The End Of Authenticity

Catechism Painting by Rick & Brenda Beerhorst (C.C.)
Catechism Painting by Rick & Brenda Beerhorst (C.C.)

For the ten years I’ve been a pastor there’s been one priority most everyone I’ve worked with (pastors, lay people, and ministry authors alike) has agreed with: authenticity. This is interesting. For one thing, church folks don’t often agree on priorities yet this one has gone unopposed. For another, how is authenticity a thing that can be prioritized? In an earlier age we might have simply called this thing honesty or telling the truth but somewhere along the way churches were convinced that ours is an age of authenticity. To attract the young and cynical then, churches must wear their authenticity on websites, mission statements, and sermon illustrations.

I started thinking about this as I prepared a recent sermon about worship. I was considering some of the obstacles to corporate worship – a particularly live question in a multi-ethnic congregation like ours – when the priority of authenticity started to seem more of a liability than an asset. Authenticity, as I understand it, means being true to myself. Maybe it’s easier to state it negatively: authenticity is not being fake. I’m all for not faking, but for Christians there are at least two problems with authenticity.

First, though being authentic requires being true to myself, Christians claim that most of the time we barely know ourselves. What, exactly, is it that we are being true to? The prophet Jeremiah was blunt about this: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” If my decisions about how I participate in Christian worship and community are based on authenticity – my interpretation of my needs and desires – then I’m in for a fickle and shallow experience of the Christian life. Not only that but when my starting point is my authentic experience, no matter how altruistic I happen to be on a given day, I cannot help looking for an experience revolving around me.

There’s another problem. Historically Christians have assumed that our experience of Christ and his Kingdom involves a life-long catechesis. Our emotions, thoughts, and even beliefs at any given moment are a poor indicator of our place within the Kingdom and our identities as children of God. Rather, we have expected our desires to be schooled in the practices and habits of this upside down Kingdom. Submission to community, participation in corporate worship and Sabbath keeping, and practicing the spiritual disciplines have long been assumed to be the normal Christian habits necessary forming more trustworthy desires. Leading with authenticity may sound like smart strategy, but it’s hardly leading from our strength.

I’m pro-authenticity. I want to live an authentic life to the best of my limited ability. And I want to participate in a community of people who are learning to tell the truth about everything. As a value, authenticity is admirable and worth pursuing. But as a guide, we can surely do better. Much better.

Author: David Swanson

Pastor of New Community Covenant Church in Bronzeville. Collecting signs of life.

2 thoughts on “The End Of Authenticity”

  1. This really crystallizes some thoughts I had about worship after a recent trip to California. Being involved in worship ministry, it is very easy to fall into the trap of thinking the power of worship is all about musical style (CCM vs gospel, for example), song selection, transitions, technicality – or even worse, personal spirituality or personal emotional impact – which is as you say “a experience revolving around me,” which is indeed a shallow and fickle approach to worship.

    I now believe none of that matters at all. In a similar vein, I think I have made the mistake of gauging worship songs / worship teams / worship sets by the level of emotional impact they had on me – the so-called charismatic “being filled” – is a huge and terrible mistake.

    God can and does touch people’s hearts through worship, but worship teams / worship leaders are almost completely irrelevant to the response – it is not a response to us, but rather a response to the Spirit of God, who moves hearts according to His plan, a movement bridging individual hearts, individual circumstances, His will and His grace – He does not move, nor is He limited, based on how good our song choice, technical execution are on any particular day. Thankfully, He is not even limited by our fickle or selfish motivations.

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