Authenticity, and How the Church Ignores It


I think we’re all sick of being marketed to. You would think the Church in America would get this. You would think.

It used to be a joke that the megachurch down the road actually had on its staff a Pastor of Demographics. Now that leading megachurches such as the big daddy of them all, Willow Creek Community Church, have confessed that their entire philosophy is broken and does not produce the desired discipleship results, one would think that churches would get a clue and start moving toward something—anything—more real.

But one would be wrong.

There persists in contemporary churches a disdain for the purity of the simple truths of the Bible and the practices of the ancient Church. We have this business mentality that we like to apply to the way we express Christianity in America, and it taints everything we do.

Though we’re all sick of the slickness of the productions American churches feel they must continually flog, and we’re burned out on prepackaged faith “experiences,” we modern Christians can’t seem to break free of the crapola we force our meetings and practices to conform to. Instead, novelty and entertainment value still reign.

People are dying for authenticity, though. They don’t want to feel marketed to and manipulated. In times such as these, people not only want meaning, they need it for their sanity.

Yet the way we have structured our modern society produces alienation. In America, this is amplified by our national narrative of lauding free-thinkers who beat the system and did it their way without anyone else’s help.

Except the Church of Jesus is not based on being solitary iconoclasts. Ours is a community with with a deep-seated history and a narrative that includes powerful sources of meaning that shouldn’t be subject to constant reappraisal. In its experimentation with being cutting edge, today’s Western Church has purposefully fled that history and abandoned its sources of meaning. That the rest of our culture has already done the same, to its obvious detriment and rot, doesn’t seem to register with church leaders.

The result is the cold, anonymous, sterile stage hall that is called a church building. Stripped of every element of iconography and meaning, it transmits nothing except chilling functionality.

Whereas the early Church celebrated the death and resurrection of Christ in a full course meal that foreshadows the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, we now receive a prepackaged communion unit consisting of a dose of artificial-tasting juice with a flavorless, plastic-enclosed wafer serving as the lid, Communion commidifiedthe Body and Blood fully commodified and stripped of all meaning.

Worship consists of a stubble-faced young man who sings electronically amplified Top 40 songs about how lovely God is, his face twisted in a calculated, video-friendly ecstasy that more resembles passing a kidney stone.

Whereas we once sang from books that had been handled by generations, we now sing from projected images that must also move, the transience of their cascading imagery wiping away memory, even as the movement keeps us from being bored.

And our message of grace and the majesty of who Jesus is gets lost amid the trappings of fixing our existence so that our lives look like a success, even if we feel less and less like one.

Real human beings are out there wondering if anyone truly cares. What we give them instead are carefully constructed and programmed faith inoculations.

People are dying for the authentic. They don’t want an efficient church, but a real one.They want a Christianity that bleeds real blood and makes a difference in the lives of people, not just discussing doing so while it pursues other agendas.

No one talks about the emerging church anymore. That movement died because it became what it protested. And even though it was a functional failure, what the emerging church was fighting for remains a critical need.

People are sick and tired of how the Church in America is practicing the faith. We are burned out of the dog and pony show. Our cynical young people understand this, their cynicism in full fester because no one is listening to them, even when they flee the Church. They want genuine connection to what is lasting and worth preserving.

Making concessions to the world’s processes has failed to root us in a genuine faith; in fact, quite the opposite. Whatever roots we had have been dug up, moved from the forest, and transplanted into a styrofoam coffee cup in someone else’s spiritual trophy case. And that’s no way to live.

I don’t think the Church gets this. It doesn’t see how shallow it has become. It doesn’t value what is real. It doesn’t have any idea what people truly need. Oh, it thinks it knows because its leaders read the latest bestseller on how to grow a church, but that million dollar advice in a $20 tome could not be farther from what is truly needed.

Honestly, I think I’m at the point of giving up. No one listens to those crying, “Danger!” No, instead well-meaning people craft a vision that has no basis in the redemptive narrative that is the Gospel. We have instead found our redemption in what the world says is hip and cool, and we dance to that hypnotic tune, oblivious to a world engaged in a desperate search for what is lasting, meaningful, and justifying.

