Part 2: Authenticity
When I was younger, I sat with a friend who was struggling in life. A couple of years before, I had committed my life to Christ in a very passionate way, and eagerly shared Jesus with anyone who would listen to me. This friend and I sat in my parent’s driveway talking at 2:00 a.m. about what he was going through and I took the opportunity to let him know, “This is why you need Jesus in your life.” His response was not unexpected, “Chris, I am not as good as you, I can’t do that.”
At the time, I was blind to the fact that my witness to the Gospel was about as inauthentic as it could be. His comment snapped me out of a dangerous mentality. For others to see Jesus in me, I believed I needed to make sure my life looked as good as possible on the outside—no talk about my struggles, doubts, fears, or any other common experience of humanity. I became a “super human,” and my friend believed it. He did not think he could live like me, so this Jesus I proclaimed wasn’t relevant to his struggles. This was an important moment where I recognized a need for authenticity in my life.
In the last 18 years or so since that moment, our culture has gone through a major shift. Authenticity is no longer just a good idea, it is a necessity. Every single institution the public has put their trust in has failed them. The church has been plagued with sexual abuse scandals (not just our Roman Catholic friends). USA Olympic programs and respected college athletic programs have also been plagued with sexual abuse scandals. The divisive political climate and corruption of many political leaders has led to a disillusionment in our governing structures. The list can go on for quite some length.
This breaking of trust in institutions has refined an inauthenticity filter in most people living in the USA. There is a general cynicism among those in and outside the church about institutions. If there is any hint that the institution is self-seeking or self-serving, it is not worth a person’s time or investment. The days when a church was simply respected because it is a “church,” or that a pastor was shown reverence because of their title are gone. We must earn the trust of those we wish to minister to and love.
As stated in Part One of this series about being mission driven over model driven, authenticity is advantageous for the church and not a hindrance. The Gospel calls for a kind of authenticity that most other cultures shun. You should never show weakness to an enemy. You should guard against any vulnerabilities or be eaten alive. Fake it until you make it. These are mantras spoken into our everyday lives. The Gospel offers another way. Come to Jesus with all your garbage. Bring your doubts, fears, weaknesses, shame, guilt, and everything else straight to him. The apostle Paul even says it is in these things that God can make himself be known as great.
Some ideas on how the church can, and must, become authentic in the future:
We need to talk about sin. The original meaning of the word “sin” is more akin to “missing the mark” than some baggage it has gained over the years. It conveys that the world is not perfect and has not fully followed after God’s will. In short, something just ain’t right. Scripture says,
“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Romans 3:23
The promises of the 19th and 20th centuries that humanity can progress on its own strength and merit have not worked out. In some ways, the world is a better place than it used to be, and it is because of human accomplishment. In deeper ways, the world is just as messed up and people know it. We may have cured some diseases, but suicide and deaths by overdoses have skyrocketed. We have become more tolerant and less violent toward each other, but we are less united and more restless as well. People have realized that we can’t progress ourselves out of the brokenness of this world. The days when it was not okay to talk about sin because it just wasn’t a positive message are gone. We need to acknowledge that the world is broken and it is our fault and that the answer lies in Jesus.
We need to admit to our own failures. The church, like any other institution, has had some major failures in its 2000-year history. We should be open and honest about them. We should understand how and why we made those mistakes. We should reflect on them in light of the life of Jesus and continue to reform in his image. Each of us should examine our own involvement in the church at large or our church at a local level and determine where we can help in this effort. If you are a church leader on a denominational level, maybe it is time for you to call out the things the church has done wrong on that level. If you are an elder or pastor in a local congregation, that is where you would focus.
In addition to institutional reform, we should also consider our personal failings. We all can become a little more honest about the junk we keep secret in our own lives. I am not saying we should start confessing our deepest and darkest sins in open public settings with no regard for modesty. That would also not be healthy for the community. However, we should stop acting as though we are not a part of the brokenness of the world. Humanity has a tendency to name particular behaviors or sins as outside the norm, and then point to them as being the source of all the problems in society. We need to a make a commitment to stop shaming the more public behaviors deemed as sin by the majority and never addressing the more private sins no one wants to admit to. We are all sinners unworthy of grace, it is about time we start giving that grace toward each other.
We need real encounters with God. No one is more authentic and passionate a salesman as the person who believes in the product. In a similar way, no one is more passionate to share God’s relevance than the one who is rescued out of a terrible situation and has their life turned completely upside down. For those raised in the Church who have lived relatively “good” lives, we can sometimes ask ourselves honestly, “What difference has God made in my life?” The answer may not be so clear to us. We have lived a fairly “steady as she goes” life. This is not a bad thing. There is a witness here. The problem lies in our ability to see God’s movement in our lives even through the mundane. Most of Jesus’ life was mundane. Despite this, I imagine He probably relished every bit of it as a gift and beautiful. He saw God’s hand everywhere and praised him for it. Real encounters with God help us to see our lives through a new lens. We need a revival of our hearts so that they may become more attuned to God’s ever present grace.
We need to unify our lifestyles. For far too long we have bought into the idea that our life is a series of compartments laid side by side. We have our family life, our public life, our work/school life, and our faith life. Rarely do these compartments of life cross. I have had youth tell me over the years that they have their church friends and their school friends, and they really don’t want those two groups to intermingle. As I have moved into ministry with adults in the last eight years, the answers are more complex, but boil down to the same sentiment. A close friend of mine had his most significant faith moment when he realized he couldn’t live multiple lives anymore. He couldn’t live one life with his non-christian friends, another with his parents, and then another with his church. He evaluated it and decided that if he could be the same person he was at church in all three situations, it wouldn’t be a big deal, but he couldn’t be the person he was with his non-church friends with his parents or church. He decided to unify his life as the Christ follower he wanted to be.
I was blown away the first time I participated in a large ecumenical activity in a small town I was serving in. People continually said after the activity, “I didn’t know (fill in the name here) was a Christian, and I wouldn’t have guessed it.” This statement was usually made about someone they had known in the business world for twenty or more years. Sometimes, we can so compartmentalize our life that we are the pious elder on Sundays or during Church gatherings, but when it comes to our other compartments we forget what it means to follow Christ. What would it take to follow Christ in every aspect of our lives?
A quick caveat, I am not saying we need to be 100% the same person everywhere. I am a different person with my mom and dad than I am with my wife, and again different with my kids. Why? Because I fulfill different roles in each of those relationships. The key to what I am talking about is that I try to let Christ rule my life in each of those relationships. I don’t see my life at church as the only place where Jesus reigns. I see every relationship and every element of my life under the Lordship of Jesus. Sometimes I use coarse language *gasp* around some people, and not others. Is that because I am being fake in some settings? No, I have a nuanced view of coarse language (that we can talk about another time) and recognize that some folks will not understand or agree with my use of that language, whereas others will. I try to love best the person I am engaging at any given moment. I have made mistakes in this area at times and have learned my lesson by recognizing someone wasn’t as ready to hear their pastor use coarse terms, but it isn’t so much about my outer behavior as it is about my heart. I try to be authentically me and authentically Christian in all my settings.
What do you think? Have I missed some way in which the church and Christians need to become more authentic into the future? Leave a comment and let’s discuss.