Traditionally, the phrase “home for the holidays” has conjured up feelings of warmth and welcome. So much so that advertisers give us an annual slate of commercials linking their particular product to our shared longing for family connection and tenderness.
But increasingly, the holiday table is marked by frustration as families live out the demographic realities of an increasingly divided society. The holidays can be especially fraught for those questioning their religious upbringings—the very upbringings that the people sitting across from them were key to creating.
At first glance, religious deconstruction appears to be a question of changing one’s beliefs. Because evangelicals tend to center the experience of conversion, de-conversion also takes center stage. As scholar Karen Swallow Prior observes in her new book, The Evangelical Imagination, “what experience gives, experience can take away.”
But faith is a complex matrix of believing, doing, and belonging. Yes, we confess certain things as true, but we also act in ways that accord with them and live in relationship with like-minded people who bolster our confession. As a result, exvangelicals are not simply dealing with changing beliefs—they also face shifts in community, with family relationships often taking a direct hit.
As an elder millennial leading a multi-generational congregation, pastor Ben Marsh finds himself in the unique position of walking with families through this process. “I just sat in a room with several of my older members who shared the pain of separation from their children who have cut them off,” he recently posted on X, the site formerly known as Twitter. “When they weren’t religious anymore,” he continued, “the relationship broke down. Anyone have any experience with this, where the loss of faith coincided with a loss of relationship?”
If the replies are any indication, the answer is a resounding yes.
To be fair, exvangelicals and their loved ones are not the only ones facing family fragmentation. Research indicates that 27 percent of American adults are estranged from a family member, with 10 percent of Americans being estranged within parent-child relationships. But for evangelicals, the rifts can be exponentially more complicated because of how faith and family intertwine. There’s garden variety family fragmentation, and then there’s evangelical family fragmentation.
In a Today Show interview, Jill Duggar Dillard of 19 Kids and Counting shared how her relationship with her father has changed since she has begun speaking publicly about troubling aspects of her upbringing. “My relationship with my dad got pretty toxic to the point where we had to cut off individual contact with him,” she said. “It got to the point where [my husband] was there to step in and kind of say, ‘Hey, don’t reach out to my wife individually or else I’ll have to file a protective order,’ just because it was so hard for me to handle.”
There’s an irony here, because the entire premise of 19 Kids and Counting was how Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar’s Christian faith shaped their family—a message they continue to promote despite public scandals and strained relationships.
This kind of dissonance can raise questions for exvangelicals about how and why their parents made the choices they did. Were they operating in their children’s best interest or in service of a larger political, social, or ministry agenda? And if the latter, can you deconstruct from the toxic schemas and not the family members who perpetuated them?
Explaining why he participated in Shiny Happy People, the Netflix documentary that examines Bill Gothard’s Institute in Basic Life Principles, Alex Harris notes that “it can be far too easy for those of us in the church to dismiss the stories of those who have ‘deconstructed,’ to take issue with their choices, tone, and new beliefs (or lack thereof), and to move much too quickly past the sins, abuses, and hypocrisies that caused so much pain.”
But the losses flow in both directions. Parents, who were promised that certain domestic structures would secure their children’s faith and future prosperity, now face their families being torn apart. Their children are walking away from God and, in some cases, them.
In a follow-up virtual interview with me, Marsh elaborated on the confusion that parents can face. “Where you abide with your seniors who are experiencing [family estrangement] is mostly in processing grief, and in prayer… a lot of them just dwell in mystery. [They say], ‘I don’t know how this happened.’ That’s the number one thing that you hear: ‘I don’t know how this happened.’ Which is really, really hard.”
When the line between religion and family blurs, it can be hard to determine where responsibility lies. Were internal family systems the cause of the dysfunction, or did families become dysfunctional through the influence of a toxic ministry? Or did one enable the other? Like a ball of yarn, the threads become increasingly knotted even as you try to untangle it.
Instead of trying to ascertain the blame, perhaps we should follow Marsh’s advice and pause to make space for lament by focusing first on the valid experience of loss. Conversations about accountability will likely come eventually, but lament begins by allowing us to express our sadness, helplessness, confusion, and perhaps even regret. It holds space for both parents and children to mourn what they thought their lives would be like—even if they can’t yet do it together.
Lament also invites us to take our pain back to God—which is crucial in our contemporary moment.
Historically, times of suffering have driven people to search for transcendent answers, and if not answers, at least meaning, purpose, and hope. But today, suffering tempts us to deny the transcendent. The question is no longer “What is God doing in our pain?” but “How can God be real if suffering exists?” For exvangelicals, the questions are even more pointed: “How could the God of my childhood be real if my childhood held so much suffering?”
Rather than sidestepping or softening the question, lament invites us to lay our raw pain directly at God’s feet and ask him to account for it. It is like Jacob wrestling with the angel and demanding that God bless him. It is Job questioning the Almighty with searing honesty. It is like when Jesus himself cries from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).
And in this way, Jesus himself is ultimately the answer we need. Standing in solidarity with our own feelings of confusion and abandonment, Jesus understands our losses better than we do ourselves (Isa. 53:3). He collects our tears and does not ask them to cease (Ps. 56:8). He promises life after loss (Matt. 16:24–26, Mark 10:29–31). Because even though Jesus did not receive an explanation for his suffering, he did receive an answer three days later when the Father released him from death.
Those who are wrestling with complicated family relationships can have the same hope that the Father hears our laments. Even as our dreams and cherished memories die, we can trust that he’ll bring new ones to life. We can know that he himself walks with us through the valley of the shadow and holds us as we grieve. And perhaps more than anything, we can rest assured that he will lead us safely home.
Hannah Anderson is the author of Humble Roots, Heaven and Nature Sing, and the recently released Life Under the Sun: The Unexpectedly Good News of Ecclesiastes.