“Five Real Reasons Young People Are Deconstructing Their Faith” is written by Joe Terrell, a Millennial team member on Carey Nieuwhof’s staff who lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
If you’re involved in ministry, you’ve probably heard a lot about “deconstruction” recently.
Framed as the new trendy threat to Christianity, deconstruction has become a “catch-all” term for a wide range of spiritual experiences. Depending on who’s using the word, deconstruction can be a complete demolition of Christian belief, a critical re-appraisal of one’s faith tradition, or an honest acknowledgment of doubt and questions.
It also doesn’t help that awareness of the “deconstruction movement” is gaining more visibility when church membership and religious affiliation in North America are at an all-time low.
According to Brian Zahnd in his book When Everything Catches Fire, deconstruction is “a crisis of Christian faith that leads to either a reevaluation of Christianity or sometimes a total abandonment of Christianity.”
So, first and foremost, deconstruction is not synonymous with deconversion. While everyone who deconverts from Christianity probably deconstructs first, not everyone who deconstructs deconverts. That’s a crucial distinction to make.
Second, it’s not helpful to refer to deconstruction as a “movement.” A movement implies a group of people moving in the same direction toward the same destination. Deconstruction is less of a movement and more of an explosion – and that’s because where someone ends up after deconstruction is almost as diverse as the reasons why they deconstruct in the first place.
Third (and perhaps most importantly), the degree to which someone deconstructs varies wildly. And that degree is dependent on an individual’s unique experience with faith and the church. (For example, someone raised in a prosperity gospel congregation will deconstruct differently than someone in a fundamentalist Baptist tradition).
And depending on what someone deconstructs, they could end up with a more authentic and robust faith after their deconstruction. But, in short, there’s no such thing as a “one-size-fits-all” deconstruction narrative.
I don’t believe every cause or outcome of deconstruction is equally valid and justified for the record. Left unchecked, deconstruction can spiral into destructive cynicism, self-righteous judgment, and empty nihilism (not to mention full-blown deconversion).
But before taking aim at Jaques Derrida or postmodernism, I think church leaders owe it to themselves (and their congregations) to honestly evaluate the institutional reasons that could catalyze or accelerate someone’s deconstruction.
And as a Millennial who has wrestled with spiritual doubt and insecurity his entire life, I think it’s essential for the church to open up space for the skeptics, doubters, and misfits.
Here are five real reasons young people are deconstructing their faith.
#1: Trust in Large Institutions is Declining All Across the Board
People are increasingly losing their faith in large institutions in an age of mass information, “fake news,” out-of-touch politicians, #MeToo, income inequality, conspiracy theories, public health crises, and absurd political theater.
The four primary institutional pillars of modern society – Government, Business, Media, and Church – are more likely to be viewed as corrupt, ineffective, and self-serving than trustworthy, effective, and selfless.
Traditionally, we look toward public institutions to help shape character, ethics, and a shared vision for the “common good.” But, in an opinion piece for The New York Times titled “How Did Americans Lose Faith in Everything?“, author Yuval Levin writes,
“We lose faith in an institution when we no longer believe that it plays this ethical or formative role of teaching the people within it to be trustworthy.”
According to Gallup’s annual honesty and ethics survey, Americans’ trust in pastors and clergy hovers at an all-time low. And, of course, there’s a generational gap: While 51% of Americans 55 years or older have favorable views of church leaders, only 24% of 18- to 34-year-olds said pastors and clergy have “high honesty.”
That cynicism isn’t exactly without merit. Millennials (b. 1981 – 1996) and Gen Z (b. 1997 – 2012) are growing up during an era of increased geopolitical, economic, and social instability exacerbated by institutional failures. Amid all that disruption, the church – to a large extent – hasn’t positioned itself as a redemptive counter-culture that holds itself accountable.
(For example, according to one startling statistic, 1 out of 10 Protestants under the age of 35 has left a church because they felt like accusations of sexual misconduct “weren’t taken seriously enough”).
Younger generations appear far more eager to hold institutions accountable for their misdeeds and misconduct than the institutions themselves, especially regarding sexual abuse, sexism, racism, and fiscal irresponsibility. And from “PreacherNSneakers” to a litany of high-profile sex abuse scandals and toxic leadership exposés, it’s no wonder that institutional trust in the church is crumbling.
Of course, “the church” isn’t a singular centralized institution, but a multitude of denominations, movements, and traditions from all over the world centered around the life and teachings of Jesus.
