyone who wanders outside its boundaries and engages in some intellectual or spiritual grazing gets zapped. While this strategy may be motivated by a well-intentioned desire to keep the congregation safe, it ends up dispensing twinges of guilt every time a parishioner asks what God is up to outside of the sanctuary. I would argue that sometimes we need knowledge of life outside the fold in order to redirect us back to the Shepherd.

Isolating oneself from the world is nothing new. The desert church fathers chose to live in the wilderness and distance themselves from the surrounding culture. The difference, however, between them and the isolationist tendencies of the modern church was that they didn’t leave because they feared potential cultural evil but because they had intimate knowledge of what it looked like when it was actualized. It was informed withdrawal and not ignorant retreat. Maybe if we spent more time equipping our young people to navigate the wilderness we could prevent them from deserting the church.

Same Old Song and Dance

The church has underestimated the intellectual and spiritual depth of its youth. Assad wanted the opportunity to ask intellectual questions and Foley wanted to go spiritually deeper but both were stymied by their churches inability to meet their needs. You can’t straight jacket an image-bearing mind without driving it crazy, and for musicians inspired to create new music, the church all too often just gives them the same old song and dance.

Jonathan Aigner stated the problem quite forcefully.

Don’t give us entertainment, give us liturgy. We don’t want to be entertained in church, and frankly, the church’s attempt at entertainment is pathetic. Enough with the theatrics. Enough with the lights, the visuals, the booming audio, the fog machine, the giveaway gimmicks, the whole production. Follow that simple yet profound formula that’s worked for the entire history of the church. Entrance, proclamation, thanksgiving, sending out. Gathering, preaching, breaking bread, going forth in service. Give us a script to follow, give us songs to sing, give us the tradition of the church, give us Holy Scripture to read. Give us sacraments, not life groups, to grow and strengthen us.(Jonathan Aigner)

Hidden Gems or Forbidden Fruit

Both guests were disappointed that they weren’t allowed or encouraged to explore their faith.
They both felt like they hadn’t been “told the whole story” and were forced to take it upon themselves to do their own investigating. Assad sought knowledge in the “forbidden books” while Foley dug deeper into the frequently ignored ancient Christian corpus.

Thankfully, despite being let down by the church, both guests recognized that the church was not God and that even if they stepped outside its boundaries, they could still diligently pursue the divine.

“My beef wasn’t with God Himself but the Christian culture around me.” (Foley)

Evangelicalism all too often imprisons the mind. It cheats people out of bits of God’s truth found outside the four walls of the church. Preaching God’s sovereign power, the church ironically reduces Him to a set of propositions, so when young people discover new truths outside the church they no longer attribute them to God because they don’t check all the omni… boxes. God then ends up looking more like a cultic deity ruling over a particular tribe than the God of the universe.

The Spirit of Adolescence

Assad made a great point when she highlighted how the church had denied her a religious adolescence where questions should be a normal part of the maturation process.

“The exploration phase feels necessary, like an adolescence in a way that we weren’t given the chance to have.”

When the church dismisses the questioning mind of the adolescent, young people bypass this important developmental milestone and end up as old codgers set in their religious ways. Christian youth whose minds are aflame with questions find a church fire brigade all too willing to douse them. When you close the evangelical mind you not only get shallow Christians but you also end up producing entrenched atheists.

Foley doesn’t fear the questioning Christian mind. He noted that the Eastern Orthodox Church even has a day devoted to doubting Thomas. Foley is quite content with Simone Weil’s hopeful assessment of the situation.

“One can never wrestle enough with God if one does so out of pure regard for the truth. Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from Him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into His arms.”

The Dissonance of Deconstruction

It’s interesting that many high-profile deconstructions are found amongst musical artists. Is it because they just happen to be the very visible tip of the iceberg, or is there something about the interface of faith and music that prompts such defections?

Music is a mystery. It is part of the one-two punch of sermon and song that makes protestant worship so powerful. It is the emotional yin to the sermon yang. It is difficult to intellectually tame because it cannot be reduced to propositional truths. Foley noted that music is a mystery, which unlike sermons, doesn’t put “exclamation points” on ideas. Scriptural exposition wants to have the last word but music insists that it is …to be continued.

Music, however, doesn’t get a free pass because while it can be used to put people in a proper state of mind to receive scriptural revelation, it can also be used to manipulate emotions. Interestingly, worship music and scriptural exposition have evolved into two unique entrepreneurial enterprises and what was once a spiritual fusion has become a business merger.

