What to Do if Someone You Love Is Deconstructing Their Faith?

By Andy Patton
February 1, 2024

You hear a lot about deconstruction today. The word keeps popping up to describe the experiences of those whose Christianity has undergone a process of transformation or deconversion. It is the label we’ve applied to the process of attempting to walk away from, make sense of, make peace with, reconfigure, forswear, disassemble, critique, poke fun at, or immolate our former religion.

Gallup released a poll recently that church membership in America has dropped below 50%, the first time that has happened since Gallup started asking the question in 1937. So, according to Gallup at least, church membership is at an all-time low.

At the same time, religious disaffiliation is at an all-time high. In 1972, the General Social Survey found that only 1 in 20 had no religious affiliation. Today, that number has climbed to 1 in 4, just under 25 percent and showing no signs of slowing. If you plot the trend of the so-called “Rise of the Nones” (the religiously disaffiliated), the line on the graph is just trending up and to the right as time goes on.

Many of those who are leaving church or leaving Christianity altogether have adopted the label “deconstruction” to describe their experiences. The difficult process of making one’s peace with Christianity is not unique to the 21st century, but the experiences and stories that have been gathered together under the heading deconstruction do have a powerful, new momentum.

It isn’t easy to watch someone you love go through the painful, turbulent, uncertain process of deconstruction. As hard as it can be to experience deconstruction, there is also a kind of pain that comes when we watch someone we love experience it.

On top of that, like the old adage about the drowning person reminds us, sometimes when you jump in the water to try to help, you only make things worse. Sometimes your well-intended advice seems only to deepen the deconstruction, your best efforts seem to go awry, and the answers that mean so much to you are cast aside.

 

So What Do You Do When Someone You Love Is Deconstructing?

The catch to loving someone who is deconstructing is that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to the problems they are facing. And sometimes it seems like nothing helps at all.

When I think about my conversations with friends and loved ones who have deconstructed their faith, I’m not sure I’ve done much to halt the deconstruction. Rather, despite my best efforts, my prayers, and my fretting, the momentum of their deconstruction followed its own gravity onward, like a landslide.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to say.

 

Find Out What Is Driving The Deconstruction

Even if there is a “headlining” factor that is driving a season of deconstruction, the complete picture can never be boiled down to just one thing. Belief is never binary, but shifts in response to a host of internal and external factors.

Take the time to learn the story of your loved one’s deconstruction in their own words. Don’t just assume they are deconstructing because they want to sin or because it is hip. That won’t get you far.

Sometimes a season of deconstruction is kicked off by bad experiences with Christians, a nasty theological question that won’t go away and doesn’t find satisfactory answers, or a social milieu that finds Christianity implausible at best, ridiculous at worst. A hundred things can happen when the plausibility web that has kept us stable begins to shake and tremble.

But everyone’s experience is different and it takes time to learn the particular motivations, considerations, and shifting plausibilities that have moved any one person toward deconstruction.

How are you going to be able to find out what is driving their deconstruction? Get better at listening.

 

Spend an Hour Listening

The missionary and minister Francis Schaeffer spent his days talking with people from all walks of life that came to his home in Switzerland. He used to say that if he had an hour to speak with someone, he would spend 55 minutes listening and asking questions so that he could say something of actual value in the last five.

Let’s be honest. Direct conversations about deconstruction can get heated, especially in our polarized, politicized age. So why not spend more time listening and less time correcting and accusing? Make Schaeffer’s 55/5 rule your watchword and see what happens.

Why not gather your curiosity and channel it into genuine questions? When you feel an answer or rebuttal burning inside you, why not prohibit yourself from interrupting in order to gainsay the person you are talking to? Why not listen carefully, repeat their point, and then ask if you have understood it correctly? If you haven’t, ask them to say it again until you can say their own point back to them better than they said it the first time.

If you could manage that, what would happen to the part of your conversation partner’s brain that is gearing up for another battle of misunderstandings? What would happen to their readiness to listen when it comes time for you to speak?

