Deconstruction has become a a big buzz word in the Christian church. It’s a difficult and frequently misunderstood process, and it’s not uncommon to hear spiritual leaders discuss deconstruction in threatening terms, as if those who engage in it are risking their connection to Jesus and possibly their very souls.
But there can be a positive side to deconstruction, if we engage with it in a healthy way. That’s how Dr. Derwin Gray sees it. Gray is the lead pastor of Transformation Church, a ” multicultural, multigenerational, mission-shaped church” in Indian Land, South Carolina.
We sat down with Gray to figure out how individuals can navigate deconstruction in a healthy way, and how the Church can see it as a tool to reach a new generation.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
There’s lots of definitions out there, so when you refer to deconstruction, what exactly are you talking about?
Derwin Gray: We live in such a world where people are making statements and they’re saying the same thing, but their statements mean something differently. So, when I talk about someone deconstructing their faith, the first thing that I want to say is, I want to add empathy and I want to add compassion to the conversation. Because there’s a whole myriad of things that are going on. Some could be, “I trusted the church” — meaning people within the church — “and I was abused and it was covered up.” Or it also could be just ugly, harsh theology. It also could be a misrepresentation of the Gospel, and some people are really reeling from that.
I have tons of empathy, but let’s take a step back. There’s about 3 billion people that make up the church, and I don’t think all 3 billion people have hurt you. And so if we’re not careful, we’re gonna go into what the philosopher, Frederick Nietzsche said is nihilism — where it’s the breakdown of family, breakdown of institutions, breakdown of truth. What you’re left with is pure and utter nothingness that even your own self is an existential crisis. It’s important that in this moment to go back to Christ.
I think experimentally within the Church, what we’re seeing now is deconstructionism is really progressive liberal theology from the 60s that morphed into the mainline church. And then in the late ’90s to about 2008, there was this movement called the Emergent Church. And everything that the Emergent Church was talking about is what the deconstruction movement is talking about as well. This is just a repackaging of that.
So in saying all that, laying the foundation, what I encourage people to do who are experiencing a crisis of faith is this: go talk to Jesus.
I want walk in the fruit of the Spirit. I want glorify God. But if you put your faith on Derwin Gray, you’re going to deconstruct. Our faith can only be in the person of Jesus Christ. And so what I encourage people to do is go talk to Jesus, like start in the Gospel of John. Just spend time with Jesus.
Secondly, be sure not to romanticize the early church. People think the early church was like this perfect church. Let’s not forget that in Galatians 3, the apostle Paul says to the multiethnic church in Galatia, “who bewitched you, you fools?” And let’s not forget that in Corinth, Paul had to deal with a son sleeping with his husband’s wife, all types of sexual immorality, lying, gossip, division. The reason why Paul wrote his letters were to correct believers.
Thirdly, recognize that sanctification is a beautiful struggle. Justification is God declaring me to be something I never thought I could be — the righteousness of Christ. It is a free gift. Sanctification is the spirit of God through our cooperation, living out the righteousness that we’re declared to be. Glorification of new heavens and new earth when we’re in resurrected glorified bodies.
We have to be patient with each other, but what I do think the deconstruction movement is doing that’s healthy is, it’s pointing out inconsistencies. There are some atrocious and evil things that need to be pointed out, but those evil and atrocious things are not King Jesus.
Ever since the beginning of the church, the greatest way for the devil to destroy the church is not from an atheist, and it’s not from an outside movement; it is from the inside.
What are some things from the Church’s past that have led to this moment of deconstruction?
This is really, really important, and I think this is playing a role in deconstruction. It’s very important for us to understand that conservatism politically is not Christianity. That’s not the Gospel. What’s happened particularly over the last 50 years is somehow conservative politics has wrapped itself in a cross with Jesus as the center of it as though he is a Republican.
Jesus is not a Republican. Jesus is not a Democrat. Jesus is Lord God, King of the cosmos.
The church has been around for 2,000 years. Republican and Democratic government as we know it has been around really since about the 1960s — because around the 50s and 60s the Democrats and Republicans actually flipped — and based on that, 99.99 percent of people who have followed Jesus have not been Republican nor have they been Democrat. The overwhelming majority of Christians in the world are not Republican or Democrat and so it’s very American arrogance. It’s myopic, it’s reductionistic and it’s idolatrous to somehow filter the Bible through these political lenses. We should filter our politics through the gospel and the kingdom of God.
Now in saying this, do I vote? Yes, and I want Gen Z, I want millennials to vote. As a Black man in America, there were too many people who look like me, who were lynched, whose churches were bombed, dogs were unleashed upon them for me not to vote. Yes, I do vote, but I understand that the greatest vote I cast is for Jesus and his kingdom. Therefore, Christians can actually come to a difference politically, and you don’t have to agree with everything that one political party agrees with.
But I do believe the church can do more. And as we look back at the early church, one of the attractions to the church in the Roman Empire is how the Christians served. When prostitutes would abandon babies for exposure to die, the Christians would adopt them. When plagues would come, the Christians wouldn’t run. They would stay with the people, sometimes seeing people healed, sometimes dying with the people.
What they did is they lived a different, more beautiful way while at the same time being friends to sinners like Jesus was. Jesus was called a friend to sinners. The only people he really went off on was the religious people.
What are some things the church can do to bridge that gap and get rid of that division?
I’m not sure if I’m qualified enough to say what the whole church should do, but I’m going say what we do at Transformation Church.
Number one, we believe that the life, death, resurrection of Jesus is the heartbeat of everything. We call that being Gospel-shaped. It starts in the pulpit. We want everything that we do to be about His grace, His gospel, His kingdom, His glory. And as a result of that, what takes place is people begin to love God completely. They begin to love themselves correctly. And then they begin to love their neighbors compassionately. Jesus said, “the greatest of these is to love God and love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
So what does it look like to love my neighbor? It looks like the cross. It looks like sacrifice. It looks like compassion. It looks like mercy. It looks like truth. And who is my neighbor going to be? My neighbor’s going to be multi-ethnic. My neighbor’s going to be multi-generational. My neighbor’s going to be social economic. The cross tears down racism, sexism and classism, and we become a people that actually look like Jesus.
Then, what happens in the seats, we begin to take that to the streets. We’re seeing God do incredible things. But sadly, there’s too much preaching that is Christ-less. You have the moralistic preaching that’s Christ-less: “You better change, stop this, don’t do that, don’t work.” And then you have this preaching that’s the prosperity gospel, like a hype concert. It’s like going to a nightclub for Jesus and you leave hyped up.
What I’m saying is, through the life, death, and resurrection of King Jesus, we’re formed into the image of Christ, reflecting the fruit of the Spirit, living a life of holiness and mission with Jesus. And we’re seeing those three barriers being broken down: The three ancient demonic barriers are ethnicity, class and sex. That’s why Paul said, there’s neither Jew nor Greek, free nor slave, male nor female, for we’re all one in Christ, and we are the seed or offspring of Abraham.
That’s what the new community looks like.