A Plea for Authenticity
Thomas Merton, one of the greatest spiritual writers of the twentieth century, put out a strong warning about authentic community. He believed that it is extremely common for individuals to be false, to live behind a facade. He even believed that this condition can be passed along from one person to another like a highly contagious disease. If the disease spreads unrestrained, he warned, it is like a terminal illness. It will ultimately result in nothing less than "the falsification of the whole religious life of the community." 
Merton's warning may feel a bit dramatic. We might think it is simply the rhetoric of a writer and poet, but it should not be dismissed. After all, what should community focused individuals, even secular individuals, fear more deeply than falsification? And the weight of the question increases significantly for Christians, for those of us who have had some sort of personal experience with the Cornerstone of our faith who said, "I am the truth" (John 14). For us, Merton's point simply cannot be overstated. Very little threatens Christian vitality and passion as severely as relationships based on facades.
We should be aware that religious facades have been problematic for folks as long as there have been religious folks, Christian or otherwise, but the fact that the disease is common in our history hardly diminishes its threat. The following symptoms are everywhere in plain sight, and they demonstrate that churches ought to suspect and fear the presence of falsification: (1) enormous amounts of material published on the topic (2) a plethora of leadership meetings to discuss the problem (3) a general sentiment among many folks that church is more life-draining than life-giving (4) extreme boredom in the congregation (5) extreme apathy in the congregation (6) lots of church advertisements boasting friendly environments and authentic community (to convince the public), and (7) constant discussion about the need to return to an "Acts 2" experience. Admittedly, the disease is hard to nail down, but the detrimental effects, the mind numbing symptoms of false relationships can be seen running rampant in local churches and seem to point to the existence of a tremendous amount of infected individuals.
Many Christians who suffer from an advanced version of the disease have simply given up, succumbing to what they consider to be a monotonous church life. Their attendance is consistent, but mentally they have checked out. This, of course, frustrates pastors and teachers to no end, so they commit themselves to the search for a magical remedy. Unfortunately, most of their attempts to pull the congregants out of comatose end in failure, and the leaders go on wondering if anything can be done to cure the dull stares in their congregations.
Feeling defeated, the leadership finally tethers the poor souls to religious life support, repetitively drip feeding them Christianity in the smallest doses possible, and praying for the best. Sermons are watered down with political ideology and then sweetened with an intriguing historical concept here and a comical story there. Attendance at social gatherings is bribed with food, and the whole package is slapped with a label: "Fellowship." Apparently, authenticity can be mass produced. Leaders are then baffled and distraught when they finally notice that attendance at these gatherings correlates directly with the number of courses they decide to serve. Still, if they were flies on the wall it might bless their tired ears to hear that honest, open conversations do in fact occur at these gatherings. But they don't hear them because authentic discussions typically occur aside from the main group in hushed whispers, lest the daring conversationalists be judged and turned into pet projects by the arrogant who have unknowingly already been taken by the disease and buried in white-washed sepulchers.
There are, of course, Christians in the community who are not yet directly infected but highly affected by the onslaught of spreading symptoms. For these folks, religious survival is a continual struggle. Often, their health is maintained because circumstances allow them to discover like minded people. There is strength in numbers, and they may produce some sort of creative way to band together and keep the infection at a distance, a sort of self imposed religious quarantine. In these instances, life is more than a drip feed, but it is often still desperate, and it is mostly nourished by sources outside the local church. Religious food is dropped in by humanitarians and benevolent forces. Crates of medical supplies arrive in various forms: rogue small groups, reading material, media, entertainment, and ironically, even doctrines and practices from other religions.
Although these struggling Christians are vital enough to refuse the drip feed treatment, they still suffer from the tragic task of watching the disease run its course with the infected members of the congregation. Like an intensive care unit, the church works to keep the injured alive, meanwhile the healthy wait up all night in uncomfortable chairs and live on bags of trail mix and other random snacks visitors drop off. A midnight coffee run, an irritatingly generic magazine subscription set out by the office staff, or an occasional outburst from an annoying soap star on the outdated television in the corner of the room might be the only thing that keeps their blurry, red eyes from much needed rest. Yet they remain with the community because they hope that sometime in the near future a doctor will burst through the door and announce that a miracle has occurred. The sick have been made well! There is life and passion in the community again.
Infected or not, we evangelicals tend to reject the unsavory truth about the condition of our local churches. By the time we are finished attending the prescribed quota of services, fellowships, activities, discussions, meetings, conferences, Sunday school sessions, camps, and holiday picnics, the Truth goes down like an artificially flavored fruit juice. We have invested a tremendous amount of time, but the Gospel's lasting positive effects are minimal. The sweet concoction may occasionally produce some temporary, hyper activity - a "mountain top experience" - but how many of us despair when the sugar high ends and we begin to crash? We are like spoiled children who stubbornly keep our mouths shut tight unless our medicine is presented in the preferable brand and mixed with strawberry syrup. Who would have guessed two millennia ago that a steady drip feed of politics, comedy, and history would be sustaining the life of so many churches today?