However, it’s the perception of the church as a singular entity that matters in this case — even if that may feel unfair or intellectually lazy. And since the church claims to hold itself to a higher moral standard, institutional failures and distrust will always cascade and ripple outward.
#2: We Live In a More Diverse, Accessible, and Mobile World
For the better part of world history, most people didn’t have to worry about having their faith tested by alternative truth claims. You simply lived and died within the religious system you were born to.
We no longer live in that world. Globalization, immigration, and international travel provide a dizzying array of opportunities to encounter and befriend people of different cultures, lifestyles, and religious backgrounds. And, like the printing press during the Reformation, the advent of the Internet and social media opened the doors to a multitude of voices, perspectives, and experiences.
In The Benefit of the Doubt, theologian Gregory Boyd writes,
“It’s much easier to remain certain of your beliefs when you are not in personal contact with people who believe differently. But when you encounter people with different beliefs, and when those people’s sincerity and devotion possibly put yours to shame, things become quite a bit more difficult.“
In contrast to previous generations, Christians Millennials and Gen Z are more likely to attend school, work alongside, and develop relationships with people who live, look, and believe differently. Relational proximity has massive implications for cultural acceptance, social awareness, and interpersonal empathy.
To be clear, Christians should never view religious freedom and cultural diversity as a threat to the Gospel. After all, Christianity is the most geographically diverse religion on the planet.
And yet, according to a recent survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), 52% of white evangelical Protestants believe that the United States becoming a majority non-white nation “represents a negative development for the United States” – a sobering reminder that secularism isn’t the only force corroding the legitimacy of the Christian witness.
#3: High-Performing Christians are Simply Burning Out
Among many ministry leaders, I suspect the why of deconstruction isn’t nearly as distressing as the who.
No one loses a lot of sleep if the spiritually apathetic or consumer-centric churchgoer deconstructs their faith. But when it’s a popular Christian singer/songwriter, a former missionary, a member of the worship team, or a heavily-involved church volunteer, people start paying attention.
Sociologists Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope began sounding this alarm bell back in 2015 when, while researching why people “give up” on the church, they began noticing some startling patterns during the interview stage of their project: Many of the people who’d left the church were once considered some of the strongest and most active members in the church.
In their book Church Refugees (which everyone in ministry should read), Packard and Hope write,
“They display an extreme level of dedication and devotion to God and religion, and they earnestly believe that the institutional church can be fixed and reclaimed. They believe it’s worth fighting for right up to the point where they don’t.“
Packard and Hope also note that many of the “dechurched” actively sought out volunteer opportunities and leadership positions and spent years investing in the life of the church. They were the “doers” of the congregation.
What if what some people diagnose as deconstruction is, at its core, a byproduct of existential burnout? Deconstruction can be a passive experience, a slow erosion exacerbated by spiritual exhaustion, overwhelm, and desensitization.
There’s a reason so many of the young people who are deconstructing were once some of the most active members of their churches, youth groups, and college ministries. (And Millennials are, after all, part of the so-called “burnout generation”).
And it’s not just young people burning out. 38% of church leaders have considered leaving ministry in the past year alone. And while burning out of vocational (or volunteer) ministry isn’t necessarily the same as deconstructing one’s faith, the link between the two outcomes shouldn’t be dismissed, as one tends to precede the other.
#4: The Prideful Prioritization of Conformity Over Unity
For many young people, ambiguity, curiosity, and mystery are essential components of their faith journey. Unfortunately, many faith communities narrow the discipleship path to a rigid set of doctrinal stances that doubles as a source of tribal identity and pride.
As Bonnie Kristian writes in her book A Flexible Faith,
“We can get so stuck in our own little pool that we never notice the stream of orthodoxy is wide and deep and beautiful. Without even realizing it, we can become convinced our own tradition of Christianity is the one Christian alternative to nonbelief.”
That’s an absolute tragedy. When it comes to spiritual matters, questions and doubts are inevitable. And a satisfying answer or approach to a difficult theological topic may exist in an older or deeper part of orthodoxy’s stream. (Trust me, there’s no doubt or question you can raise that hasn’t been debated ad nauseam by centuries’ worth of theologians and philosophers.)
But suppose a church or denomination doesn’t encourage a generous approach to orthodoxy. In that case, inquisitive and skeptical Christians usually face two options: They can self-censor for fear of being labeled “divisive,” or they leave and find community elsewhere.
Here’s a test: If everyone in your church is expected to look, talk, think, and believe exactly like you, your church isn’t as welcoming as you assume. Instead, you’ve created a culture that sacrifices unity for conformity.
