‘How do we hold onto truth while loving and pursuing a world that seems to question everything?’
By Brent Bramer
My dad is a builder. My earliest memories as a kid were waking up early, climbing into his truck, and driving onto an empty plot of land as the sun rose. We’d walk together, and I’d listen to him talk and dream about the home he was about to build. My dad would walk the lines where the foundation would be poured. He’d try to explain and describe where the rooms would be placed, the walls would be framed, and the look and feel of the house. I loved listening to him passionately describe how everyone and everything had come together to create something that was beautiful and steady . . . marked by creativity but “built right.” Dad always said, “Build it right the first time,” because he knew the frustrating work, pain, and cost of dismantling what’s been built and then starting over.
As I grew and worked with him more, I learned that mistakes inevitably occurred with every home build. Some were minor and some major, but when mistakes or errors are discovered, a responsible builder tears it out and rebuilds.
I often reference these cherished memories on a job site with Dad as I notice our current cultural moment. Today, I’m a pastor in a progressive city on the central coast of California where I see people scrutinizing what’s been built and established. There’s increased questioning, criticism, cynicism, and mistrust toward almost every institution that’s been built: entertainment, the education system, politics, government, and the church, to name a few. We’re in a period of deconstruction: a critical analysis of why we do what we do (oversimplified definition) that seems to hit every part of life, and especially faith. Today, considering the real questions, skepticism, and fear toward the church, many are walking away from it. They are, as our culture puts it, deconstructing their faith.
A recent Gallup poll found that only 47 percent of U.S. adults belonged to a church, synagogue, or mosque. It’s the first time affiliation to a faith community of any kind fell into the minority nationally. In recent years there’s been a meteoric rise in Americans with no religious preference; almost 24 percent of Americans now claim no religion. We’ve seen many people leave the church; scandals, skepticism, doubt, and deconstruction seem to be tearing at the fabric of faith and church in America. It all feels heavy and a little hopeless. For many, these numbers cause fear, frustration, anger, or despair.
So, what do we do? How do we respond to this cultural moment? How do we engage with friends, family, coworkers, and a world that seems to desire to tear everything down? How do we hold onto truth while loving and pursuing a world that seems to question everything? I want to offer some encouragement.
John Eldridge observed, “A wound that goes unacknowledged and unwept is a wound that cannot heal.” This idea has carried me as I’ve met with many who are questioning their faith and the institutions of Christendom today. All Christ followers should attempt to acknowledge, understand, and empathize with the needs of others.
Have we acknowledged the wounds others walk with? Have we wept with those who’ve been hurt by the church? Have we acknowledged leadership failure and lack of transparency in the church? Have we wept because many feel they can’t ask questions or express doubts and emotions in some of our congregations? When we feel attacked, questioned, and criticized, is our first response defensive? Do we disregard others when scrutiny comes, or do we acknowledge the real thoughts, feelings, and hurts around all these questions? We must learn to acknowledge others in the midst of their journey. We must learn to grieve and weep with others who have real hang-ups in their walk with Jesus and their relationship with the church.
Questions, doubts, and acknowledging hurt can be good. An inspector who scours a building to find problem areas can save the structure; a church should welcome such scrutiny as well. Jesus himself asked hard questions of religious leaders and scrutinized man-made systems and structures that were built with good intentions but kept others from experiencing the goodness, grace, and truth of God. Jesus pushed back on the religious elite of the day. He said, “You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matthew 23:27-28). Jesus sought to tear down (dare I say “deconstruct”) the processes and systems that made it impossible for people to connect with the heart of God.
And Jesus welcomed hard questions. Nicodemus came with questions for Jesus. The teachers of the law and Pharisees openly brought forth their doubts and fears about Jesus. The rich young ruler asked questions of Jesus, as did his own disciples and the Samaritan woman. Jesus acknowledged all of them. He didn’t get defensive or disregard them; he welcomed the questions despite their doubt. Jesus didn’t shame them or shun them or proclaim that they offended God by their doubts and concerns; Jesus invited people to ask questions . . . and he still does.
Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened (Matthew 7:7-8).
Jesus taught us to ask questions. When we do so, we acknowledge we don’t know something, but we’re hopeful to find an answer. Jesus does not resent it when we say, “I don’t know why this is the way it is.” Should we get angry, resent, and reject others for behaving in a manner Jesus didn’t object to? Jesus taught us to seek. He respects our desire to learn. Have you created an environment in your church where it is safe to ask questions? Where others who are seeking answers can bring forward doubts and criticisms?
CREATE SPACES FOR HARD CONVERSATIONS
I believe the wave of deconstruction we are seeing can lead to a deeper faith . . . if we create spaces and places that meet people where they are, that acknowledge hurts and hang-ups, and that welcome the asking.