It would be a very serious mistake, however, for us to lay responsibility for a cure squarely on the shoulders of our church leaders. Most pastors and teachers are well intentioned, capable individuals. But falsification is like cancer, it is often too subtle to catch in the beginning and too large to manage once it has spread. Pastors, even the mature ones, are simply unable to perform enough preventative operations to ensure that everyone is guaranteed a healthy, long life. They are not dermatologists with quiet, suburban offices, carving out little religious moles before they become large problems. Congregational issues are usually already desperate. Church leaders are more like surgeons on a battle field using leftover bourbon to sterilize wounds and boot laces to sow up lacerations while bullets whiz by overhead. Their wisdom is real, but mostly defensive, and sometimes their best efforts are simply inadequate for the task.
Pastoral healing skills may also be inadequate if the pastors themselves are infected. Typically, leaders are oblivious to the presence of the disease in their own bodies. Their symptoms may be as subtle as persistent naggings from the Spirit in their contemplative moments, but they repeatedly swat those away for administrative responsibilities and the much louder naggings of irritable congregants. Solitude and inner peace seem more like luxuries than the necessities of a thriving Christian life. So, they really end up with nothing to offer their flocks but well organized services, nice power point videos, and a polite atmosphere. Meanwhile, all the passionate sheep are being torn to pieces by wolves so a couple stubborn, belligerent sheep can be wrestled back into the fold, bleating the whole time about how green the pasture used to be and how unhappy they are with Sunday's worship set.
No, we simply cannot expect leaders to single handedly rid the world of our religious obesity. We have only the circumstances of history and our own individual efforts to blame for the differences between the New Testament community and our own local churches. When we are open and humble, leaders may guide us, but they cannot force change. Pastors and teachers are in the divine profession of healing, but they are not shamans. They do not heal by spells and incantations and certainly not by sheer act of will. Leaders simply cannot program, plan, organize, or magically create authenticity on our behalf.
For theological good or bad, there is a distinction being made these days between religion and spirituality, and the gap is widening as more and more Christians become frustrated with the former. It is becoming increasingly popular for all sorts of folks to claim that they are spiritual but not religious. The differences between the two terms are often vague and ambiguous, but can be incredibly useful nonetheless. We should think of religion as form, structure, repetition, organization, and tradition. It is appropriate that the term literally means "to bind." Spirituality, on the other hand, is often understood as content, experience, a personal sense of something transcendent. It is often associated with other terms such as "intimacy," "awareness," and "vitality." From this perspective life is not simply a beating heart, and religious life is certainly not church attendance. Life is not quantitative but qualitative, and our religious lives ought to be characterized by passion, hope, discovery, inner peace, personal progress, and meaning.
Merton's use of the phrase "religious life" should be taken in this sense, and if his warning seems dramatic it is precisely because he understood that falsification is a subtle, sneaky disease that attacks the most fragile elements of that life. Unless attendance and tithes fall to economically intolerable lows, leadership can and will ensure that religion - services and traditions - continue, barely keeping everyone alive. Other issues like authentic community and intimate relationships, however, will suffer to no foreseeable end, and no amount of five step self-help books or Acts 2 campaigns will successfully stand in the gap and heal the diseased community. The cure must be developed and administered by individuals, by leaders and congregants alike. The mythical potion evangelical pop culture has been searching for is very much like the Gospel itself, intellectually simple but a difficult, humbling pursuit. The remedy is transparency in our congregations and responsibility in our pastoral leadership.
Transparency is difficult because we are frequently fooled by our own facades. Some of us have been living off the drip feed system so long we possess only vague memories of what a healthy, vibrant spiritual life feels like. What we actually need to do is pull out our Church's feeding tubes, come to grips with our own ideas and behavior, and find out who we really are. And if, after some reflection, we need to admit that we are not sure who we are or whether we really line up with the rest of the saints in our denominations, then we are one step closer to a cure. The Kingdom of Heaven is for humbly confused children like us. We may just have to dodge some dogmatic disciples to get to our Healer.
It might be useful to point out two general forms of falsification that tend to threaten our transparency. Self-righteousness, a particularly vile disease, conceals our reality by making us look like an exact replica of our church's culture. It's the perfect camouflage. When we are self-righteous everyone thinks we are the picture perfect evangelicals, the enforcers of all things distinctive in our denominations, the living traditions or frightfully, the living dead - depending on the perspective. Some symptoms are quite obvious. When self-righteousness takes hold of us, honest advice and criticism makes us defensive, and we are certainly not open to theologically diverse conversations. Diversity threatens self-righteousness. We like to think of ourselves as the examples of spiritual health, the most holy cities set on the highest hills for all the unconverted and unconvinced to follow. Indeed, a self-righteous man is all of this and more - at least for the less perceptive members of the congregation.