I think there’s an opportunity here many church leaders are overlooking: More than any other point in church history, laypeople are having vibrant and complex philosophical conversations about Biblical interpretation, theology, and application. In other words, young people want to go deep.
Honest and authentic community doesn’t shame or vilify those who have doubts or raise questions. On the contrary, healthy communities open up space for difficult conversations, ambiguity, and growth.
However, all of this must be modeled from the top. For younger generations, a humble, vulnerable, and authentic leader is easier to follow than a leader who “has all the answers” or “always has to have the last word.”
#5: The Acceptance of Political Idolatry and Conspiracy Theories in Christian Communities
It’s not a coincidence that deconstruction became more “mainstream” during one of the politically tumultuous eras of modern history. And it’s telling that none of the recent “hot takes” critical of deconstruction have acknowledged hyper-political partisanship within the church – even though that’s the most common complaint I hear from people who are deconstructing.
In Where Goodness Still Grows, former missionary Amy Peterson writes,
“People of my generation aren’t leaving [the Church] because their devious atheist professors got to them but because they saw a church more interested in defending political power than in loving their neighbors.”
There’ll always be differences in opinion among Christians in how we channel our faith through public policy in a democracy. And that’s okay. But, as Timothy Keller wrote in an editorial for The New York Times,
“While believers can register under a party affiliation and be active in politics, they should not identify the Christian church or faith with a political party as the only Christian one.”
You can see the influence of partisan politics within the church most clearly on issues related to social justice. Advocating for social change and accountability is woven into the Millennial and Gen Z worldview (check out this 2021 Deloitte Report to see what I mean). But even the term “social justice” has become controversial in some Christian circles.
Young Christians want to tackle issues of social injustice as a lived-out expression of their faith – not in opposition to it. No one wants to serve in an organization that exists only to serve itself. To be clear, the Gospel isn’t social justice, but calling out systems that perpetuate cycles of poverty, racism, and sexual abuse shouldn’t be deemed a “threat” to the Gospel.
Another related concern is the virulent spread and widespread acceptance of conspiracy theories in Christian communities.
According to a 2021 PRRI survey, one of four Protestant Christians in the U.S. agreed with the statement, “The government, media, and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation.” Christians were twice as likely to fall for conspiracy theories spread on social media than those who consider themselves “Religious Unaffiliated.”
A recent MIT Technology Review investigation found that 19 of the top 20 Christian Facebook pages were run by Eastern European troll farms, and Russian operatives intentionally targeted U.S. Christians via Facebook ads to spread misinformation and sow division during election seasons.
It’s difficult to put into words how discouraging it can be to watch the very people who taught you the value of discernment fall into conspiratorial rabbit holes or succumb to inflammatory misinformation. Or, as Carey wrote in a blog post, “When Christians lose their minds, people lose their faith.”
It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way
I think the tension between church leaders and deconstructing Christians is best summed up by this quote from Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski:
“First, if the new generations had not continually revolted against inherited tradition, we would still be living in caves; second, if revolt against inherited tradition should become universal, we would soon be back in caves.”
First, a word of warning to those who take pride in their deconstruction.
The biggest argument against deconstruction is deconstruction itself. There’s no limit to how far you can go. And you can easily come out the other side a lonely and bitter person with no hope to offer the world or yourself.
Deconstruction without reconstruction is a tragedy. If the path you’re on isn’t making you a more generous, compassionate, hopeful, and merciful person (or, in other words, more like Jesus), then the destination isn’t worth the journey.
Make no mistake, there are things within Christian culture that need to be challenged and re-evaluated, but a Christ-honoring deconstruction revels in truth and beauty, not cynicism and arrogance.
And, finally, a word to leaders in the church:
We all engage in the deconstruction of the previous generation’s faith, politics, and social institutions at some level. And, as history has shown us, that’s often a good thing.
So, if you’re a church leader, I want to caution you against outright dismissing the grievances and experiences of Christians who are deconstructing or leaving the church. All of those deconstruction podcasts, blogs, and online communities are resonating with so many people right now for a good reason – they’re relatable.
Deconstruction often begins as a well-intended critique of mainstream Christian culture – not Christianity itself. Where deconstructions ends (and reconstruction begins), on the other hand, often depends on the openness, humility, and empathy of church leaders within their faith community.
Because if people can’t find a safe place to ask questions and raise concerns at church, they will look elsewhere. And we exile those with legitimate grievances and restorative vision for the church at our peril.