 

Tolerate the Questions

When people deconstruct their faith, they can start to ask questions that their community finds troubling. This is especially true if they start saying things we don’t say here and consuming the wrong sorts of podcasts, books, and videos. Suddenly the person in the middle of a crisis of faith can find the dark mark floating above their heads. “Beware!” it signifies, “Someone is deconstructing here! Stay clear.”

Unhurried, gentle space in which the deconstructing person can ask their questions can be hard to come by, but that is often exactly what is needed to keep deconstruction soft.

It takes a Christian community with big arms and a whole lot of patience to beat the curve on this one. Broad is the way that leads to the ex-communication of the doubter, and great is the number of deconstructors who exit through it. Many communities find it easier to get rid of the questioner than deal with the questions. Many communities find the dissonance of living with the questions that are being raised by the person experiencing hard deconstruction more than they can handle.

If someone you love is asking hard questions, prayerfully push yourself to tolerate their questions even if they make you uncomfortable. Don’t rush to dole out answers. It can be good for your own faith and faithfulness to be stretched into trusting God with another person’s doubts. Be prepared to learn something.

 

Examine Your Own Faith

Your discomfort with your loved one’s deconstruction might also signify that you have some soft deconstruction of your own to do, especially if you are tempted to blame, shun, and condemn those who are struggling with doubt. Sometimes, when something in the theology of practice of a certain group begins to go wrong, the deconstructors are the “canaries in the coal mine.” They are the ones who are the first to admit that something has started to stink.

I’m not saying that the kinds of questions someone who is deconstructing is asking are always questions that should be adopted by the whole group. Nor, am I saying that deconstructors should be seen as prophets whose questions hold seeds of the truth the rest of the community should plant inside themselves. But that is sometimes the case.

If someone in your community is deconstructing (let alone a whole movement of people), you need to examine your own faith.

Don’t jump to seeing deconstruction as a threat. To endure, faith needs to become both supple and strong. Supple because even in our 90’s we will just be kids who need to come to learn from the Father about his reality. Strong because God’s reality, though thick, is not a house of mirrors. And it really is hard to keep distortions and reductions out of our theology and out of our lives.

As we orbit God’s grand reality over the decades of life, we are guided more deeply into it by the Holy Spirit himself. However, in that guidance, we are often invited to shed some of the unrealities that got us that far. Are you sure that your discomfort with your loved one’s deconstruction isn’t the Holy Spirit guiding you into some deeper reality?

The continuous work of soft deconstruction can strengthen your faith as you discard old answers for better, deeper, realer ones. It can also keep your faith as supple as a willow branch as you receive reminder after reminder that you still have a lot to learn. As T. S. Eliot said, “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility. Humility is endless.”

 

Find the Third Layer Together

As you explore your loved one’s deconstruction, you might discover, to your shock, that one of the factors in their deconstruction is… you.

So what do you do when your conversations about deconstruction bring interpersonal conflict to the surface? (I’m looking at you, parents.) First, remember that conflict doesn’t have to be the enemy of relationship. It can be the grounds to a deeper understanding that would have been impossible to reach had the conflict been avoided.

A model of conflict that is often helpful is to think of our relationships as moving between three layers: civility, conflict, and accord. Your mission in any conflict is to find the third layer together.

The First Layer

The first layer is about similarity, innocence, civility, infatuation, and common grace. It is the way you treat the man at the grocery store, your new neighbor, the cute girl in class, your future in-laws. It is holding the door open for someone, waving someone through an intersection ahead of you, making eye contact, and shaking hands. It is the grease on the wheels of a civil society.

The Second Layer

The second layer is the place where differences emerge. It is the place of unpleasant discoveries, of slowly appearing bruises, of resentments, of things regretted, of honest words, of reckoning with how downright nasty the world can be. It is the place of outright conflict. Not everyone can make it through the second layer. If they venture in at all, they may emerge angry and bitter and biting. They learn the lesson that conflict must be avoided or, if that is impossible, won at all cost. But some endure.

