Someone else's deconversion
When we were singing songs like “Spirit, lead me where my trust is without borders” who knew that the Holy Spirit was going to call our bluff so beautifully?
Join us for Evolving Faith on October 13-14, 2023 in Minneapolis and online. I would love to see you there! - S.
There have recently been a handful of high profile Christians who have gone public with their deconversions - meaning, announced that they are no longer Christians or have “de-converted” - lately. A few of them are celebrity-leaders within strong movements of Christianity in my lifetime: the “young, restless, reformed” movement (with which I had absolutely zero connection or commonality) and the “Pentecostal/spirit-filled/charismatic worship” world which is more within my tradition. This isn’t a new phenomenon, a number of people have been vocal in their deconversions the past few years. It requires a lot of courage for these individuals to speak their truth into the world because everyone has an opinion on their spiritual journeys now. They have been the subject of countless responses and criticisms, celebrations and lambastings. One quick scroll through social media on the topic gave me a headache on their behalf. (I hope they’ve unplugged and are comfortable with people who are safe.)
I confess when I first heard of these deconversions I had a fairly common reaction: I projected my own experience onto them. Most of us do this with “celebrities” or those who influenced us or whose stories were held out before us. It’s an utterly normal response. For instance, one of the number one things that I hear from you all is “You said what I was thinking,” or “I saw my own experience reflected back to me for the first time!” That is a big deal for most of us. It’s powerful when we feel seen in the words or art or leadership of another. We see our own story reflected back to us. And so when that someone has a shift in their story, it’s hard not to want to find ourselves there again, too.
Those of you who have been alongside of me for a while now may remember that I had a similar experience: almost twenty years ago now, I declared I was no longer a Christian. (Thankfully when I blogged about that, I was utterly unknown - nobody cared but me. I can imagine how much harder that experience would have been if every arena preacher, leader, conservative blogger with a mob at the ready, and D-level Christian self-styled celebrity felt the need to comment.) When I made that decision, it was because I truly could not abide being called a Christian any longer. The label didn’t fit me. I did not want to be affiliated with the things I was witnessing in the worldwide Church at the time - things like misogyny, sexism, patriarchy, racism, homophobia, war mongering (my first bout of deconstruction was deeply tied to the post-9/11 rush to war and how evangelicals were the ones most hungry for violent revenge), and a host of theologically conservative things that I had been taught I “had” to believe in order to be a Christian. I couldn’t in good conscience call myself a Christian if it meant that I had to be lumped in with dangerous or toxic beliefs or behaviours. So it felt like a relief to walk away from that.
To be honest, I’ve never returned to that kind of Christianity. I remain “de-converted” to that god.
But what I found on the other side of that deconstruction is that Jesus looked nothing like that. And that Jesus was still worth following.
In fact, it was making the decision to follow Jesus that lead me out into the wilderness of my faith and away from those harmful theologies that damage people and our planet and towards a healthy, life-giving, beautifully robust Gospel. It wasn’t faithlessness that led to my deconstruction: it was my faithfulness. It was precisely because I wanted to follow Jesus that I had to walk away from certain beliefs or theologies or practices in order to walk forward into the shalom of God.1
And so when I heard about the deconversion of these celebrities, part of me wanted to cheer. There is a god worth disbelieving and discarding, good riddance.
Good for you! deconstruct that nonsense! there is a lot of life on the other side of the wilderness, welcome! Good-bye and good riddance to petty gods and harmful theology!
As Meister Eckhart said, God becomes and God unbecomes. In my own experience of deconstruction and then subsequent deep-dive into the research and stories of the spiritual journeys of others, an unbecoming and re-becoming and unbecoming again is actually a key part of our spiritual formation. Unbecoming a Christian is entirely normal and healthy. It’s a sign that we are achieving critical distance from our traditions and our “way it’s always been done” and our “if this, then that” games.
We have to “unbecome” in order to become again.
We have to allow God to unbecome in our lives in order to know God again.
We have to deconstruct in order to reconstruct something worth living in for the next stages of our spiritual development. We must tear down what is broken and crumbling to build a sanctuary where the despised, ignored, marginalized, rejected of our culture will feel welcome and at peace.
We all have to remake ourselves in response to the unbecoming of God. And so when I “unbecame” a Christian all those years ago, it meant that now I had the space to reimagine what it actually meant to follow Jesus. It meant that God reimagined. There is never an end to the ways in which we unlearn and relearn the wide Love that we call God. It meant that I was introduced to a whole new way to be Christian.
So initially I was hopeful for these people - perhaps now they would learn that there were other ways to follow Jesus than the ‘this-way-or-the-highway’ of their particular communities and traditions. I’m particularly excited when fellow charismatics/Pentecostal-ish folks deconstruct because our experiences, history, stories are quite different from evangelicals - and reclaiming the language of the Spirit for health, healing, wholeness, and revival is a beautiful thing.
