McKnight on Three Phases of Deconstruction

Continuing the discussion from How can we be one again once this is all over?:

I normally avoid using the word deconstruction when describing my own life, because I don’t feel like I have ever torn down and rebuilt any of my beliefs in some kind of crisis. But I’ve definitely done plenty of slow and methodical evaluating and discarding and reshaping and moving to different places on various continua, and I have definitely felt more tension with my Christian community in the last few years than ever before.

My husband keeps referring to this article he had read, so I finally pulled it up and read it, and I think it has some good observations of how different people are handling their dissatisfaction with their current church situation.

Scot McKnight mentions intellectual problems, hypocrite problems, and social problems as three areas that cause tension for people with their faith community. And then identifies three phases people go through before they “land” again; liminality, elimination, and liberation. I feel like the observations check out with what I’ve observed in many people here.

My husband keeps pointing out that what is interesting is that people can go through these phases and land anywhere from pretty close to miles away from where they started. Some people “deconstruct” and end up at the Evangelical church down the street, some in a very different denomination, maybe mainline instead of Evangelical, some in Catholicism or the Orthodox church, some de-church completely but still see themselves as “Christ-followers,” some move completely away from Christianity and are just “spiritual,” and some drop all religious/theistic belief and practices all together. Some transfer their fundamentalist energy to atheism and still see everything in black and white, they just change who they are all judgey towards.

We wonder what makes the process churn out such different results. Is it your personality, the degree of church hurt you’ve experienced, something about how you go about the whole deconstruction thing, the community response you get and who accepts you in the process? We’ll probably never know, but it’s interesting to think about.

(Tagging you, Aaron, since I’m talking about you, in case you feel like making one of your annual or so appearances round these parts. @XabuChicago )


Thanks, that is a helpful breakdown.

This is one of my fears in all this. Not necessarily atheism, but just creating this “illusion” or placebo for myself to believe I’ve found something better, when I really just want to regain the certainty I lost after realizing that it no longer “sticks” to the same ideas that it used to.

Well, the black-and-white fundamentalist in me says it’s simply that some people are truly saved and others aren’t. :wink: But, there are probably many interrelated factors. And honestly, I wonder about this myself and with my station in life… I can’t just “end up at a new church” as easily as I could when I was a single adult and didn’t have other people’s life directions tied to mine. And that may not be a bad thing… it’s usually good to not make hasty decisions.

I have also been intrigued by reading stories of how this works between couples. Some tend to follow similar paths and help each other along, both in validating and course-correcting when needed. Some take different paths but are able to stay together by (I assume) de-prioritizing formerly shared beliefs, while others aren’t able to stay together at all.


Some can’t put Humpty together again,.


Yes, it seems to be the hardest on couples when there is some sort of “all crashing down” experience for one. If you can kind of take a bite at a time and change more slowly then you have a better chance of kind of walking a similar path as you hash stuff out along the way. Also, I think if people’s core identities get involved and renegotiated, it’s a lot harder. Like if someone has a huge part of their identity wrapped up in being a pastor’s wife and their pastor husband is like “Do I even believe this stuff?” that is going to be really threatening. Or I remember an interview with Lisa Gungor after her husband’s deconversion where she was just really disoriented because a big part of their relationship was being worship leaders together. So the deconstruction not only “broke up the band” that was their life together, they had to find a whole new way to be a couple.


It seems that many drift from liminality to apathy. There are many around who still check the box as Christian, but have no active involvent in a church community. They no longer see the church as relevant to their lives, and drift away. While that is often written about regarding youth today, it really happened to their parents and grandparents years ago as well.

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I guess I never knew deconstruction indicated a crisis. I’ve always just used it as explaining that I simply constructed a doctrine of mindset that I believed was true but as I grew and studied it out more I realized it was not up to “code” and so
I begin to deconstruct “ take it apart” and rebuild it.


I think that is a totally valid use, but a lot of people associate it with a faith crisis or with deconversion, so I’ve avoided using it so as not to freak people out. Someone on Twitter said, “I’m not having a crisis of faith, I’m having a crisis of trust,” and I think that resonates with a lot of people. A lot of re-evaluation happens because you realize the people you trusted weren’t really trustworthy, at least not in the area you were depending on them.


I had taken an interest in deconstruction mainly because of the discussion on speech and writing. I have felt that there are two forms of speech, one meaningful that is derived by a child from its parents (internal), and the other learnt from the community and school (from outside). Writing involved signs and the closest that can come to meaningful speech is poetry (from gifted poets).

