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.

24 thoughts on “Authenticity, and How the Church Ignores It

  1. Jeff

    Dan, you are a prophet. What is ironic is that, as you point out, we live in a world that is driven by marketing and image and people are hungering for something real. An authentic, spirit-led church would stand out like a beacon of hope, and yet, we still try to attract people with worldly approaches.

  2. Dan, wow. Spot on! I feel like I just read one of Michael Spencer’s carefully prophetically scathing reviews of the state of churchianity.

    Incidentally, I think it’s ironic that much of the rhetoric of entertainment driven, syrupy church culture has cited “winning back the youth” as one of its primary motives. The irony is that, at least in my dialogue, the youth (and many non-youth) are suspicious of, and fleeing just such inauthenticity and sterility that the more “pre-digested” forms of the faith have been offering in hopes that a big pizza-party will attract more people.

    There are indeed lots of us that need to wake up, and very soon.

    • What bothers me, Nate, is that the people making these changes don’t understand what they are doing. They attended a conference somewhere, drank the Kool-Aid at some big megachurch, had their heads filled with the “NEW DIRECTION!,” and bought the whole thing without question. I’ve seen this so often, I could write a book. In every case, the comeback to any protests is, “Well, our message is the same. We’re still upholding the Gospel.”

      The problem with that reasoning is that the Gospel is only one of many messages being communicated amid the giant wall of communication hitting the people in the Sunday seats. And some of those “invisible” messages are not only undermining the Gospel message, but they are more obvious and powerful than what the pastor is saying in his sermon. I can say that Jesus values you more than anything you can imagine and shed His Blood for you, but if the communion you just took was served to you in a plastic-coated unit, that value is lost. If we say that Christian community is the most important thing in the world, but then the pastor announces at the end of the sermon, “Well, I better wrap this up because I know you have busy lives,” then “busy lives” trumps our gathering together. And then when someone notices that we don’t gather together very much anymore, everyone wonders why.

  3. akaGaGa

    “Honestly, I think I’m at the point of giving up.”

    Hurray! Welcome to the club! I gave up on “churchianity” several years ago. One by one, I have examined and rejected countless rituals and traditions handed down through the centuries, including the actual church building, that are not biblically-based. I have rejected the entire clergy/laity system, including our ego-massaging love affair with titles. I have come to believe that the church meeting is not meant for evangelism, but for Jesus to use spirit-filled members to minister to other spirit-filled members. This process is extremely limited, if not impossible, in a traditional church setting (and I include the emergents in traditional.)

    After the Lord led me through this lengthy process, He led me to a book that deals with these issues (as He often does after the process is complete in my heart). In this case, it’s the series by Frank Viola that begins with “Pagan Christianity.” I just finished re-reading “Reimagining Church.” Both have helped convince me I’m not insane, and I’m not the only one. (I often identify with Jeremiah.)

    While I don’t agree with everything anyone says (including my husband!) I encourage you to give Viola a read. I think you’ll be glad you did.

    • akaGaGa,

      I’ve read both of the books you’ve mentioned and even posted about them here. In theory, I find a lot worthy in both of them. That said, I wonder if the organic church movement has an inflated sense of its own importance. Substituting one self-aggrandizing system for another is no improvement.

  4. Not so sure the emergent church has “died”. Rather, it has focused its energies on the realities at hand instead of the labels. It already had its stylistic impact on the contemporary culture, but its deeper impact in questioning the (especially American) Church, Inc. goes on.

    It’s just that people like me who were attracted to the notion of fixing the old wineskin of Evangelicalism have decided it isn’t worth the fight and moved on with our lives as we realize that Jesus never came to set up a religion with property, budgets, and paid staff in the first place. We’re here to LIVE his way, not market it.

    There are thousands and thousands like me who initially took the leap of faith into the arms of God and found him loving, trustworthy, and welcoming, but are now taking the leap of doubt out of the arms of the church biz with its insurance industry-like “promises of assurance” and into the freedom of uncertainty where its down to us and God bringing shalom to this planet by actually following the way of Jesus and not merely “believing it”.

