Diagnosing Deconstruction: Four Root Causes

Note from Randy: I love this article by Joshua Ryan Butler, lead pastor of Redemption Tempe, a thriving church near Arizona State University. What he wrote has the ring of truth—in all four causes for what is popularly called deconstruction, and which used to be called “loss of faith.”  

I have seen a number of people fall into sin and then change their worldview to make the sin seem more enjoyable or tolerable. I've seen others whose first priority in life is not believing and living according to the truth, but appearing to be cool, relevant, and on the cutting edge, which inevitably includes hedging on and outright denying some of what the Bible says to be true.

Pain inflicted in church communities is so rampant that I have used it as a segue into evangelism, saying, “I’ll bet you have been really hurt by church people, haven’t you?” When they ask, “How did you know?” I say, “Because I’m a Christian, and I’ve been hurt by church people. And you know what? I’ve hurt people too.”

This article sparked a two-hour conversation with one of my family members. I hope you find it helpful and thought-provoking and useful to share with others.

Thanks, Joshua!

4 Causes of Deconstruction

By Joshua Ryan Butler

Deconstruction is a symptom, not the root cause.

A proper diagnosis is important because—to continue the medical analogy—each underlying condition has a different cure.

I’ve walked as a pastor with many wrestling with deconstruction. While not exhaustive, these are the four most common root causes I’ve seen. Let’s look at the gospel’s treatment plan for each.

1. Church Hurt

Many who deconstruct have been wounded by abusive or manipulative church leaders, or generally unhealthy church cultures. Often these relationships were intimate and formative: the pastor you grew up with, the mentor you trusted. For others, the relationships are more distant. You grew up under the influence of leaders like Ravi Zacharias, Carl Lentz, or Mark Driscoll—whose teaching and charisma powerfully inspired you and formatively shaped you—but then the curtain got pulled back. The betrayal can make the whole thing look like a sham. The pain can be excruciating and disorienting.

It’s easier to throw the baby out with the bathwater when you feel like you’ve been drowning.

Church hurt is real. But deconstruction is a false cure.

The gospel’s remedy is lament. The psalms often protest mistreatment at the hands of God’s people and petition for his justice. David—who wrote a majority of the psalmsexperienced abusive leadership firsthand from King Saul. Yet he sought the Righteous Judge with lament, groans, and tears.

You don’t need to ignore the church’s problems to protect its reputation. Instead, bring the problems boldly to God—like David did—and encounter a deeper intimacy with him as you’re honest about your wounds. Deconstruction bypasses this deeper healing. It’s a shortcut that internalizes grief rather than bringing it before God.

We’re not good at grief today. Much of deconstruction exists because it’s easier to move on than to be sad. But the only true and eternal cure for these deeper wounds is Christ.

The solution to bad community isn’t abandoning community; it’s good community. A healthy treatment plan will eventually involve rebuilding a good church community with good boundaries and good leaders. No community’s perfect, but trust can be rebuilt on the other side of lament, in healthy relationships centered on Jesus and life together as his people.

Diagnosis: church hurt

Cure: grief and lament

2. Poor Teaching

Some Christians have been led to believe they must choose between faith and science, because of poor teaching on Genesis 1. Others have been led to believe God is a vindictive sadist, from a popular caricature of hell. Best abandon Christian faith entirely on account of some dubious or sloppy teaching, right?

But if the problem is bad teaching, the solution is good teaching. There are great resources out there (such as TGC’s recent book, Before You Lose Your Faithand video series “Gen Z’s Questions About Christianity”) and many wise pastors are walking patiently with those who wrestle with hard questions. Good teaching and good teachers exist.

Jesus is the best model of replacing bad teaching with good teaching. I love his refrain in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard it said . . . but I say” (Matt. 5–7). Jesus deconstructs bad teaching in order to reconstruct good teaching. Not all deconstruction is bad.

The bad form of deconstruction, as my friend Seth Troutt pointed out, is epitomized by the serpent’s question in the Garden: Did God really say? (Gen. 3). The enemy wants us to break trust with God and distance ourselves from him and his people. This is the way of most deconstruction today.

Jesus shows us a better way. In contrast to the serpent’s question, Jesus proclaims: You have heard it said . . . but I say. The serpent’s goal is to break trust; Jesus’s goal is to build trust. The serpent’s goal is to distance us from God; Jesus’s goal is to draw us closer to God.

Some mistakenly think Jesus is critiquing the Old Testament when he says “You have heard it said.” But Jesus loves his Hebrew Bible. He’s constantly saying things like, “It is written,” “Have you not read?” and “I have come not to abolish the Scriptures but to fulfill them.” Jesus has a higher view of the Old Testament than most of us do.

Jesus is critiquing not the Scriptures, but faulty traditions and insufficient interpretations. Not much has changed. Inaccurate caricatures and misreadings of Scripture are everywhere today, even promoted within some churches. 

We need to take good teaching seriously. Our refrain should be, You have heard it said, but Jesus says. . . . I’ve written books on hell, judgment, holy war, sacrifice, wrath, and atonement, and I’m writing one on sex and gender. I’m often trying to confront popular caricatures of the Christian faith and replace them with a healthy, biblical, historic understanding. That’s one of TGC’s goals, too.

