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.