Is it possible that these deconstructed musicians recognize the power of music and are uncomfortable with the way it has been appropriated by the church? What was once the language of the soul, articulating our human groans, has become mammon for Christian merchandizing. Plagued by their own secret doubts they uneasily create uplifting worship songs all the while haunted by the dissonance of deconstruction.

Fear and Trembling or Anxiety and Despair?

Assad was quite honest about her emotional struggles with Christianity. She acknowledged that her OCD combined with the PTSD she suffered at the hands of the church contributed to her deconstruction.

“I could not even say the word ‘God’ without triggering an anxiety attack…I couldn’t walk into a church building, I could not bear to be in mass. It was really, really sad because I did not desire for that to be my reality…I realized I had some trauma to process which was spiritual in nature. Spiritual and religious abuse are very real things.” (Assad)

How sad that the church would make a child of God feel unwelcome in her Father’s house. Foley said that the church should be a hospital and not a courtroom. Sadly, instead of presenting our symptoms to the great physician we are told to offer a legal brief to a hanging judge. Hoping to engage in the extreme sport of working out our salvation with fear and trembling, we end up paralyzed by anxiety and despair.

Who Do You Say I Am?

Brierley asked Assad about her current relationship with Jesus. She said she was “curious” and “haunted” by Him and was attempting to put together everything she knew into a mosaic. She avoided the trap that many deconstructed people fall into of confusing Jesus with the church.

“The institutional church and Jesus are related but they’re not the same exact thing.” (Audrey)

I think this is a very important step because if the two cannot be separated then whenever you are hurt by the church you make Jesus an accomplice to an act of violence He would never condone. Churchianity is about the church, but Christianity should be about Christ. Assad recognizes that Jesus’ question, “Who do you say I am?” is profound and cannot be answered by others but must be answered through personal investigation.

The church has been commissioned to help people know God so they can form a relationship with Him but yet it walks a tight rope between making Him more real and casting Him in doctrinal stone. The Good News is that He emptied Himself and became human so that we can confidently say that Whoever has seen Him has seen the Father.

Round Trip Ticket?

Brierley asked Assad what she misses about the mass and what it would take for her to return to the church.

“I do miss the shared understanding of how the universe works…The feeling of meeting with God in matter, in that specific way.” She recognized something powerful when God and man encounter one another every week. She also acknowledged that the idea of a personal God is a very powerful motivating factor for worship and “The more diffuse it (God) gets the less it feels compelling to go to church.”

I think that Assad has realized through her journey that God, if he/she/it exists, is far bigger than the institutional church understands, and she fears that if she reentered the church she would once again have to confine Him to a box. A box that is not only too small but cannot be entered without clerical or denominational passports. I think Foley is similarly concerned about the limits the church places on God which is why he had gravitated to the deeper mysteries promoted by the Orthodox church in the first place.

“I feel like I was on my way out of the church and if I hadn’t experienced the fullness and joy of the orthodox faith, I don’t know where I would be at this point.” (Foley)

Inside Job

Sadly, the success of Unbelievable? is due to the failure of the church. Shows like Unbelievable? shouldn’t be necessary if the church was actually doing its job. While I certainly would miss my weekly encounters with Justin, it might actually signal a healthier church.

Stories of deconstruction make me terribly sad, not just because people are walking away from their faith, but because I have discovered that it is the Body of Christ who sent them packing. Growing up in evangelical circles I was warned about the power of the outside world to turn people away from their faith but through these stories I have come to realize that it’s all too often an inside job.

The answer to this problem is not to become more liberal or progressive but to accurately teach orthodoxy. We cannot be afraid to entertain the outside perspectives of thinkers like Jordan Peterson and Douglass Murray, but we must also be willing to look deeper into our own historical corpus. We need to accept the fact that Christianity didn’t begin at the reformation and evangelicalism is not the end all, be all. As Foley quipped, “This little evangelical culture is a little blip on the screen in the history of Christendom.” We need to remember that God is really big and cannot be confined to a cute little denominational bungalow on our church property, because in reality we are just lucky that He has reserved a room for us in His mansion.

Erik Strandness is a physician and Christian apologist who has practiced neonatal medicine for more than 20 years.

Watch the Unbelievable? discussion about deconstruction in the Christian music industry

Want to learn more? Download your free, exclusive ebook: “God’s Not Dead”

Gods Not Dead Ipad Mockup

Get more updates from Unbelievable?

React to this story