Many of my friends and congregants who go on a deconstruction journey aren’t trying to lose their faith. They don’t want to end up in a Jesus-free place. They just want to make sense out of the faith they grew up in and let go of stuff that’s stale or stifling. They actually want a stronger faith, not no faith—more of Jesus, not less.
If that describes you, here’s food for thought: Deconstruction is not what you’re actually looking for. Disenculturation is.
Disenculturation is the process used by missionaries to differentiate the gospel from culture. Having moved from one culture to another, missionaries can see that the gospel is like a kernel protected by an outer husk (culture). Their job is to ensure that the gospel kernel is free to enter new cultures without being captive to its old husk. This goes all the way back to the book of Acts, when the early church had to differentiate the gospel from Judaism as it entered Gentile culture.
In the same way, you might need to differentiate the gospel from evangelical subculture. I’ve been through this process! I did not grow up in evangelicalism, but I became a Christian inside an evangelical high school. I fell in love with the gospel it taught me, but I could also see that this evangelical world had a lot of culture that wasn’t part of the gospel. Learning to disenculturate the gospel from evangelicalism has not only saved my faith. It’s helped me love the gospel more.
If you want to go on a disenculturation journey instead of a deconstruction journey, here’s how to get started.
- Learn to See Culture
Like a fish in water who doesn’t feel wet, we often don’t recognize our culture, the languages and stories that explain our world. Cultures foster habits that comprise the good life and defense mechanisms that deflect the questions of outsiders. They elevate celebrities who exemplify their ideals. Then, having done all this, cultures pull a sneaky move: they pretend they don’t exist. They present themselves as “just the way things are.” But culture is always present, and it always plays a role in our experience of faith.
Learning to disenculturate the gospel from evangelicalism has not only saved my faith. It’s helped me love the gospel more.
This means the first step is to learn to see culture and its power. My friends who grew up inside the evangelical subculture didn’t start doubting Christianity until they had left it. Coincidence? Probably not. The subculture had propped up their faith.
But this also means that culture contributed to their newfound questions. What many call doubt is actually a culture shift that displaces the old plausibility structures. What many call “deconstructing my faith” is actually a change of cultural locations that causes me to rethink old assumptions. When you learn to see the power of culture, you see what’s really happening: You learned Christianity in one culture. Now you’ve moved to a new culture. The first step, then, is to recognize this for what it is: tension caused by a culture shift and not necessarily by Christianity.
- Wrestle with the Right Issues
Doubt can be disorienting. Disenculturation can’t save you from this struggle, but it can focus it in the right places. By differentiating the gospel kernel from the cultural husk, it says, “Wrestle with kernel issues.”
When I left my Christian high school, I started struggling with God’s judgment. I had been taught the holiness of God and the sinfulness of all people, but befriending thoughtful non-Christians was a surprising experience. They didn’t look so bad to me, but the doctrine of judgment suddenly did.
Reflecting on this, I saw that some of what I was wrestling with was biblical and some was merely cultural. The New Testament teaches that the Lord will judge the living and the dead by a man whom he has appointed (Acts 17:31; Rom. 2:5–16). Jesus used images like “hell of fire,” “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” and “outer darkness” to describe being outside his kingdom (Matt. 5:22; 8:12; 22:13). There was no getting around this backdrop to the gospel.
However, some of my revulsion was due to the way judgment had been taught inside evangelical subculture. High-pressure sermons focused more on escaping hell than knowing God. Sin was depicted in grotesque, caricatured forms. The preacher’s breath smelled like scorn.
For several years, I tried to relearn what the Bible said (kernel) while tuning out the preachers’ voices in my head (husk). I also searched for teachers who explained judgment in a way that didn’t dodge the Bible but also didn’t sound like these evangelists. Gradually this led to some surprising discoveries. I saw how judgment spoke to my deep longing to live in a world of justice where God makes all things right. I could see this for the first time because I relearned this doctrine outside evangelical subculture in a way that addressed my questions and concerns within it.
- Find a Church That Engages Gospel and Culture
Disenculturation shows us it’s possible to differentiate the gospel from culture, but it doesn’t mean the gospel can be experienced without any culture. The whole point of freeing the gospel from one culture is so that it can take root in another. This means your task is not to find a unicorn of culture-free Christianity. Rather, it’s to learn and live your faith in your current culture.
Practically, how do you do that? Churches embody the gospel in a particular culture. Once you’ve learned to see culture, you can’t help but notice that each church has its own. The best are self-aware. They let the gospel shape the culture inside the church. They teach the gospel in a way that connects with the culture outside the church. They disciple their members to live in that surrounding culture in a distinctly Christlike way.
Look for one of these churches and become involved. A church that loves the gospel and the surrounding culture is glad to welcome people who wrestle with hard questions about Christianity. You’ll notice it in postures, you’ll hear it in sermons, and you’ll feel it from leaders.
- Expect to See the Gospel Afresh
When the gospel is freed from its cultural husk and taken to a new culture, it often shines in fresh and beautiful ways.
A church that loves the gospel and the surrounding culture is glad to welcome people who wrestle with hard questions about Christianity.
One of my favorite examples is a renowned Matt Chandler sermon. Chandler, a pastor in Texas, describes a cringeworthy 1990s youth-ministry event on sexual abstinence. The preacher passes a rose through the audience until it comes back mangled—an analogy for what will happen to those who sleep around. “Now, who would want this rose?” he sneers. Chandler’s punchline: “Jesus wants the rose! That’s the whole point of the gospel!”
Why is this so powerful to imagine? Because many in Chandler’s audience grew up in the evangelical purity movement. They weren’t just taught a biblical sex ethic; they were taught it within an environment that relied on fear, pressure, shame, and willpower. Inside this world, the Christian sex ethic sounded like burdensome bad news. Even worse, many who sinned sexually started to feel hopeless, since purity culture tended to obscure God’s grace.
How did Chandler know all this? He had stepped outside his subculture. He prefaced the story by telling of a single mom carrying on an extramarital affair. Chandler had befriended her and invited her to the event that night, not knowing it would include a sex sermon. As soon as the preaching started, he knew it would shame his friend and drive her further from God. Many listening to Chandler’s sermon had experienced the same thing. But when Chandler shouts—“Jesus wants the rose!”—he puts purity culture in the “ignore” bucket, and the gospel breaks free to shine in all its beauty.
I know the same benefits of disenculturation are available for you. Don’t deconstruct your faith—disenculturate instead.