A year ago I sat with a friend who shared, with tears in his eyes, “My faith is hanging on by a thread. I’m this close”—he held his thumb and index finger less than a half-inch apart—“to throwing in the towel on the whole thing.” As I listened to him, I recognized that he had never voiced his frustrations, fears, questions, and doubt about Scripture with a pastor. He had never shared his weariness over the perceived politicization of the pulpit and a move toward nationalism in the church. He’d never felt safe to share his feelings about celebrity pastor culture, the “us vs. them” mentality in the church, the inability for “church people” to truly love their neighbor and give up their rights for the good of others. I sat and listened and acknowledged where he was in his faith and relationship with the church, and I apologized for the church not being the space, the place, the group of people who made it OK to voice those things. See, deconstruction doesn’t have to lead to destruction.
I love what pastor Brian Zahnd said: “Deconstruction doesn’t have to mean demolition. Maybe it’s worth trying to save that which is precious before it all burns down. Maybe it’s worth trying to separate the wheat from the chaff before you launch into a world without any Easters . . .”
Church leader, now is the time to acknowledge others, to try to understand their needs, create places where it’s OK to ask questions, and step into the mystery with them. I remember studying the history of the Restoration Movement at Cincinnati Bible College and Seminary. The phrases, “in essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity” and “we speak where the Bible speaks, and we are silent where the Bible is silent” were impressed upon us. These sayings were a major factor in the early Restoration Movement revivals that saw many come to faith. What if we returned to these mantras in the midst of a cultural moment of deconstruction? What if we held to the essentials and left room for liberty (i.e., questions and doubts)? Are there systems, processes, and things in disrepair that need to be torn down in our churches? How can we offer belonging to those in a season of doubt or deconstruction?
If the disciple Thomas lived today, we might call him a “deconstructionist.” Thomas asked hard questions; he wrestled with belief. Thomas made hard demands: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). And yet, a week later, Jesus’ disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them (v. 26). Thomas—in the middle of his doubt, skepticism, questions, hard demands, disbelief, and deconstruction—was still with them. Thomas wasn’t pushed out of the group for asking or doubting. Thomas’s doubts and questions didn’t cause his disconnection from the community of believers. May we learn from this. Doubts and fears don’t inevitably drive us to disconnection. Instead, they can lead us to growth, deeper faith, and community.
BE A PLACE OF REDISCOVERY AND RECONSTRUCTION
A few things we’ve learned the past few years:
Doubt is OK. Ask, seek, knock, and create environments where individuals with questions, doubts, and fears can voice them without fear of condemnation.
Don’t coast. The worst thing we can do is to ignore our doubts and questions. We must acknowledge what we’re thinking, feeling, and wrestling with in our faith, and we must acknowledge and seek to understand the journey others are on. Sitting, waiting, and wishing for the wave of deconstruction to pass leads us to drift further away from God and one another.
Do this in community. Help establish a culture of belonging and communities where it’s safe to wrestle with real issues together.
Don’t be afraid of the unknown. Many times we don’t engage in certain topics because we don’t know where it will all lead or we’re afraid everything will unravel. We worship the God who calls people to himself, who has remained Lord and Savior through war, famine, disease, and cultural movements of faithlessness . . . and he is still faithful. May we not fear the unknowns but lean into them, trusting the goodness of God.
Curtis is a good friend of mine who shared his story of hurt, doubt, discouragement, and deconstruction with our church family. His family found SLO City Church during a pivotal season of their lives. He shared this powerful message with us:
I’m not sure we’d be anywhere right now—with any faith or connection to God or the church—if we didn’t find a place and a group of people that allowed us to ask questions. We have had so many experiences in the church of people, and pastors, and dear friends not listening to us, not seeing what we were struggling with, not allowing us to voice concerns and doubts or fears. And then we found this church.
We were hesitant, but soon discovered that this was a group of people who didn’t silence us and didn’t just shell out all the answers, but was a safe place to wrestle. This was a place that kept Jesus central, where we could ask questions, where we could have our doubts and differences and be welcomed. . . . Ultimately it’s been a place where we rediscovered our faith in Jesus and our love for the church.
This is the hope.
Friends, in light of deconstruction, may we see the hope to rebuild . . . the hope of reconstruction of faith in Jesus and love for one another. May we seize the moment in front of us to acknowledge the journey of others, to create spaces where questions are welcomed, and to stand on the truth and grace of Jesus. May this moment of deconstruction lead to a more beautiful, steady, and strong faith and community that is centered on Jesus, and which shares hope with everyone.
Brent Bramer serves as lead pastor at SLO City Church in San Luis Obispo, California.