False humility is another dangerous facade. This disease creates an obsession with the worst aspects of our human nature. For those of us who have contracted false humility our relationships are an emotional theme park full of group confession and a public invitation for everyone to stroll through the haunted house of our own souls. When we pray we stand on the street corner and cry out, "Blessed are those who mourn!" We shout with the Apostle, "All have sinned!" and "I boast only in my wickedness!" But no matter how many of these scriptures we quote, they never seem to culminate in the comfort and peace promised by the original Author of the sermon. We plagiarize and proof text in the worst way, and we fool ourselves into thinking the moral life is impossible. Like the self-righteous, we cannot take advice, but in this case it is because we think our souls are too dark to change. Improvement is simply not a practical goal. For the man suffering from false humility, grace is not a necessary aid or a redemptive shove. It's a theological ventilation machine. We insist that our Teacher had no interest in personal responsibility, so we stand by and watch creation drown in its suffering, arguing that there is no point in effort. The whole thing will be burned and built anew one day anyway.
Of course, most of us don't actually suffer from such extreme cases of these diseases, but we often do suffer from at least a mild version of one type or the other. Transparency is rare in religious communities. Whether Baptist, Pentecostal, or Methodist, the honest truth is most of us are not really perfect examples of our church's culture. I know very few legitimate Pentecostal saints. On the other hand, most of us are also not as morally filthy and pitiful as we could be. I know even fewer wicked Lutherans.
I do know, however, a whole lot of evangelical Christians who show up at church and switch their relationship controls to auto pilot. They share their authentic friendships with folks from fishing trips, exercise facilities, work places, and athletic events. Those are the folks they really want to play cards with or meet at the mall. Those are the folks that don't care what beverage wets the Christian whistle or whether Netflix has sent the latest rated R film to a Christian mailbox. They don't care whether the Christian household is immaculate and smells like hazelnut every time they visit or whether the creation account in Genesis is completely literal. Our hazelnut candles are appropriate symbols for our Christian facades. They cover up the fact that most of us really do not live in an immaculate environment, spiritually or physically. But then again, we are not complete religious slobs either. Many of us do watch R rated movies selectively, drink beer safely, and play poker for entertainment, and our consciences remain clean.
On the theological side of things, many Presbyterians can't really articulate their view of predestination, and most members of the Assembly of God have never even bothered to read 1 Corinthians. (Otherwise, we might rethink our lofty view of speaking in tongues.) Many Methodists don't know what their method is, and a lot of Baptists are unaware that there are thousands of years of history between them and the New Testament. Still, our gray behavior and our intellectual failures have not yet resulted in deadly thunderbolts from the heavens. The Lord must know that we evangelicals heap plenty of torment and punishment onto one another!
The point here is not to excuse or debate what some folks might view as spiritual shortcomings; the point is that our real lives and thoughts consistently remain hidden. We refuse to be transparent, and this deprives other Christians of the opportunity to live out their calling to the Gospel in authentic fellowship with us. How can they love us as they love themselves if they don't know who we are? How great is our sin if we steal their freedom to decide whether they want to love us or not? We continually live life with our left foot in the church and our right foot in the world. And it is extremely unfortunate for the spiritual health of our communities that it's the life on the right foot that we really enjoy.
If authentic community is really important, maybe it's time we practiced a little honesty. Perhaps we should put away the scented candles and leave the vacuum cleaner in the closet when it's our turn to host a community group. There's nothing wrong with scented candles, but it's not how we typically live. Maybe we should invite more of our church acquaintances to our poker games, not because we want to bicker about gambling in the scripture, but because that is where they will really get to know us. Perhaps we should not frantically run and hide the fruit of the vine every time someone from the church stops by for a visit. After all, our visitors might be closet drinkers as well, afraid of what the church will say. Perhaps we should all stop abusing the Apostle's advice to avoid offenses or to "be everything to everyone" just so we can maintain control over folks we disagree with. If we bring who we are to the Table we might be rejected, but at least we will have given our congregations the opportunity to follow the Savior into true humility, sacrifice, and service. Merton was right. Facades are highly contagious, but so is transparency. A little honesty would begin to heal this rampant disease.
Leaders do have their responsibilities as well, and they are heavy burdens to bear. If we begin dropping our facades all sorts of things will seep up to the surface. Leaders have to be prepared to shepherd their flocks and use relational leadership to guide individuals in the midst of their messes. They must be prepared to distinguish between wholesome behavior and legitimate pollution, the Spirit and the traditions of men. If authenticity is really a high priority -more than just lip service from the pulpit - pastors must be committed to its defense and preservation. They should be prepared to gird up their loins, provide some loud instructions, and protect the living from the dead, the healthy from the infected. The self righteous might need to be fought off tooth and nail, culture might have to shift, people may have to get upset, and the monthly tithes may have to suffer. Pastors will have to go looking for the homemade whip they put away in storage after the years in seminary and ministry killed all their enthusiasm. Moneylenders will definitely have to be run from the temple. But in spite of all this responsibility, leaders cannot even begin to shepherd, guard, and grow their people until their people show them who they really are. Iron does indeed sharpen iron, but not when it's draped in velvet.
Thomas Merton, Spiritual Direction and Meditation, The Liturgical Press 1960, 37.
Josh Fraley # October 11, 2012