Monday, April 27, 2015

Do You Really Want Church to be Authentic?

For the past few years, as certain authors, speakers, conferences, and church models have become popular, so have certain buzzwords to describe what the church should be in the 21st century. These words have made their way into many such conversations on social media, in print, and in planning meetings. Most of them at least started with good intentions, but as with anything else have fallen in danger of overuse or their definition or application watered down so as to render them meaningless.

I think of words like "relevant," which to me originally was meant to describe a way of being the church that really connects with people's lives. A relevant church will address, or relate to, what is happening in the world around it. This may include attention to justice issues, making use of cultural touchstones to help convey a spiritual message, and generally not shying away from what people experience in their everyday lives when they aren't engaging in church activities.

As I've seen the use of this word and concept evolve, however, there seems to be a greater emphasis on engaging hipsters and being "cool." As this word originated with a movement that has made a lot of its hay in arty urban hotspots, "relevant" seems mostly to be about searching for themes in the latest Mumford & Sons and Sufjan Stevens album and giving life advice borne from familiar evangelical tropes, but dressed up in skinny jeans.

Or there's the word "missional," which I still happen to like. As originally conceived, it was meant to flip around the usual notion with which many churches still operate that "if you build it, they will come." A church that is missional sees the flaws in this thinking--basically that, no, they won't--and thus venture out to where the people are and interact with them there.

This, too, has fallen into some of the same traps as "relevant," as certain groups that use it take it to mean engaging the (young urbanite) culture where it is. As mentioned, however, I still think that this word has some miles left on it as some churches are doing things like setting up ministries to pay for people's laundry. Not all regarding this word is yet lost.

But the one buzzword with which I have the biggest gripe nowadays is "authentic." A lot of ink, pixels, and speaking energy has been used to encourage the church to seek greater authenticity. The church shouldn't strive to be flashy or cool; it shouldn't plasticize or whitewash itself for the sake of people's comfort. This kind of church isn't real, it's inauthentic. It doesn't really engage people where they are or for who they are.

So, what is an authentic church? It's the type of church that recognizes how flawed we all are and accepts it. It lets people ask hard questions and express doubts about faith issues. It leaves flash behind and strives instead for substance, both in message and relationship. It welcomes all, regardless of differences, because we're all here together for something we need.

That actually sounds pretty good, doesn't it? Who wouldn't want a church like that? Who wouldn't want a church where all are welcome and where people will engage your spiritual needs by taking them seriously?

I would. I'm sure most of us would. So what's my problem?

I guess it's less of a problem, and more of a question: how authentic do you really want the church to be?

I'm not against the concept of authenticity. I want to be clear about that. But I want to make sure that people really understand what they want when they say they want the church to be more authentic. Once you start traveling down this road, you have to have a sense of where you might end up.

When you say you want the church to be authentic, are you prepared to engage the really hard questions? Questions like, "Where is God when I am so far down a hole during an episode of depression that I can't sense God at all?" Questions like, "Does Jesus saying 'take up your cross' mean I should just endure my husband hitting me?" Arguing over theories of the atonement and creationism are child's play compared to this.

When you say you want the church to be authentic, are you prepared to welcome anybody? Like, seriously, anybody? How about the registered sex offender looking for personal and communal restoration? How about the recovering alcoholic currently going through a good period but who admits to occasional relapses? How about the overly needy personality who constantly seems to be dealing with drama of their own creation? Can you hold these people closer than arm's length while still setting up healthy and loving boundaries when needed?

When you say you want the church to be authentic, are you prepared to be called out of your comfort zone; to have attention called to your own blind spots? Are you willing to hear hard truths about the corners of your life that you're neglecting or ignoring? Are you willing to receive pushback on the ways you may be rationalizing bad behavior? Will you be open to having your worldview expanded as you hear about others' experiences that are vastly different from your own, and to consider how you may be more committed to justice and peace as a result? Will you be able to remember that these words will be shared with you because someone else knows you well enough to know you're capable of so much better? Will you be able to hear these words lovingly; in the same spirit in which they were shared?

When you say you want the church to be authentic, are you prepared to really journey with people? Do you think you can really stand up and advocate for your sister in Christ who is seeking support in reporting abuse? Are you really going to be able to sit with a fellow disciple and listen to their latest account of self-harm? Are you truly prepared to step beyond the laid-back "question everything" pub theology groups, the expressions of honesty over social media, the high holy Sunday liturgy you've rediscovered, and really engage with the complete mess of another person's life once you get past the pleasantries? The success stories, processed and edited and shined up to be consumed by the masses, sound great. But once you get up close this stuff is a lot less romantic than it sounds.

How authentic do you really want the church to be? Because if this is really what you have in mind, you had better be certain.