Recently, The Gospel Coalition’s website featured an article titled 4 Causes of Deconstruction. Written by Joshua Ryan Butler, co-lead pastor of Redemption Church in Tempe, Arizona, the article purports to explain “why” Evangelicals deconstruct/deconvert. As you shall see, Butler trots out the same worn-out tropes used by other Evangelical preachers to “explain” why congregants are walking away from their churches.
Many who deconstruct have been wounded by abusive or manipulative church leaders, or generally unhealthy church cultures. Often these relationships were intimate and formative: the pastor you grew up with, the mentor you trusted. For others, the relationships are more distant. You grew up under the influence of leaders like Ravi Zacharias, Carl Lentz, or Mark Driscoll—whose teaching and charisma powerfully inspired you and formatively shaped you—but then the curtain got pulled back. The betrayal can make the whole thing look like a sham. The pain can be excruciating and disorienting.
It’s easier to throw the baby out with the bathwater when you feel like you’ve been drowning.
Church hurt is real. But deconstruction is a false cure.
Some Christians have been led to believe they must choose between faith and science, because of poor teaching on Genesis 1. Others have been led to believe God is a vindictive sadist, from a popular caricature of hell. Best abandon Christian faith entirely on account of some dubious or sloppy teaching, right?
Desire to Sin
Some deconstruct out of a desire to justify their sin. Many friends in ministry have suddenly had “big questions about God”—then proceeded to quickly deconstruct their faith. So many times, it later comes out they’d been having an affair that started well before their deconstruction began.
Doubt is hip. The desire to fit in with the cultural ethos of our moment is strong. That’s why so many deconversion stories sound like everyone’s reading off the same script—its well-worn clichés signaling conformity to accepted norms.
Celebrities are leading the charge. There’s influence to be had, platforms to be built, and money to be made. It gets Rob Bell on Oprah, bolsters Glennon Doyle’s book sales, and lets Rhett & Link host Nacho Libre and Harry Potter on their popular YouTube channel.
A wave of #exvangelical podcasters and TikTok stars are following in the wake, with a whole cottage industry to welcome and cheer them on. There’s clout in distancing oneself from “outdated” views of sex and gender, an “obscure” Bible with talking snakes and forbidden shellfish, and “offensive” doctrines like wrath and hell.
I’m not claiming to know the heart of such influencers. Motivations other than street cred can be powerfully at play. I’m simply observing that social pressure is a powerful carrot on the stick—and not just for celebrities.
The cultural hostility is real. Whether in progressive urban centers (like my hometown of Portland), or university environments (like where I currently live), Christians are decidedly not the cool kids. It’s hard to be the awkward one sitting alone at lunch. Many of us feel the social pressure—and the release valve is a simple Instagram post away.
My first response is sigh. Really? People deconvert because:
- They were hurt by their churches/pastors
- They were poorly taught
- They secretly wanted to fuck their neighor
- They wanted to be hip or cool
Ask one-hundred former Evangelicals why they deconverted, and few, if any, will list the causes above. Sure, bad church experiences play a part when people deconvert, but typically the worst of those experiences happened as we were leaving or after we left Evangelicalism. Most of the former Evangelicals I have interacted with since 2007 left Christianity for theological, social, or political reasons. Most left for intellectual reasons (though certainly their emotions played a part in their deconversions).
Count me as plumb tired (and irritated) with preachers such as Butler ‘splaining why former Evangelicals left Christianity. How about actually talking to former Evangelicals and finding out the REAL reasons they deconverted? How about reading their blogs, listening to their podcasts, or talking to them face to face? How about accepting their stories at face value?
How does Butler explain the increasing number of college-trained, experienced preachers deconverting? I have interacted with hundreds of former Evangelical pastors, evangelists, missionaries, worship leaders, youth leaders, and professors over the years. Such people do not fit neatly in Butler’s four corner box. Perhaps the real problem is Evangelicalism itself. Look in the mirror, Pastor Butler, you and your fellow Bible thumpers are the problem. Clergymen and congregants alike are fleeing Evangelical churches. Many of them move on to kinder, friendlier, more inclusive churches. Others, upon learning Evangelicalism is a house of cards built on a faulty foundation (inerrancy of the Bible), deconvert. Instead of recognizing the foundational causes that are driving people away, Butler and his fellows at The Gospel Coalition blame the people who left. Hurt. Ignorant. Lustful. Anything but open, honest, and introspective.
Butler says that some people deconvert because it’s cool. Sure, preacher man. It’s cool making yourself a target of Evangelical zealots. Personal attacks. Death threats. Hateful, nasty emails and social media comments (many of which come from Evangelical preachers themselves). What a “cool” life, right? I suspect that Butler knows that former Evangelicals telling their stories is having a meaningful impact on doubting, questioning believers. Instead of listening to stock bullshit answers peddled by Butler and his fellow preachers, these doubting Thomases find people who are willing to listen to them, willing to give voice to their own experiences.
Let me offer up some Biblical advice to Butler and his fellow Evangelical Calvinists at The Gospel Coalition: Answering before listening is both stupid and rude. (Proverbs 18:13)
Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
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