Two weeks ago, Josh Harris, the author of the controversial Christian bestseller I Kissed Dating Goodbye, announced that he and his wife, Shannon, were ending their marriage. Last week, Harris published another Instagram post, this time about the state of his faith:
I have undergone a massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus. The popular phrase for this is “deconstruction,” the biblical phrase is “falling away.” By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian. Many people tell me that there is a different way to practice faith and I want to remain open to this, but I’m not there now.
“I think my shock probably pales in comparison to the shock and even the grief that the people that sat under his ministry for over a decade would feel,” said Dyck, the author of Generation Ex-Christian: Why Young Adults Are Leaving the Church … and how to Bring Them Back. “There’s a lot of consternation when your pastor says he’s ‘falling away’ from faith because it’s an implicit threat to your own faith.”
Dyck joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and CT Pastors editor Kyle Rohane to discuss why people are leaving the church today, why you should react differently to your friend departing the faith than your child, and how to process our emotions and reactions we learn that public figures and loved ones have left Christianity.
Drew Dyck: Like a lot of people, I was shocked. I’m not close to Josh, but we have exchanged messages a few times over the years and he once wrote a piece for CT Pastors. I knew that he had taken a sort of unconventional route, but I didn’t really have an inkling that he was going through such a dramatic deconstruction of his faith until we all saw this post on Instagram. So yeah, it was shocking.
But I think my shock probably pales in comparison to the shock and even the grief that the people that sat under his ministry for over a decade would feel, There’s a lot of consternation when your pastor says he’s “falling away” from faith because it’s an implicit threat to your own faith. I think especially when it’s someone you admired, that you learned from, that you looked up to, has such a dramatic shift away from faith, you kind of wonder about yourself.
So I think that accounts for some of the grief, some of the shock, and even some of the shrill tone that I have seen from people responding to this online. And I don’t think that’s the right approach, but at the same time I want to be charitable, especially to people who were part of his church or read his books. I can understand the reaction.
Drew Dyck: I think it kind of follow a trajectory. First of all, they’re surprised that this would happen. You don’t expect that. You might expect it from an angsty teenager or young adult who goes off to college and encounters different ideas and falls away from the faith of their childhood. That’s a little more typical. This is pretty shocking. And then there’s grief, there’s a sense of loss. And then often that can morph into anger because you feel a little bit of betrayal, especially if you had a personal connection to this person.
Some of the reactions that I’ve seen that are probably a little that are unhelpful fall almost in two extremes. I’ve seen some people, online at least, kind of praising this decision that he’s made just for its honesty and authenticity. And yeah, that’s good that he’s being honest about it, but at the same time I wouldn’t be one of the ones that joins the course of praising someone for walking away from the faith.
I do think it’s sad and I think it’s okay to acknowledge that. On the other hand, the opposite reaction of lashing out at that person, saying they were always duplicitous, or just starting to bash them, write them off entirely, or import all kinds of bad motivations on their part—that’s not helpful at either because it’s important to remember that there are people watching us. Unbelievers, people that have walked away, other Christians that may be doubting, and when we react like that, it can actually push people further away.
I think when someone’s prominent or famous, at least within our sphere of the Christian world, it’s easy to think of that person not as a real person, but just sort of a figurehead and just lash out is if they’re not paying attention when I think they often are. And of course, that’s a very vulnerable moment when you’ve announced that you’ve walked away from the faith. And so we would do want to be gentle even as we express our grief and shock.
Drew Dyck: I think what makes it different when it’s a loved one, a family member or close friend, it’s a little trickier. The stakes are higher obviously, right? If it’s your son or daughter or spouse, it impacts your life on a whole different level. And there’s a whole relational history there. I’ve talked to a lot of parents that have had their grown children make a decision to leave the church or even the faith, and often the ways they respond are very counterproductive.
