Help! I think I’m still a Christian
It’s a rarity for me to be able to listen to “Christian” music without cringing these days. But there is a short list of songs I can stomach. One of the songs on that list is the title track from John Mark McMillan’s 2014 album “Borderland.”
McMillan’s imagery is reminiscent of Matthew 6:24 — “No one can serve two masters.” But McMillan is referring to more than greed. His lyrics speak to the savagery of contemporary, Western (and by extension, Evangelical) culture, which claims to “hold on to love,” but nonetheless lives by “the law of the jungle.”
The song originally came out around the same time I was beginning to take the plunge down the slippery slope of “deconstruction.” But today, it carries a significantly deeper, richer meaning, as I find myself living in my own sort of “Borderland” — the land between my completely reoriented faith and worldview, and the messy, often problematic religious soil that this orientation is still very much rooted in.
Maybe you find yourself there too.
You’re hesitant to use the word “Christian” to label yourself, but you couldn’t possibly describe what you believe without referring to the person and Way of Jesus.
You feel you have more in common with your Agnostic friends than you do with “church folk,” especially those in the tradition you grew up in.
And yet, there is this undeniable, unquenchable longing you have to commune with the Divine — and when you imagine what that means, the picture of the God you long to encounter is inextricably linked to the picture of God seen in Christ Jesus throughout the Gospels.
This is the tension of faith after deconstruction, and so many of us feel it, but so few of us know how to name it — much less cope with it.
But what if we don’t have to “cope”?
In the years that I’ve been living in this Borderland, I’ve begun to discover that the tension between the faith I’ve deconstructed, and the one I’ve found, may in fact be an invitation. And it’s only by embracing that tension — by making my home in the Borderland — that I can truly encounter the God I so long to meet.
But before I go on, here’s what I don’t mean.
The Borderland is Not “The Middle”
I’ve noticed a tendency — in my personal history and in my conversations with others — for folks who are beginning to deconstruct their belief or value system to lobby for everyone to meet in “the middle.”
On the one hand, I totally resonate with the impulse to reject arbitrarily “taking sides.” In fact, I think Jesus would share that impulse. Take, for instance, his blessing of the peacemakers in the Beatitudes — “for they will be called children of God.”
Why will they be called children of God? Because no one else wants to claim them. They’re making people angry on both sides of the aisle.
But what Jesus is referring to — what every peacemaker embodies, and what those living in the Borderland have experienced — is not simply a non-committal, laissez faire attitude toward the injustices of the world or the discrepancies of toxic belief. Quite the contrary.
To be a peacemaker, or a Borderland dweller, one often must choose a side, and do so thoughtfully.
In the early days of my faith reorientation, I often found myself proudly claiming “the middle” on complex, socially-loaded topics like sexuality, or violence, or women in ministry. What I didn’t realize is that I wasn’t “refusing to take sides” — I was deferring my spiritual and intellectual responsibility to come to an honest perspective on matters that had a real impact on real human beings, many of whom I claimed to “love unconditionally.”
I have an abundance of grace for where I was in that season, and even more grace for anyone who finds themself in that place today. Reorientation can be painful and terrifying. It can feel like you’re losing grip on reality because, in a sense, you are.
Faith and spirituality are reality-defining orientations. A tectonic shift in those orientations can shake the very ground on which our feet were once so confidently planted.
If you’re stuck in “the middle” right now, I see you. But I also want you to hear this: you can’t stay there forever.
“The middle” is not a hospitable home — not for you, and certainly not for those who, by no choice of their own, find themselves on the margins.
The Borderland is Not “No Man’s Land”
Another temptation for those of us who have gone through (or are currently going through) a “deconstruction” is the temptation to believe that we’re the only ones experiencing what we’re experiencing.
The Borderland starts to feel more like No Man’s Land — “an unowned or unclaimed tract of usually barren land.”
Like I said before, deconstruction can be painful and terrifying. At first, it’s a season of revelation — of beginning to see with fresh eyes how the beliefs or values you once espoused may be actively harming others (or yourself). That sort of revelation necessitates reorientation.
But the part no one sees coming is the backlash from those who haven’t experienced the same kind of revelation.
