With this much rot, there’s no choice but to deconstruct

Church leaders, I’m talking to you.

A home remodel project. Photo by Milivoj Kuhar/Unsplash/Creative Commons

(RNS) — Deconstruction is a scary word for most of us. In the 1980s, when I was in graduate school, deconstruction was all the buzz in literary theory. But the deconstruction we are hearing about in Christian circles today is something different. It describes everything from deconversion to “exvangelicalism” to ultimately reaffirming one’s belief after serious examination.

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Deconstruction essentially describes “what happens when a person asks questions that lead to the careful dismantling of their previous beliefs.”

I thought about deconstruction a lot over the summer — not because I was having a crisis of faith — but because of a different kind of deconstruction altogether — a home remodeling project.

We had torn up just half of one small bathroom, but what a mess ensued. The hallway floor was covered in cardboard and lined with accoutrements, toiletries and tools. The front porch was turned into a workshop, as was the driveway, too. The yard was covered with debris, and rising high from its midst was an old plastic tub insert, waiting to be sawed into pieces and carted away.

By necessity, this bathroom had been the first room we fixed up 22 years ago when we moved in to this old house. At that time, in addition to a toilet and sink, the pink-tiled bathroom with orange Formica on the floor had a rusty metal stand-up shower. I took my lightning quick showers with eyes closed, standing on tiptoes, trying not to touch anything. As soon as we could, we drove two hours to the nearest big box home improvement store and handed over 200 bucks — that was a lot of money for us then — for a gleaming white tub/shower combo. That big hunk of molded plastic faithfully served us, our houseguests and, occasionally, sundry stinking dogs, for more than two decades. Truth be told, it would have been fine for twice as many more.

This newest remodel was supposed to take just a few days.

But getting the tub out was almost as hard as it had been to get in (and that is a story in itself). And the tile we chose that was in stock at the store couldn’t be brought down from its high shelf until the only employee who worked the lift returned after being sick. And the grout had to be special-ordered. And then the bathroom mirror fell apart when we took it down. Then we discovered an old leak in the water pipes below.

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To be clear: The bathroom we had before was adequate — even more than adequate by many measures.

Or so we thought.

We had no idea until we peeled away the veneer that there was rot underneath.

Deep rot.

Dangerous rot.

That kind of rot requires major deconstruction. And now you can probably see where I’m going with this.

In the church, that kind of rot can lead people to deconstruct their faith.

Abuse. Cover-up of abuse. Racial strife. Lack of integrity. Membership declines. Partisan divisions. And divisions over disagreements about how extensive these divisions are. An abusive leader in this corner. A negligent board over here. A world-renowned apologist accused of raping and trafficking women over there.

And the wounded piled up everywhere like debris on the lawn.

Southern Baptist Convention messengers kneel in prayer during the annual meeting, Tuesday, June 15, 2021, at the Music City Center in Nashville. RNS photo by Kit Doyle

Southern Baptist Convention messengers kneel in prayer during the annual meeting, June 15, 2021, at the Music City Center in Nashville, Tennessee. RNS photo by Kit Doyle

Yes, deconstruction is risky. It always entails the danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. And as a church body, during these messy processes, it is our job to help hold those babies — but it is also our job to help dump that dirty water down the drain.

It is hard, terrible work.

But it is so very necessary.

Because deconstruction must take place for reconstruction to take place.

To be fair, I haven’t had the kind of crisis of faith I’ve watched so many others undergo. But I’ve certainly had to step back and examine honestly where I’ve been complacent — or even complicit — in enabling others who have abused their power in the name of the Lord. It’s a process in which I’m still engaged. And, day by day, exposé by exposé, it does not get any easier, because the truth is that our beliefs are tied up with the institutions — family, church, schools, communities — that gave them to us, institutions (and their people) that we love.

Such painful, disorienting and overwhelming work can feel like a death. And it is a death. But if it is a death to self and to all that is false and not of God, it will bring new life. And it will bring new life not only to individual believers, but to the church, too.

What must we do to reconstruct? No doubt, this will be a bigger, longer job than we expect.

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It will begin with what the Bible tells the church in Revelation 2:4-5: First, considering how far we have strayed from our first love, then repenting of this and returning to our first love — Jesus.

We must make Jesus the head of his bride again. We can no longer put the church — its name, its reputation, its money, its salaries, its staff, its programs, its numbers — before Christ himself.

We can help do this by holding one another accountable, speaking the truth in love rather than turning silently away when we see first things put last, and last things put first. Because silence too often is complicity.

We can also refuse to turn away from others when they come to us with their pain. And refuse to turn a blind eye when something troubling crosses our horizon. Some of the greatest sins are those of omission.

At the same time, we must encourage, pray for, thank, the pastors and leaders who get it right even as we hold them accountable when they get it wrong, as we all inevitably do.

A reconstruction built on the bones of orthodox doctrines as old as the church herself, on the Word of God, the person of Christ revealed in that Word, and sealed by the work of the Holy Spirit will not only remove the rot but will render unto us something solid, fresh and good.

It won’t be easy. But it will be beautiful.

“Behold,” Jesus says, “I make all things new.”

I can’t wait to see the “before” and “after” pictures.

Let’s get to work.

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