In popular usage deconstruction often means self-doubt a critical dismantling of tradition and traditional beliefs and practices. Deconstruction has dealt with rhetoric and the relationship—and conflict—between what a text says and what it does (?), paying attention to oppositions and critical terms and of ultimate goals, with a skepticism about the possibility of objectivity. The latter has been the main cause for my disinterest in this outlook (philosophy?)

That sounds like a healthy way to go about things. I’ve known many people in my time in church who started their Christian life in one denomination and then moved to another later on, often because of some kind of doctrinal difference or newfound conviction. They probably didn’t see things like that as “deconstruction” either. The problem comes in when the thing you realize is not “up to code” (for example, hard-line YEC) is something you were taught your entire faith depended on. Then it can be very hard to conceive of what faith even looks like without it. It’s worth doing the work to sort it out, but can be very difficult.


They aren’t using the term in the context of post-modern philosophy.

Interesting read. Particularly that for two thirds of the groups deconstruction was a negative even destructive experience. Granted never pleasant, can deconstruction ever be seen positively? In some cases, perhaps, even a work of the Spirit? Genuine questions.


Great question! If we can consider such things a “deconversion,” it seems that those of us who have come from YEC to EC would find it a reconstruction/positive experience, though it’s painful.

I was interested to read McKnight’s observation that even with a paradigm shift, people keep their same personalities.

Many deconstructors find a new way, and their new-found confidence in their new way mirrors their former confidence. Their personality type comes to expression again: if they were feisty fundies, they become feisty fundies again; if they were moderates before they become that again; if they were intellectual before, they remain intellectuals.

I wonder how many of us really don’t change much over the years–even coming to faith from lack thereof.

On the other hand, it is interesting to see how people keep their personalities and relate to people around them again. Is there a part of their personality that affects where they land?

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This has no application to me in regards to Christianity… that was all construction from practically nothing for me.

Thus the only application might be with regards to liberalism instead. For I did go from the assumed liberalism with which I was practically indoctrinated as a child to a much more conservative outlook. But much of my liberalism (not all) has been reconstructed since then.


Depends on what kind of deconstruction we are talking about.

Sometimes our opinions and habits have been constructed on twisted or wrong assumptions about the world or about the will of God. In these cases, it may be necessary to deconstruct much of the ‘building’ and straighten the assumptions that form the basis of our worldview. Terrible, painful and frustrating but God may be behind this necessary deconstruction and the building of something healthier.

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Thanks @Knor, I think that is what I had in mind but couldn’t quite find the words. This has happened at least twice in my life. One was short and sharp in my first year of university, the second long and protracted as my beliefs in YEC fell apart. Neither were pleasant experiences, but retrospectively I perceive God’s hand in both of them.


The article is about deconstruction at the level of individuals. I was wondering whether something comparable happens at the level of churches?

Time scales are of course longer if we are talking about churches. Small local churches with few influential leaders can change in decades, large churches may need centuries to deconstruct twisted teachings and construct something healthier instead.

An interesting point. In my lifetime in the Southern Baptist tradition, we have gone from total abstinence from alcohol to acceptance of alcohol in moderation though abstinence is still a more holy option, no dancing to having dance classes in church, women in leadership roles etc. though there are still many fundamentalist leaning congregations that still hold to those issues. I guess the question is whether to call it deconstruction or evolution. It is change, in any case.


Yes, it is change.
Deconstruction includes the idea of taking something away. If some teaching or structure is not abandoned, then it is change but not necessarily deconstruction.

The changes you mentioned are borderline cases. The change in the role of women is perhaps deconstruction followed by reconstruction - the teaching that the leader (pastor, elder) must be a male was dropped and replaced with the teaching of equality in front of God.

I have seen similar type of changes in many local churches from 1980’s to the current situation.
Members who were quite strict during the 1980’s now speak of the time with criticism, except some very old persons.

Deconstruction does not necessarily denote the involvement of pain – my progression from YEC to OEC over three and a half decades ago was pretty instantaneous and pain free as was the somewhat more gradual but gentle one to my understanding (hardly exhaustive :slightly_smiling_face:) and acceptance of evolutionary science a few years ago.

It may be of note, however, that no personal Christian friends or church members other than my wife were involved. I have gotten an askance look when in a conversation I said something indicating that I believed in the antiquity of the cosmos, though, and I received some pushback in another instance. I don’t go broadcasting it among Christian acquaintances, but I have mentioned it to a couple of Christian friends.


The Church will always have problems - just read the epistles. Nothing new today because the church is filled with sanctified sinners - one day it will be perfect but not here, not now.

Sitting in the stadium seating expressing one’s opinion about the faults of the players is far easier than running on the field with the ball.


“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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