It’s pretty popular these days for Christians and former Christians to talk about the deconstruction of their faith. This is essentially a “conversion” of sorts from an exclusivist form of Christianity to either a more inclusive faith or the rejection of faith altogether. The pile of bodies is staggering, growing by the day, and includes well-known pastors and leaders.
While I certainly wouldn’t say my faith has been “deconstructed,” I would say that during the past five years it’s been reimagined and reordered. Some of what I previously deemed important has either faded into relative insignificance or been discarded altogether, as I’ve come to understand and embrace the gospel more fully and the “weightier matters of the law” Jesus spoke of—justice, mercy, and faith.
The main impetus for this reimagining is very simple: I started hanging out mostly with people outside my faith, and realized I was largely wrestling with, debating, and answering questions most of the world wasn’t asking. As the result of a very intentional missional shift, my ministry changed from being insular and Adventist-centered to incarnational and community-centered. And I soon realized there’s a whole world of questions out there that I had no idea existed, mostly because my whole world was Adventism.
The reason for this isn’t complicated: we ask very different questions if we’re sitting in a boardroom in Silver Spring or a seminary classroom in Berrien Springs than if we’re hanging out in a café in Seattle or sitting by a well in Samaria. Theology is always contextual. And there’s nothing wrong with this, of course, so long as we recognize it.
For some this idea may seem troubling, sounding like my theological agenda has shifted—based not on Scripture but in the pursuit of relevance. But even Peter’s theology finally changed, not because he proof-texted the Old Testament, but because he encountered the Spirit’s working in Gentile Cornelius’ life. This isn’t to diminish the importance of deep Scripture study or to deny the existence of absolute truth. It’s simply to note that our study of Scripture is always shaped by the questions we ask and the people we surround ourselves with. And the danger, of course, is that we become increasingly out of touch with and irrelevant to the world around us, failing to move the needle in our task of spreading the three angels’ messages. Sadly, especially in the West, this has largely been the case.
So my objective in this column is to invite you to reimagine faith with me, ever keeping an eye on our missionary task, ever humbly being open to unfolding light. The reality is that our primary work as Jesus people has never been to protect, defend, or debate truth. We’ve been called to live as salt and light and, borrowing familiar phrasing, to “mingle with” those who don’t embrace Jesus. Only then can we truly learn to proclaim and live out a faith that appeals to and answers the questions of people from “every nation, tribe, tongue, and people” (Rev. 14:6).
Shawn Brace is a pastor and author in Bangor, Maine, whose forthcoming book, The Table I Long For (Signs Publishing), further details his and his church’s recent journey into a mission-centered life. He is also a D.Phil. student at the University of Oxford, researching nineteenth-century American Christianity.