    • Bob,

      I think many in the emerging church kept questioning everything until they finally were left questioning core doctrines, and then they blew up their faith and themselves in the process. They didn’t know when to stop at manmade additions and proceeded to core beliefs without even so much as an inner check to see if they were on the wrong road.

      You mentioned the word uncertainty, which is the key word in all of the emerging church. But it is also the word that shipwrecked a lot of people for the reason I just shared above. Let’s face it, uncertainty is just a fancy word for doubt in most cases. And ours is called a faith for a reason. People who got all hung up in doubt and loved their doubt aren’t following the Lord anymore. This is one of the unholy fruits the emerging church unwittingly created. Fact is, God hates doubt and does not reward it. He rewards faith. End of story.

      I get what emerging church people were trying to say with their fascination with uncertainty, but they were wrong with much of it. We have assurance of many things in Christianity; if if we start chiseling away at those assurances, then we undermine the entirety of the Faith itself.

      • I really do appreciate your willingness to question the church and how it does or doesn’t line up with scripture. It has been helpful in my journey.

        I have gotten to the point where, after having taken the leap of faith into the arms of a trustworthy, dependable, loving God who has demonstrated his power and care more times than I can recount in ways that only God could do, I now have to take the leap of doubt – not doubting God by any means, but questioning what men have for centuries, even millennia, claimed to be certain of. I question the systems men have built, the interpretations and implications they have placed on writings held sacred to them, the budgets, buildings, and costly staff who supposedly do “God’s work”.

        I find that I can be totally certain of God and very connected to God without having to buy into what Church, Inc. says with their fear-based, shame-filled, guilt-encrusted marketing tactics and strategies that mirror any other secular business. Jesus did not come to found a religion; men did that in spite of his good news. I have to even question whether or not Paul was co-opting what Jesus did; Jesus didn’t enlist scholarly rabbis like Paul – he chose fishermen, organized crime (tax collectors), militia men (zealots), and other outcasts and uneducated folk. Because his good news isn’t about filling your head with esoteric education – it’s about restoring shalom by the means of sacrificial love. It doesn’t take scholar like Paul, it takes humble lovers of people. So just like I questioned the veracity of the Joshua-era genocide of the Canaanites (I they convinced themselves to do something God never told them to do), just like I question the barbaric sacrifices that all the other heathen religions also engaged in to appease their gods, I question what the church industry has been selling in the name of God: certainty.

        I’m not uncertain about God – I trust him in faith, I partner my life with him in faith, and I see continuing evidence of his love, care, and provision. Oh the stories I could tell… and plan to tell. But I definitely doubt what men have created with their church businesses, doctrinal statements and systematic theology (as if we could ever fit God inside a box).

        I’d rather be like Job who claims ignorance of the extent of God’s majesty and power and works and wonders and be at peace with God than waste my time trying to promote certainty about things which one can never truly be certain and about which, in most cases, isn’t worth having faith believing. Sure, I hope for an afterlife with God, but I’ve studied enough about what “heaven” and “hell” meant to the people of Jesus’ day to know that men have created their own mythology and merely labeled it “Christian”. And I no longer buy it. I guess you could call me a Jesus-following Agnostic – because I don’t have to believe all the man-made stuff to have a relationship with Father God and to follow the way of Jesus. Many former emergent people are also discovering that. Men build temples; God builds lives. Men collect and control; God gives and frees. This might certainly undermine religion, but it will never undermine faith.

  5. Dire Dan: “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.”

    I see you have also noticed how truely awful church music has become lately.

    Today’s hymnody is universally a wreck. I hate to complain but anymore it has become more of an exercise in learning to quietly and patiently bear with stuff that is unsingable thin gruel. Words fail me here to express what I mean.

    I guess I need to put a damper on this but, arrgh, nearly every “youth band” I have encountered have been — oh, ah, I had better just say “serenity now” and just let it go.

    • Actually, Oengus, I don’t think all the music is bad. I play a lot of that music as the drummer in my church’s worship band, and some of it is actually pretty good.

      What bugs me more is the production and the mentality behind most of that music’s transmission. It is so calculated anymore, you wonder if the spirit of Alan Freed is behind it, payola and all. And you see these videos of the mega-super-awesome-church worship “performances,” with their massive team of players (often paid) and production coordinators, and you just want to hurl at the slickness behind it all. You wonder how it’s possible to sell out worship and commoditize the whole endeavor, and yet there it is for all to see.