The Real Reason Why Young People Are Leaving the Church


A few weeks back, I touched on the issue of the increasing loss of people under 30 years of age in our churches (“The Church’s Lost Tribe“). The post was less about my thoughts and more about reader explanations for why this well-documented loss is occurring.

I’ll offer my thoughts today, but first, one more commentator.

Skye Jethani, one of the ascending names in post-Evangelicalism, attempts to pin the reason on the Internet’s favorite whipping boy: right-wing politics. Or more specifically, the Religious Right / Moral Majority interpretation of right-wing politics. For more, read his “Christianism Leads to Atheism” post.

Jethani cites an article “God and Caesar in America: Why Mixing Religion and Politics is Bad for Both” and attempts to data mine it. But like a bad doctor who automatically equates all headaches with brain tumors, Jethani assigns blame to the symptom rather than to the underlying disease.

In Jethani’s post, he states young people today are more politically liberal than older people. But if recent figures in the GOP primary are an indication, this is more a media sacred cow than reality. The most conservative candidate running is Ron Paul, and the hidden story is that Paul is crushing all the other GOP hopefuls in the 18-30 age demographic, winning (at last count) that group in every state that has held a primary. (If the 18-30 demographic, which has never been consistently enthusiastic about primaries, actually got to the polls in higher numbers, this might be a different race.) Even more compelling is that Paul is drawing young people who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and are disillusioned with that president’s broken promises.

What young people find compelling in Ron Paul is he’s not ringmastering a dog and pony show. There are no smoke and mirrors. With Paul, they see a man who is not a political reptile but an authentic conservative from before the neo-cons grabbed control. They see a man with a real plan and genuine vision to fix problems and not just talk, talk, talk. To young people, authenticity matters more than just about any other trait. As they see it, Ron Paul lives what he believes, and what he believes rings true to them.

Can you see where this is going?

Oddly, the title of Jethani’s piece is more accurate than what follows in his post. Christianism does lead to atheism because Christianism (which is to Christianity as truthiness is to truth) isn’t genuine Christianity. It’s a twisted clone, inauthentic to the core.

It’s not that young people don’t like the politics of churches today. What they can’t stand is the dog and pony show that our churches have become. Dog and pony showWhat throws Jethani and others is that Christian political maneuvering is nothing more than a natural outgrowth of churches gone bad. It rushes into the vacuum left behind when genuine Christianity is gutted. The political mess and the culture wars are symptoms, but they are not the root of the disease.

Young people aren’t stupid. They can read the Book of Acts too. And the Church they find there is radically unlike the American Church of 2012.

If you want to blame a demographic for stupidity, look at the 35-65 group. We’re the ones that created these bogus churches that are all fluff and no substance. We’re the ones who are not feeding the poor, not evangelizing the world, not living in community, not building up each other’s gifts, not looking out for the needy in our own ranks, and generally disregarding every characteristic of the Church in Acts that made it vital, living, and desperately necessary to the lives of those early disciples. Young people today are not interested in boarding a train that has derailed. That many of us with some “maturity” are is a sign of our own ignorance.

Here’s the kicker: More and more of us who have been Christians for decades are fed up with pointless churches. We’re sick of the show too. With so many churches not living up to the standard we read in Acts, my peers and I will be the next group to go missing.

Christian commentators are wringing their hands over young people who when asked what their religion is say “none.” Honestly, I say good for those young people. Because the last thing the Church needs is more religion. What we need is Jesus Christ as Lord of our lives and for the Church to stop with the sideshows and to start looking less like a carnival and more like the authentic faith it was almost 2,000 years ago.

If that happens, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear the 18-30 year olds say, “What took you so long?”

Hidden Messages of American Christianity: “We’re Cool, Too!”


This is the fifth in a series of posts covering the hidden messages that sneak into American churches’ proclamation of the Gospel. For more background, please refer to this post.

High school is the grand social experiment wherein hormonally-driven young people seek to establish a place in the social pecking order. Any keen observer of the high-school scene will easily note the depths to which some teens will sink in order to be perceived as cool or attuned to the latest vibe. CluelessNo one wants to be left out.