Today’s deconstruction allows bad teaching to have the last word. It rejects a distorted vision and misses an encounter with the real thing: the living God. Such a “remedy” kills the very patients it seeks to cure, distancing them from the pure medicine (in Christ) that alone can truly heal. The gospel’s treatment plan, meanwhile, does not simply ditch bad teaching, but replaces it with good teaching.

Diagnosis: bad teaching

Cure: good teaching

3. Desire to Sin

Some deconstruct out of a desire to justify their sin. Many friends in ministry have suddenly had “big questions about God”—then proceeded to quickly deconstruct their faith. So many times, it later comes out they’d been having an affair that started well before their deconstruction began.

I minister in a college town (go ASU Sun Devils) where students regularly deconstruct when they’ve started sleeping with their girlfriend or boyfriend. Convenient timing. Others deconstruct while harboring an addiction (drugs, alcohol, porn), to release their guilt.

Deconstruction here is usually presented as an anguishing process of honest wrestling (“I just don’t understand why God won’t show up and answer me”). It casts the questioner as the hero grappling authentically with a God too distant to trust or too difficult to believe.

This masks what’s really going on. “What the heart wants, the mind justifies,” the old quip wisely observes. God allows us to think we are “judging” him, when really it’s a form of God’s judgment on us. It exposes how far we’re willing to go to justify our sin. God hands us over to the depravity of our mind, that we might attain the corrupted desires of our heart.

If the problem is a desire to sin, the solution is confession and repentance. Jesus invites all to “open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18).

Deconstruction is poison, not medicine. It supplements the sin that’s killing you, rather than healing it. It allows you to save face, to look virtuous in your departure from God (“He’s the problem, not me”), while distracting you from squarely facing your true motivations.

Deconstruction is playing with fire; grace is real and can heal. James offers wise advice: “Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double minded.” Yet he also gives a hope-filled promise for those who would deconstruct: “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (James 4:7–8).

Diagnosis: desire to sin

Cure: confession and repentance

4. Street Cred

Doubt is hip. The desire to fit in with the cultural ethos of our moment is strong. That’s why so many deconversion stories sound like everyone’s reading off the same script—its well-worn clichés signaling conformity to accepted norms.

Celebrities are leading the charge. There’s influence to be had, platforms to be built, and money to be made. It gets Rob Bell on Oprah, bolsters Glennon Doyle’s book sales, and lets Rhett & Link host Nacho Libre and Harry Potter on their popular YouTube channel.

A wave of #exvangelical podcasters and TikTok stars are following in the wake, with a whole cottage industry to welcome and cheer them on. There’s clout in distancing oneself from “outdated” views of sex and gender, an “obscure” Bible with talking snakes and forbidden shellfish, and “offensive” doctrines like wrath and hell.

I’m not claiming to know the heart of such influencers. Motivations other than street cred can be powerfully at play. I’m simply observing that social pressure is a powerful carrot on the stick—and not just for celebrities.

The cultural hostility is real. Whether in progressive urban centers (like my hometown of Portland), or university environments (like where I currently live), Christians are decidedly not the cool kids. It’s hard to be the awkward one sitting alone at lunch. Many of us feel the social pressure—and the release valve is a simple Instagram post away.

The “cure” here is the crucifixion of your image. The gospel calls you to mortify your love of influence and prestige—put it to death. Jesus warns of those who love “the glory that comes from man” more than “the glory that comes from God” (John 12:43). It’s not wrong to want love and affirmation; it’s just wrong to want it more from your fickle friends than your faithful God.

John warns, “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). The world here refers not to God’s good creation, but sinful patterns that have been normalized in society through our rebellion against God. At the heart of these patterns is our desire for autonomy from God—the very desire championed by deconstruction today.

Deconstruction can fuel vanity. It can feed on your insecurity, your desire for acceptance, by puffing you up with the hot air of the world. The gospel, in contrast, calls you to “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you” (1 Pet. 5:6). God humbles you in the eyes of the world, in order to ultimately lift you up with him.

Mortify your desire for street cred in order to experience union with God.

Diagnosis: street cred

Cure: crucifixion of image

Diagnosis and Cure

As a pastor, I’ve found understanding these root causes helpful when walking with people through deconstruction. A proper diagnosis helps administer the right cure.

It’s a bummer if someone’s dealing with church hurt and you hand him a stack of apologetics books to read. Those same books will be useless if, beneath the surface, he really just wants to justify his sin.

It’s also worth recognizing: people’s real motives will often be different from their stated motives. I’ve had people come to me “with big questions about God,” only to later discover they were feeling social pressure at school or having an affair at the office.

Also, people can have multiple motives. Some lingering theology questions, a bad church experience, and a desire for street cred can all stew together in the heart’s cauldron. Being a good pastor, mentor, or friend will require attention to the uniqueness of each situation.

This all implies a challenge: it takes time. Ministering in the age of deconstruction will likely involve attentiveness in conversation, sensitivity to the Spirit, and the risk of investment—knowing the person might end up bailing anyway. Good doctors take time with their patients, and as ministers of the gospel we must too. Yet while wisdom may prescribe distinct treatment plans, there’s ultimately one source of healing we’re seeking to administer: the remedy found in Jesus Christ.

This article originally appeared on The Gospel Coalition, and is used with permission of the author.

Photo by Josue Michel on Unsplash