When you start processing aloud all the things you’re wrestling with, you’re met with “warnings” from friends, family, and other church members about the “dangers” of this new line of thinking. And if you don’t heed those warnings (and do so quickly) you start earning labels like the “liberal heretic,” the “backslider,” or worse.
Soon you learn the price to pay for your genuine, heartfelt curiosity is exclusion — and those you once called “brothers and sisters” now speak of you among their “enemies.”
That sort of pain often moves us toward one of two ends:
- Attempt to ignore the revelation and go back to the faith you deconstructed. (Spoiler Alert: this tactic rarely succeeds, and never for very long.)
- Give up on faith entirely.
If that sounds like something you’ve experienced, I see you. I’m with you. I’ve been there too.
Here’s the truth I want you to hear: the Borderland you find yourself in is not “unclaimed” — and it’s certainly not “barren.”
There is a great cloud of witnesses who have walked this road before us. Many of whom have planted their roots down deep in the fertile Borderland soil. Their houses may seem like a mirage at first, but trust me — they’re here.
And I’m not just talking about the ones you find on Instagram. (Though I’m grateful for them too — folks like Kate Bowler, Carlos Rodríguez, Jemar Tisby, Scott Erickson, Sarah Bessey… the list goes on.) I’m talking about real life people who live in your city.
I’ve been blessed to stumble into a little community here in Indianapolis full of folks who have come awake to the dissonance between Christianity (as it was presented to them) and the real world we all live in. And yet, these people are still holding out hope that the Way of Christ has something of value to give the world.
If I hadn’t found this community, I can confidently say I don’t think I would still be a Christian. Some days I’m still not so sure. But there’s something I can’t deny about that deep, profound, others-centric Love — even to the point of loving one’s enemies — which Christ embodied, and which the Holy Spirit still empowers Christians to live out in the world today. And the reason I can’t deny it is because I see it on full display in the real lives of the real people I’m trudging through faith with on a regular basis.
I used to think that sort of love was the result of some bulletproof, spiritual-intellectual perspective. I used to think that if I could just come to the right “conclusions” about matters of faith, I would be filled to the fullest measure by the God I was chasing, but who was always and ever elsewhere.
Now I know better.
God Meets Us in the Borderland
The most monumental discovery of my spiritual journey came in the early months of 2023.
I was ready to give up on faith entirely. I couldn’t pray. I couldn’t stand scripture. I was cynical that even the most seemingly-genuine believers were simply “faking it til they made it” (and that none of them were ever going to make it).
In a moment of desperation, I reached out two people from my community. I asked them if they would be willing to stick around after church one week to pray for me. And they did. And guess what happened…
The skies didn’t open. I didn’t break down crying. I didn’t feel an overwhelming rush of the Spirit in our midst. I just sat there and received their prayers, and I allowed myself to believe — even if only for a few moments — that perhaps God actually cared about what they had to say.
The real Kairos moment came a few weeks later.
After I spent that hour (or so) letting my friends pray over me, I decided to do something counterintuitive to my old Evangelical impulses — I stopped trying.
I stopped trying to pray. I stopped trying to read scripture. I stopped singing during worship times. I stopped listening to the theological podcasts I was listening to. I stopped all of it.
Instead, I spent that time and energy actively doing nothing. I started with just 10 minutes at first, then 20, then 30 — sometimes even as long as an hour or two — where I would simply sit in silence.
Adopting that practice of intentional absence — of active disengagement — soon revealed itself to be everything I needed in order to “find God” again.
I had spent so much time convincing myself that God was somewhere else — at the top of some spiritual or intellectual mountain I needed to climb. But I climbed and climbed and could never reach the top — and even in the seasons where I thought I might be close enough to see the summit, I somehow felt even further away from God’s presence.
But when I stopped trying, I started to see that the tension within me was the precise location where God was present and at work. It was in the Borderland between the way things were, the way they are, and the way they ought to be that I finally began to find that sense of presence and communion that I longed for.
All my attempts to “chase after God” only ever led me further away from that place. It wasn’t until I allowed myself to stay in the tension that I began to discover the life with God I craved.
If you find yourself in the Borderland, looking for a way out, I hope you find the courage to stay. Look around, fight to find your community, and retrain your gaze to see the presence of God in the liminal spaces of your imperfect and unexpected realities.
You’re not alone.