I am a fan of authenticity. Of course I am. Everyone is these days.
Today I read an article in Forbes about it: "Authenticity: The Way To The Millennial's Heart." I've read a dozen articles like these. I get it. Us young folks (born in 1981 I am barely, but unequivocally, a millennial) love us some real.
We like buying food from the person who grew it. We like stories with complicated "heroes." We like testimonies. We like dissonance. We like vinyl and veggie tacos served from an airstream. We like old houses and a little bit of liturgy.
We don't like slick, perfect, polished, posed or fake. (Planned and organized make us nervous.)
Forbes said we young people want leaders who are "able to demonstrate their weaknesses and be more open in communicating their feelings," who "acknowledge their imperfections and mistakes." We want leaders who've "[given] up trying to present a perfect façade."
Yes. Definitely. Please.
As we all know, perfect is for Jesus. Let's not pretend we're that.
But here's the rub: in our yearning for authenticity, I think maybe we've stepped outside the lines. Is it possible what we want, especially in church world, isn't so much authenticity but brokenness? Is my desire for authenticity sometimes just a need to believe everyone's as messed up as I am?
Imagine you're sitting at a table with friends and you say, "Alright guys, let's get real." What kinds of things do you talk about? What things count as "real"?
In my experience what we mean is "Now's the time to talk about what isn't going well."
Talking about difficult things--struggles, temptations, burdens, and hurts--is certainly being real. It's dropping a veil and being fully present with the people around you. As I have written in the past so I write again, You should do this.
BUT know: this is not what it means to be authentic. It's part of what it means to be authentic.
Authentic doesn't mean broken. It means you. Broken and whole. Failing and succeeding. Being led into victory and maturity and growth and sometimes, inevitably, stumbling.
If you want to be real, don't pretend to be just a mess.
Last year I attended a big Christian conference with some of the most "famous" speakers in evangelical Christendom. Speaker after speaker told stories about his or her failings and weaknesses. Clearly they'd brushed up on how to talk to millennials. One guy told a story about how much he disliked hanging out with his kids. Another lady told a story about her temper. Another just acted like a jerk. And in all of it, the message wasn't "Isn't God's transforming grace good?" or "God is faithful to help us with our struggles." The message (eaten up by the crowd, by the way) was "Look how messed up we all are. Let's be messed up together."
That is a dangerous message from and for Christians.
But more and more it's the message of the "authentic" church.
You're broken. I'm broken. We're all broken. Let's be broken together.
I've always loved the image of the church as field hospital, welcoming the hurting, providing healing, training the recovering to bless the newly injured. It's a beautiful picture of what happens in the kingdom of God.
Lately that image has been hijacked.
Now we say, "The church is a hospital." And by that we mean, "Everyone here is sick."
We think this is what the world wants to hear. Can I just wonder our loud for a second? Who wants to come be sick with us?
What we want, what we all really want, is healing. And THAT is what God offers His people. It's what, as His people, we offer others.
I'm afraid though that, out of lack of faith or lack of perceptible results, we've stopped believing healing is possible. And so we've taken it off the menu. And when we see people walking around looking healthy, we just assume they're faking.
If there's a menu of services to be provided within the kingdom of God, I suspect God's the one who writes it. Maybe He already has. Maybe it looks something like this from Romans 6:
"We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin."
Today's offerings... newness of life and freedom from sin.
Or what about this in 2 Corinthians 3:
"And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit."
Are you getting this? Transformation into the glorious image of God--not a pipe dream; a reality for those who are in Christ.
I don't know about you, but I signed up for this movement because of promises like this. I wanted rescue and transformation. I wanted freedom from sin. I came to Christ for something better than the busted life I was living. I'm putting everything I have on the line because I believe God can save me.
And while I'm far from perfect, I am being made perfect in Christ. I'm growing and healing and discovering. I'm bearing fruit. God is making me stronger. Just like He promised.
In the New Testament "genuine" faith looks like faith. It looks like rejoicing in adversity and believing in what you can't see (I Peter 1:6-8). It looks like giving generously (I Corinthians 8). It looks like abhorring what is evil and holding fast to what is good (Romans 12:9). Genuine faith doesn't hold back or shrink in order to look "authentic." It is what it is. Unapologetically. And gently (as always).
If being authentic only means being broken, where does that leave the people who're being made whole? And wouldn't our miraculous, growing wholeness be a better advertisement for the cause?
Here's what I know: The movement toward authenticity has been so good and so bad for the church.
It's been beautiful to see leaders admit to failings and temptations and see their churches welcome that weakness and support them through it. It's been amazing to hear testimonies of people who've been through seasons of great darkness and who've found belonging in the church. It's been wonderful to watch the lost entering our assemblies to find not judgment but love.
It's been exhausting to watch a generation charge their elders with the great evil, "Inauthenticity," unwilling to accept the idea of privacy or recognize that perhaps, in years of serving God, those elders may possess genuine, holy strength and character. It's been frustrating to see those young Christians wilting under the wrongful assumption that growth doesn't matter and maybe isn't possible. It's been tiring to listen to so many calling for authenticity where authenticity already exists, stirring a pot that doesn't need stirring.
I'm tired of people saying we're all just pretending. I hear so often in contemporary Christian writing and preaching about how "everybody comes to church on Sundays and pretends everything's fine."
Maybe that's what you do; I am not pretending.
I could go up and down the aisles of my church naming people who are not pretending, people who are fighting and growing and trying. Trying, trying, trying... People who are leaning in to a God who they believe will help and heal. People who come to church to help and be helped. People who come to church assuming everyone in the room is coming for those very same reasons.
NO ONE is required to spill all their junk in the foyer before coming in the door. That's grace as much as anything else. And the act of coming through the door with a secret or a burden doesn't make you fake. It means you're in the right place.
Are you messed up? Let Jesus help. Come close to Him through prayer and reading scripture and serving the oppressed and even attending worship services.
Don't worry that coming while you're broken is somehow inauthentic. Don't think you have to wear a shirt that says "sinner" to be real. We know you're a sinner.
Ask yourself, "Am I going to church because I think it would be good to come to church?" If the answer is yes, congratulations, that's being authentic.
A church full of people being who they are, allowing God to transform them into who they could be, is an authentic church. It's authentic because its people are authentic and a church is nothing but its people, united and washed by grace.