Everyone knew (or some of us may have been) that kid who spent every waking hour trying to fit in. The tragi-comedy of the teen years is observing the desperate lengths to which some kids go to keep from being deemed irrelevant to the greater theatrical production. If all the world’s a stage and we are merely players, no one wants to be the understudy.

Hopefully we all move on and grow into maturity. Even then, a high school reunion will expose that handful of people who are still trapped in the “Please look at me! I’m cool, too!” phase.

We can excuse our teenagers for this desire, but we can’t excuse adults who never get over it.

Large swaths of the American Church can’t get over it. There is a desperate longing to be perceived as smart, “hip,” and worldly wise. Step into a few churches today and note that they not only serve you a latte you can take into the worship service, but the coffee is pitched as being free trade, so no one can accuse the church of not being cool enough to be sensitive to economic and environmental issues.

Like the teenager screaming, “Please look at me! I’m cool, too,” American Christians have become obsessed with not being left out of the “be there or be square” party everyone’s attending.

If you’re an American, you had to have been squatting in the bowels of Carlsbad Caverns for the last year to have missed the fact that THE MOVIE is debuting this weekend. All of us having sucked long on the marketing teat behind THE MOVIE, I need not mention its name. You and probably everyone you know are aware of THE MOVIE. Many of us are planning on seeing THE MOVIE either Friday or Saturday for fear we won’t be able to discuss it on Sunday before and after our church services.

After all, we let Hollywood know that we demand more movies like this, movies that cater to us, because hey, we’re cool, right? We have money as well. And we don’t ever want to be left out of what’s cool for fear the world will think less of us. What good is a Church that avoids the world’s party?

In far too many churches in America today, the message on Sunday is that Christianity is cool and hip. It’s a faith that makes cultural demands that need to be met by the world’s power brokers. It cries out for Christian-themed amusement parks, Bibles with dimpled steel covers, and stuffed Aslan dolls that better darned sure look exactly like Aslan (or else we won’t buy it.) It’s a new and improved Christianity that walks with a swagger and demands to be on student council so that popularity is assured. Sure, we may talk about a savior who was killed by crucifixion, or we may espouse ideals of dying to self and to the world, but that doesn’t mean we can’t look cool doing it. Or so the conflicted message goes.

For a lot of churches and the Christians who populate them, the greatest fear is to jammed into a locker and have the door slammed on us. Once you’ve been assaulted in that manner by the school’s alpha jock, you’re relegated to loser status forever.

I seem to remember this Bible passage, though:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
—Romans 8:35-36 ESV

Regarded as sheep to be slaughtered? Highly, highly uncool.

Or how about this:

Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man!
—Luke 6:22 ESV

You’ll never be class president if you’re reviled. They’ll vote for that Pedro guy instead.

This one stings a little:

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
—Philippians 1:21 ESV

It’s hard to be a debutante when you’re dead, isn’t it?


Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.
—1 John 2:15-17 ESV

I guess the prom is out then, huh?


And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.
—Luke 9:23-26 ESV

But the popular kids like me now!

We’ve got to stop this high school behavior in the American Church. We’re so wrapped up in our image that our main message of the Gospel is threatened with becoming the real hidden message. We’re glorying in worldly acclaim, but that acclaim is worthless. We’re excited about the power we supposedly wield politically, culturally, and so on, but it’s all a façade. We’re high school kids caught up in the social milieu, desperately trying to be cool and popular.

Th result of our dalliances is that we’ve made Christianity nothing more than a check mark on a To-Do list somewhere next to “Get a date for Homecoming” and “Buy more Clearisil.” The transforming power of the Gospel has been replaced by a message that’s a salve for getting dumped before prom night, or strength for revenge against the stuck-up girl who made us look bad in gym class a month ago. Dying to self, loving Christ and others, making disciples, being salt and light—that’s the heart of the Gospel, not all that kiddie stuff.

High school isn’t the real world, folks. “Please look at me! I’m cool, too!” is like…so yesterday. It’s time we American Christians grew up and acted like adults.

{Image of the movie poster from Clueless Paramount Pictures.}