On the Deconstruction Discourse
Evangelicals are trying to turn “deconstruction” into a loaded phrase. That metaphor is telling.
This essay was also published as an episode of Exvangelical. You can listen here:
Evangelical pastors and leaders have been talking a lot about deconstruction and exvangelicals this year. Francis Chan mentioned exvangelicals and pastors leaving ministry and the faith in May. In June, David Jeremiah said exvangelicals were “a sign of the end times.” In August, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast mentioned exvangelicals (I responded here). That same month, Matt Chandler of The Village Church shared a sermon titled “The Depth of the Gospel” where he said:
“You and I are in a day and age where deconstruction and the turning away from and leaving the faith has become some sort of sexy thing to do to, I contend that if you ever experience the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ actually, that that’s really impossible to deconstruct from. But if all you ever understand Christianity to be is a moral code, then I totally get it.”
This commentary has resurfaced again here in December and has kicked off a new round of us looking at how evangelical churches talk about those who have deconstructed.1 But before we get to that and— talking a little bit more about Matt Chandler as an example—I want to look at some other places where evangelicalism wrote about those who are deconstructing.
In October, Tish Harrison Warren wrote an article for Christianity Today called “The Church Needs Reformation, Not Deconstruction,” followed two days later by Russell Moore’s own article, “My Dad Taught Me How to Love the Exvangelical.”
In November, Hannah Anderson wrote a piece called “I Can’t Quit My Evangelical Heritage. Neither Can You.” for Christianity Today, and The Gospel Coalition published a piece called “4 Causes of Deconstruction” that posited that exvangelicals left the faith for “street cred.” Even the Babylon Bee, The Alt-Right Onion, is lampooning the similarities of exvangelical stories and using social media - I guess because we all can’t complain about so-called “cancel culture” on Tucker Carlson.
All of these statements by evangelical leaders belie an effort to discredit the validity of exvangelical perspectives and dismiss the critiques of people who use terms like exvangelical or deconstruction. By doing so, they may hope to appropriate the term or render it meaningless, as other conservative efforts have done with terms like “woke,” “cancel culture,” and “critical race theory.” It is an attempt to turn “deconstruction” into a loaded phrase - and that metaphor is telling, because they are trying to take a tool - a hashtag like exvangelical used to help connect ideas & form nascent communities across social networks, and a loose framework like deconstruction to discuss ideas and experiences - and turn them into weapons. They are beating our plowshares into swords - taking tools they did not make, and brandishing them against their rhetorical enemies. That is a pernicious aspect of whiteness - excuse me, “Western Culture,” that needs to be excised.2
It is also worth noting that evangelical preachers and leaders are decidedly punching down. Matt Chandler’s church has a proposed annual budget of $11.78M. He has 402k followers on his Twitter account, and leads the board of Acts 29, which has over 700 member churches. The Gospel Coalition’s website is in the top 10,000 sites globally - this is not a fight among equals, no matter the follower count of popular exvangelical TikTokkers. Once again, white evangelicals are Goliath cosplaying as David.
Yet despite all this, all the bantering creates a distracting sideshow. Reducing criticism of white evangelicalism down to "deconstruction is bad" takes from pastors or "I really wish these people didn't have to leave at all" diminishes the seriousness of evangelicalism's sins. White evangelicalism causes trauma in people's lives & has become a threat to democracy.
I have no interest in playing some game where a megachurch pastor tries to discredit the witness of people who speak truth to power about their own experience. If they wanted that to remain palatable to everyone, they should have been better people, let alone Christians.Respectability politics only serves to reify the current dynamics of power & capital. As that clip that has circulated recently from Chandler shows, they do not extend the most basic respect - acknowledgment of the validity of our experience in the white ev church - to exvies.
It is the height of hubris for white ev leaders to think they can use their faith to undermine the innate value of all people, to use their political & financial capital to pursue anti-democratic goals across decades, and more - and not expect to be held to account. It is also ridiculous to expect perfection from one's critics, as if the conflicts that arise within nascent progressive spaces somehow negate all the harm done within their own. The church isn't the only place that's a "human institution" prone to error or strife.3
Exvangelical is not a threat to Christianity. It is perceived as a threat to a lazy and unrepentant evangelicalism. Conservative white evangelicalism does not want to be reformed, it does not want to repent, it does not want to disassociate from power but wants to distance itself from the scandal of January 6th, of Trump, and all other aspects of its less than auspicious history. Even the necessary work of naming and decrying Christian nationalism can distract from the myriad other issues that run rampant in these circles. Christian nationalism blossoms in the soil of white evangelicalism, yet it is one bad fruit among many alongside white supremacy, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and abuse cover ups.
White evangelicals and others need to stop conflating the individual process of deconstructing one’s personal faith with the corporate process of reforming institutions. Today’s exvangelicals, post-evangelicals, deconstructors, and decolonizers are yesterday’s reformers. Many of our own stories reflect a desire for our own communities to hear us when we raised concerns & need for reform in our churches. Many exvangelicals leave their church as a matter of last resort and self-preservation after fighting tooth and nail against church leadership that has hardened its heart.4
For decades, white evangelicalism has positioned itself as the apogee of Christianity. This claim was never legitimate, but the media prowess, monied interests, and political clout of white evangelical leaders in the 20th and 21st centuries in America meant that this became the de facto understanding.
Nonetheless, we are witnessing that era coming to an end.
We are witnessing the end of white evangelical hegemony.
This is not persecution, though white evangelical leaders will interpret it as such and further internalize this narrative. This is not cancel culture (though true cancel culture was born in evangelicalism—ask Rob Bell, Jennifer Knapp, Jen Hatmaker, Amy Grant, Sixpence, Ray Boltz, and countless others). This is the consequence of decades of trends coalescing at once, as white evangelical institutions and norms became more and more constricting, pushing out would-be reformers.
This is the consequence of refusing to engage said reformers pushing the church toward gender equality, LGBTQ+ affirmation, and racial justice and reparations.
This is the consequence of white evangelicals wedding the future of their faith to the GOP since the 1970s, culminating in them not being the Bride of Christ but becoming the Bride of Trump.
This is the consequence of steady white evangelical support for President Trump, to whom they gave infinite mulligans, no matter what he did.
The country and the world watched. Their congregants watched. Many left.
With Trump, white evangelicals and their Christian nationalist allies gained considerable political power and clout. With Trump’s loss and the events of January 6th, the world saw the outcome of the Christian nationalism allowed and encouraged to run rampant in white evangelical communities.
In this last-ditch attempt to keep its power, it showed its truest self. No amount of back-pedaling will make that less true.
Let’s be clear: White evangelical institutions will endure. They remain well-funded. But they have lost something they’ve long controlled: the narrative.
They have also isolated themselves. Their prior congregants will move on and find new beliefs to affirm, and they will be empowered to be honest about their trauma by the long line of leavers before them. The exvangelical dispersal will bear witness to and affirm their choice.
White evangelicalism has lost control of the narrative. It is up to us to tell our own.5
Thank you for reading or listening. Much of this script was adapted from posts to my twitter feed, @brchastain, and my newsletter, The Post-Evangelical Post; those citations are below. You can support my work directly through the newsletter, and you can subscribe to my podcasts, Exvangelical and Powers & Principalities, on your favorite podcast app.
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I first came across it here; the clip was posted to Twitter by Ian McCloud, originally posted to TikTok by the account @morningbiblereading.
Implicit sarcasm made explicit here, just in case.
This passage originated on Twitter in this thread.
This passage is from a longer piece, “White Evangelicalism Does Not Want to Be Reformed.”
This passage is from my essay “The End of White Evangelical Hegemony.”