People seem hungry today for authenticity.
I personally get worn out when I’m around folks who are projecting contrived versions of themselves. This is a difficulty plaguing American Christianity in our time. Some have posited that it is the reason churches are declining across the Bible Belt and elsewhere in the US. We have projected a false notion of what it means to be faithful, and that version of Christianity just isn’t resonating now.
The greatest example I can give is that for the past few decades, especially in the venue of TV evangelism, a version of Christianity that has been known as “Prosperity Gospel” has been much ballyhooed. Even preachers’ names, like “Creflo Dollar” make this theological bent seem a little too focused on the material. The Jim Bakker fiasco of the 1980s (who was caught practicing a complex ponzi scheme in regards to his Christian theme park near Charlotte, NC, and subsequently imprisoned for breaking federal law), and many more versions of his story that have surfaced with different preachers and different ministries, have chipped away at the trustworthiness of those who take to the pulpit in our churches across the land.
Add to that the radical liberal agenda of those preachers who almost remove the entirety of Biblical faith in order to forward social agendas (scrapping the centrality of the cross and the sacrificial atonement in order to construct alternative theories based on Marxist social ideals) and you have our present situation where preachers are about at the level of car salesmen on the scale of trustworthiness. Lately I’ve seen several attacks on social media against megachurch pastor Joel Osteen, whose smooth style and lack of deep Biblical teaching have drawn crowds to his church, but whose salary has been the source of criticism. This is but one symptom of the desire for authenticity that is noticeable in our day.
But that isn’t all. People want to meet real Christians in church (or in daily life for that matter). The image of Christianity is a little suspect it seems. If you want to close down conversation and relationship, it seems like the best way to do that is tell someone you’re a Christian. It isn’t popular or desirable right now in our culture. We are told that millennials are the most skeptical generation that has appeared in quite some time. As they are coming of age, they are loudly questioning the authenticity of those who claim to be heralds of Christ. Those who have stayed in the church have made known their displeasure with the way some of us hide behind a facade of faith when the rest of our lives project a different image. Ask someone under 30, and test my claims.
In Methodist practices, from the earliest time, our founder, John Wesley, ordained in the Anglican Church, pulled small groups of believers together to create authentic Christian community, in settings where they were expected to get real with one another, holding one another accountable for their walk with God. The practice of the Methodist class meeting has largely fallen by the wayside in most Methodist churches, substituted with Sunday School classes where a lecturer brings information and everyone smiles and nods and goes home without sharing anything personal (for the most part). Many nondenominational churches have risen up in recent years who practice a version of the small group Wesley modeled in his Methodist movement. They are better at practicing the Methodist way of being Christian than Methodists are anymore.
But to practice this kind of discipleship requires that we are authentic. This is a difficulty in most of our congregations, because people don’t want to reveal too much of their lives and hearts to their fellow congregants. It would ruin the image they have tried to build of themselves and their reputation in the community if they get too real. Yet that is what is required if we are to encounter the living God. We have to be real. Growth and change won’t occur until we are. That’s the genius of the system Wesley created. It brought to the surface in each heart the need to be authentic and honest about who we are, how well we’re following Jesus and how much we’re struggling with the demands of the gospel.
People are longing for the kind of authenticity that was practiced by previous generations. In an age that has come up short in practicing any constructive morality, in other words, at a time when everyone is simply doing what is right in their own eyes (even though their actions just underscore the sin in their lives, and repeat that pattern over and over), we need authentic Christians to appear on the scene, folks who know that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection means more than a slick formula for personal success or wealth. It means that our lives will be reformed, and our sinfulness will be transformed and our character will be shaped by the cross.
We need to gather with other Christians and share the answer to the question: “How is it with your soul?” In the give and take of answering that question (and others such as “Are you obeying the prompting of the Holy Spirit?” and “How have you practiced the means of grace this week?”) there is the seed of transformation. We grow as we become real. Dropping the facade of our fake selves before the reality of authentic Christian community, our hearts change and we begin to bear fruit in the world for the kingdom of God.
Let’s get real.