Many people who find themselves in the midst of a season of deconstruction have begun a long journey through the second layer. It can be scary to try to meet people in the middle of the second layer, but that is exactly where you have to go if you are going to meet them at all.

The Third Layer

The third layer is rugged and weather-beaten but has become rich with wisdom. It holds memory but not resentment. It has re-learned how to laugh. It releases the poison of the second layer’s pains while retaining the gift of truths discovered there. In the third layer, the hurts and anxieties that life in community draws to the surface become doorways to healing and transformation. The third layer is about acceptance of distinctiveness, where one another’s uniqueness is celebrated, smiled at, forgiven. When a community or relationship frequently visits the third layer, it becomes resilient to the kind of reductionistic, polarizing dialogue that is so common in our culture today.

The ironclad rule of true intimacy in our relationships is: You have to pass through the conflict of the second layer to get to the accord of the third layer.

If in your conversations about deconstruction, you are able to find the third layer, something important has been achieved. It means that you decided not to simply avoid the issue (getting stuck in the first layer), and you were able to talk about sensitive topics without damaging animosity (getting stuck in the second layer). This isn’t to say that every conversation will be easy from now on, but it does provide a stable base of accord on which to walk together into difficult, sensitive topics.

Each trip through the second layer into the third layer paves the way for the next journey. In time, as trust builds, the result of difference won’t be alienation, but collaboration. And that puts you in a good position to continue to keep your relational closeness even if your ideas and convictions grow apart.

 

Pray for Them and Wait

You can break people by demanding that their minds, lives, and attitudes transform on a certain schedule (yours).

We are made to draw each other closer to the truth as we remain in close contact with both reality and one another, but sometimes all you can do for people is pray for them and wait.

The waiting also allows time for your own attitudes to change. It may not be only the circumstances that are to be changed in the waiting, but the perspective. You may need to learn something. Or you may need to simply be denied something. This is what it means to be human, to be a creature who is not independent, but who is dependent on God at all points in all ways.

Deconstruction and reconstruction aren’t processes that play out inside one stormy year. Think of them as playing out on a decade timeline. A lot can happen in a decade. And we don’t always understand the forces that are making it happen (even though they are happening to us.) The story of a life unfurls slowly. To make it to the end, you are going to have to learn to pray instead of rushing forward in action. This is especially true when you don’t understand what is happening to the person who is deconstructing, or when the things they are saying make your blood boil, or when you think to yourself, “This is crazy. Why would anyone believe this?”

Challenge yourself to pray and wait.

Even though we might feel zeal for something significant to happen in someone’s life or attitudes or views, we should remember the words from Psalm 127: “Unless the Lord builds the house, the laborers work in vain.” The same is true for any human endeavor, especially those that venture into the hearts and minds of our fellow humans. Prayer holds us back from rushing forward in our own strength where the Lord would have us wait. The discipline of prayer makes us the people who will wait to see what house the Lord will raise.

 

Make Your Life a Plausibility Structure

If you are worried about someone you love who is leaving Christianity, sometimes the best thing you can do for them is to live a beautiful life.

If people are leaving the faith because they have encountered a more beautiful way to live elsewhere, it might be because the Christian church has failed to live up to its own ideals. When Jesus said that the world would know his disciples by their love, he was issuing a call that his people would become embodied plausibility structures of a better way to live.

So show hospitality to the people in your life who are deconstructing. Don’t just invite them to a church service, have them around your house for meals. Let them see behind the polite facade not over the span of an afternoon, but over the span of decades. Take questions seriously and sweat with people as you struggle together to find adequate answers. Be human. You don’t have to become anything spectacular to become a winsome picture of Christianity, just live a normal life well. Be a shelter for people, but don’t be sheltered. Subject your faith to all the world’s winds. Take on doubts in their strongest forms and see how Christianity fares against them.

If you live your life this way and your friend, colleague, parent, or child says, “I don’t agree with your ideas, but I love the way you live,” something has been achieved.