I wondered and hoped that perhaps now they would learn there are Christians who agree with scientists about evolution and see God’s goodness in that theory, too, who are passionate environmentalists.
Perhaps they would learn that there are LGBTQIA+ Christians flourishing in the love and welcome of God. That it is precisely because one is filled with the Holy Spirit that we call out and renounce things like racism, homophobia, patriarchy. Did they know there are nuanced approaches to complicated issues from abortion to economics to prison reform? Did they know about the open table? Did they know about us?
Did they know that following Jesus can lead to life and life that is more abundant? When we were singing songs like “Spirit, lead me where my trust is without borders” who knew that the Holy Spirit was going to call our bluff so beautifully?
Did they know that there is a whole wide world of Christians beyond the small tent of their experiences and that finding one another in the wilderness is one of the best parts of deconstruction? Did they know there was a whole community of us out here in the wilderness, planting gardens in exile and singing each other home?
Yes, I projected my own story onto their stories: I wanted to believe that they were not deconverting but simply deconstructing.
But you know what? that wasn’t right for me to do. Not really. Because I don’t know these leaders. I don’t know their inner pain, struggle, experience anymore than they can truly know mine. I don’t get to project my story or even my hopes onto them. Their story is theirs, not mine.
And so I believe them.
If they say that they are no longer Christians, I respectfully believe them. I affirm their journeys. If someone says they are not a Christian anymore, I don’t get to pat their head and say, “No, you’re not, sweetie. You’re just deconstructing.” I have to honour their journey and bless it as just as valid as my own.
Of course, I pray that they will flourish. I hope there is perhaps a resurrection waiting ahead on the path for them but even if not, they are fully entitled to their own questions, their own doubts, their own experiences. They did not walk away from Christianity by accident. Obviously a lot of thought, tears, wrestling, and conversation preceded this one carefully worded Instagram post and I respect their process. And I trust God enough to release my grip even on my hopes.
One thing that my dad told me when I was at the beginning stages of my own deconstruction has become the hallmark of my work in this arena particularly with Evolving Faith. He told me something along the lines of this: “I’m not afraid for you. If you’re honestly seeking God, I believe you will find what you’re looking for even if it looks different than what I have found.” And so all these years later, I have adopted that as my own approach to those who are on a winding path of spiritual growth and formation - I’m not afraid.
I won’t be afraid for those who are wondering and wandering. I’m not afraid for them or of them. Like the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans, I am convinced (most of the time anyway) that “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”2
The truth is that most of us know someone who is not simply deconstructing but has deconverted. These leaders are not the anomaly. There is a major shift happening in Christianity right now, a shift for the soul of our movement. There are fractures and fallings-away, revivals and deconversions all happening at once.
And God's gracious, wide mercy endures as we fumble our way forwards.
And when any of us deconverts, there will be an abundance of people in our lives who will wring their hands and wail, who will argue and fight, demand debates and proof-texts, walk away from them and turn their backs, “give them over to the devil” and call them names to their face or behind their back, accuse them of “never being a real Christian to begin with” and generally punish them for speaking their truth. The truth is also that most people who deconvert simply don’t say anything about it to anyone, preferring to either fade away from sight or hide in plain sight precisely because of the steep price of telling the truth.
And so if I may offer one suggestion? perhaps our response isn’t to project our own stories onto the stories of others. Or to assume that we’re their Holy Spirit, here to correct and guide and comfort, let alone channel abusive practices and threaten them with eternal conscious torment on the other side.
No, perhaps our response to those who can no longer claim the label of Christian is to say something like this: I'm not afraid for you, you are held. You are loved and you are free. I feel hopeful for you. Set out, pilgrim. Set out into the freedom and the wandering. Find your people. God is much bigger, wilder, more generous, and more wonderful than you imagined."3
I am not afraid for you.
Perhaps, in faith, we can offer this: “I honour your story, your experiences, and I believe you. And I am so convinced of the Love that shaped and formed the universe that I believe we are held in that Love within our unbelief. I am here, I’m not going anywhere. Call yourself what you need to call yourself, pick up and put down labels, whatever. I love you just as you are right now. Tell me everything. I'm listening. And I’ll keep walking with you. And if you ever need it, you can borrow my faith to rest within for a while.”
Maybe you need one person to say it to you? If so, here it is: I am not afraid for you. You are so very loved. Go forth with my blessing and hope for your flourishing. You’ll always have a friend in me.
And in case you missed these recent Field Notes:
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(This post originally appeared in Field Notes in 2019. I’m on holidays at the moment and so I pulled it out of the archives.)
For those of you who are new, I wrote all about this in my second book “Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith” so if you want to know more about that process, you can check that one out. And I wrote a lot more about the idea of God becoming/unbecoming in Miracles and Other Reasonable Things.
Romans 8:39-39 NIV
This line is from Out of Sorts.