You think you can tell them what they need to do, or start preaching at them, or get incredibly defensive. So while it’s great that there’s that relational connection, it can actually sabotage it because there’s a lot of white-hot emotions that arise—especially in the immediate aftermath of someone saying, “I’m out. I’m not a Christian anymore.” So it’s really important take a deep breath, take a step back, and really be careful in how you approach the topic of faith going forward.
Drew Dyck: There’s probably a large range of things, but I think one of the common ones that I’ve seen is starting to hazard guesses as to why they left or just telling them why you believe they left. Saying something like, “you’re just doing that because you’re compromising morally, and you can’t hack it as a Christian anymore. So you’re changing your creed to match your conduct.” That’s not helpful. Even if you’re right, it’s not going to be helpful for facilitating productive dialogue with that person going forward.
I think another thing people get wrong is they immediately try to argue. I love apologetics; they are absolutely essential. We have to study, know why we believe what we believe, but when you just jump into that after someone tells you they no longer believe that can be unhelpful as well.
I think the first thing to say instead is to just affirm your love for them. Say to them, “I understand that you’re changing your stance on faith. This doesn’t change our relationship. I love you. I’m not going anywhere.” That’s huge because that’s what they need to hear because they’re in a very vulnerable state at that point. So to hear that kind of affirmation from you is essential.
If we suspect that someone is leaving, in the process of leaving, or has left it in some way, is this something that we should always wait for them to bring up and to disclose with us? Or is there a way that might be healthier for us to kind of be vulnerable first?
Drew Dyck: I think it’s okay to broach the topic if you suspect that someone has been on a certain trajectory. You don’t want to be accusatory, obviously, because that can be threatening, and they may not be ready to open up to you. But if you can ask open-ended questions like, “Hey, where are you at these days spiritually?” Just be curious to find out. And then if they do open up, it’s really important to hear them out entirely without jumping in, without interrupting, without arguing.
For my first book, I tracked down dozens of mainly 20-somethings that had walked away from the faith, and it was a good practice for me because I love to argue, love to get in there and try to mix it up, but I was you know playing the journalist so I had to kind of bite my tongue and just kind of listen to their entire story for an hour or two.
And it was incredible to me. Some of them even said, “It’s so good to have someone listen to my story, to actually get this all out.” Because often when it comes up, someone jumps in and starts to argue with them rather than hearing out the whole story. And often the very first things they say aren’t the real issues. They might have an intellectual objection to the faith, but then you dig into the story a little more and you hear a little more about their journey, and they had some awful experience— even in their childhood—in the church, and that’s maybe the core issue.
Josh Harris said he was in the process of deconstruction and he equated that with falling away. Do you think it’s appropriate to say that deconstruction is synonymous with leaving the church or leaving the faith or is that something different?
Drew Dyck: I think it’s something different. I think “deconstruction” and “falling away” are different. I was a little surprised to see him equating those two. Often people use a term like “deconstruction” to mean a rejection of the faith, but I think more often they don’t. I think usually they’re talking about inheriting a faith from parents or childhood and realizing that the older they get, as they study, the more they need to make it their own. And so it’s going to change. I mean how many of us can say that our faith is identical to what it was when we were teenagers right? That’s incredibly rare.
I think in some way we all go through subtle deconstructions in our faith, and that’s okay as long as there’s a construction. I mean the term deconstruction comes from literary criticism and it doesn’t mean to tear down something. It actually means to expose the tensions within a text and kind of see how it’s put together, what power dynamics are at play. And so in the best sense, deconstruction of faith can actually be a positive thing. Where you’re just giving it a closer analysis and truly trying to understand how your faith works, what’s essential, what’s inessential, what’s cultural, what’s truly biblical.
I do think that people can go through a healthy deconstruction that ends up with a stronger faith. I think it’s especially hard for people that come from a little more fundamentalist background because they think that if they’re going to depart from what they believed in their childhood, it’s almost an all-or-nothing proposition when of course there are many ways to be a faithful Christian. So yeah, I think deconstruction can be a healthy thing and is not synonymous with falling away.