The search for authenticity

One of the moves in the modern evangelical church is towards an increasing sense of authenticity. It is hard to argue with the desire for authenticity. After all, if one isn’t authentic, then one is fake. And who wants to go to church with a bunch of fakers? Isn’t that the very hypocrisy and Pharisaism the church has historically been accused of and from which it desperately wants to unhitch?

The issue is that the authenticity-hunters are often not enamoured with authenticity when it is actually on display. Churches in hard places may seem full of people being authentic, but people often recoil from the authenticity on display because it is, well, too authentic. The sins on display, that with the church’s help may be repented of, are too much for some to wear. How can professing believers do that? There’s not denying we shouldn’t sin, but let’s not pretend that we don’t, and some of us spectacularly so. We only have to look at some of the things professing believers got up to in scripture to see it is so. But for many, that is a level of authenticity too far.

Some, who find these things too much, prefer churches with more middle-class sensibilities. But the problem rears its head in such churches too. Whilst I have no doubt there are inauthentic fakers in middle-class churches, I am prepared to believe that most of them are not that. They are just what they appear. Broadly together people who happen to have relatively comfortable lives whose problems are broadly managed thanks to their financial setup and social status. And if that is what they are, then authenticity would be to act in exactly the ways that the overwhelming majority of middle-class churches function. That is what it means to be authentically middle-class. But for those searching for authenticity, this doesn’t seem qualify.

If we are aiming for authenticity, it seems to me we are looking for somewhere that is simply being what it is in reality. But it is entirely unclear to me what many people are looking for when they claim to want an authentic experience of church. Authentically what exactly? Often somewhere being just what it is gets deemed inauthentic. Middle-class believers are more closed off than working-class people. But that is deemed inauthentic even though that is an authentic outworking of their culture. Working-class people are deemed “too honest” where those seeking authenticity often can’t cope with them being honest about their struggles and the reality of their lives. Which begs the question, what exactly are the authenticity-hunters actually looking for?

It is a well-known phenomenon, even in churches that would be considered “authentic”, that there is an authenticity sweet spot. Sharing about certain struggles is seen as far too light and surface-level to be authentic, but then sharing about the deepest, darkest struggles with sin is also seen to be a bit much. There is a sweet spot that is deemed courageous and honest, whilst not too authentic in any sort of way that makes us deeply uncomfortable. Which, let’s be honest, seems to defy the actual cause of authenticity.

I am minded to believe that if we really want authenticity, it means certain churches will be authentically extremely messy. They will be very honest, but there will be serious mess. I am equally minded to believe that other churches will appear relatively together because they are. The sins they struggle with will seem like small beer to some or be centred more in their thought life. We also have to accept that authenticity will also be authentically in line with the culture from which we emanate. Which means, in working class communities, we would expect much more honesty because that is what it means to be authentic in that culture. But we equally have to accept that it means a different approach to sharing in middle class communities because they are being authentically middle class by functioning that way.

I sometimes wonder if the search for authenticity is a fools errand. In the end, simply being what you are is being authentic. I often wonder if it isn’t authenticity people are after, because when churches are what they are, many seem dissatisfied with them.