Formation in the Messy Middle

"Deconstruction" has become a bit of a buzzword in the Church today, but doubt and uncertainty don't have to have the final say. There could be something good just around the corner.

Spencer Ming

March 1, 2022


Trust in God

Formation in the Messy Middle

What good can come from a spiritual journey that now yields uncertainty?

“Deconstruction” has become a bit of a buzzword in the church world these days. If you’re not familiar with the term, you’re probably aware of the concept: Deconstruction is essentially the process of spiritual de-formation, usually induced by some kind of trauma or change of circumstance. Undoubtedly, deconstruction has been accelerated by church closures and the general unpredictability of the COVID-19 pandemic; but for many, the root has been growing beneath the surface for quite some time, having been watered by hurts caused by authoritarian leadership or the hypocrisy of scandal and religion.

For those of us entrenched in ministry, I admit that deconstruction often carries a negative connotation. “Isn’t ‘deconstruction’ just an excuse for hurt Christians to leave the church or a way to enable sinners to deflect blame onto other entities?” Sure, such thinking could certainly be within the realm of possibility. But it’s worth noting that, as with most things, deconstruction represents a broad spectrum of experience and a varying array of outcomes. While one person’s deconstruction experience might ultimately result in their leaving the Christian faith altogether, another person might deconstruct only to undergo a spiritual reconstruction that leads toward greater zeal and commitment to the mission of Christ. The difference just might depend upon how we as the Body of Christ respond to those in “the messy middle.”

In his book, Praying the Psalms, Walter Brueggemann suggests that humans regularly find themselves in one of three stages: orientation (living within the normal), disorientation (living within the abnormal), or reorientation (adapting to a new normal). If we condemn people when they’re disoriented, shaming them or labeling them as heretics, we shouldn’t be surprised if they never progress into the reorientation stage. In the end, our duty as ministers of the Gospel is not to cast judgment on those who question or doubt. Most often, our job isn’t even to provide answers! Instead, God has entrusted us with the responsibility to love and support, even stepping out of the picture when necessary, in order to make room for the Holy Spirit to shape and form and become the Answer.

In the process of spiritual formation, sometimes the best thing we can do is get out of the way. Whether we know people who are deconstructing or whether we are there ourselves, reorientation / reconstruction will always involve humility to say, “He must increase; I must decrease.” Pursuing God and engaging the process of being formed (or re-formed) by Him is not about what someone said to you, it’s not about how your parents raised you, and it’s not even about disciplines, although those are important. Spiritual formation and Christian maturity is first and foremost about relational knowledge of God—learning who He is, what He desires, how He loves.

Not long before His body was literally deconstructed by the torment of the cross, Jesus made an incredible statement while in prayer: “Now this is eternal life, that they may know You, the one true God…” (John 17:3). So often we think of eternal life as the goal of the spiritual journey, the place we will go when we die. And since doubt and uncertainty and deconstruction all present themselves as obstacles standing in the way of our destination, perhaps this is why we so often view the messy middle as a threat. But in the text cited above, Jesus redefines eternal life as knowing God, where we become fruitful people who are devoted to communion with Him. In other words, the goal of our journey is not so much about escaping the messy middle; it’s about inviting Him into it. This is what brought Jesus comfort in the face of looming physical deconstruction; this is the strength He offers us ahead of any spiritual, emotional, or cultural deconstruction that may lie ahead.

So then, what good can come from a spiritual journey that now yields uncertainty? Hope. Hope for the healing of past wounds. Hope for redemption of lost souls. Hope for a community of believers who stand up for what’s right in a world that feels so wrong. Hope for something better. Hope for a new normal. Hope for the thrill of an unending journey into the depths of relationship with our Answer.

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