      I see some of those videos and I wonder if the folks on the stage see the red light, know Camera #6 is on them, and so they give it their best “worship face.” I really hope that is not the case, but the fact that I am wondering that at all depresses me.

      The paleolithics out there can argue that we should back to the 1960s and blame the Catholics and guys like Ray Repp who were writing “the new worship music,” but you can’t tell me that what was going on back then and now are even remotely equivalent. Whatever innocence there was in that time has been shot through with the calculated approach we take today. And it WAS innocent back then. That some well-meaning people turned into the soulless production it is today is because we let them. We need to own up to the blame.

      Can we put that genie back in the bottle? To some extent, I think we can. Whether we can fix what we damaged inside ourselves because of our foolishness? Only God knows that answer.

      • I wish you and I could meet. It’s hard to carry on a discussion in a comment box.

        But let me clarify things a little. When I mean bad music, I mean BAD music, the kind of bad where, for example, people are so inept they cannot even get to first base by knowing how to sing consistently in key. This is the kind of bad where it’s total failure on all levels. What is becoming painfully obvious is that the condition is nigh universal. I am seeing it everywhere. The exceptions are always few.

        I’ve talked to Rich Tatum about this subject. He brought up an interesting observation. He pointed out that over the past few years there’s been a general decline in the quality of music education available in schools. There might be something to that.

        I would modify his observation by adding that churches are attempting to do things that are simply beyond what their pool of talent will allow. For example, everybody has the expectation that church music must be led by a “band”. I blame the “Jesus Revolution” of the late 1960s and early 1970s for being the primary cause behind this expectation. Back then, there was a fortunate confluence of very musically talented people who could pull it off. But a truely good band is a very difficult thing to create. Most people just don’t have what it takes to make it work right.

        There is also the commercialization aspect in this situation, which would require a lengthy essay of its own.

        • Oengus,

          I’m the elder statesman on our worship team (I think, since we have a new keyboardist and I’m not sure how old she is). The worship leader is about a half dozen years younger than I am; he plays acoustic guitar and sings. About half the band is 40-somethings, including two singers and a flutist. The lead guitarist is 21, but he can play every instrument in the band (and has). Our bassist is 14-15, but he can also sing lead and play keyboards and lead guitar. We have a teen girl (14-15-16?) who plays synth, sings lead, and plays bass. And we have a keyboardist who is 17, who also sings lead. One family comprises almost half our group (both keyboardists, a lead singer, and the bassist guy). I play drums, but I can also play guitar and sing (though I don’t do either of those latter two in the band).

          Based on this, it’s sort of hard to say that music ed is on the decline since half the band is people 21 and under who are multi-instrumentalists and singers. It’s the older folks who are more limited to one instrument or to singing. The youngsters do practically everything and do most of it well.

    • Oengus,

      I just got the following video sent to me because we’ll be playing this on Sunday:

      Here’s the thing: I’ve got nothing against the song. I think it is a good, simple reaffirmation that God is in control and I should not fear. No, it’s not Charles Wesley, but it is simple enough to remember in a tough time.

      But if you turn off the sound and remove the lyrics, what are you watching? Is this a church service? How can you tell?

    • Although I do take exception to these statements:
      People are dying for authenticity, though. They don’t want to feel marketed to and manipulated. and
      People are dying for the authentic. They don’t want an efficient church, but a real one.

      That is not my experience. People are resistant to the authentic and real in Christianity. If that wasn’t so, the approach to church you righteously lambaste in your post wouldn’t be growing so vigorously and often at the expense of churches that endeavor to preach, teach and live authentic Christianity.

      • slw,

        I think there are two kinds of disappointed seekers: those who will make do and those who will make do but sense something is still wrong.

        I think that there will always be those people who will convince themselves to be satisfied with the dog and pony show. Part of this is ignorance of anything better. But, like you are saying, they are probably going to be satisfied with just about anything you throw at them and may even resist authentic Christianity.

        Then there is the second group. Their issue is that they’ve consumed so much balogna they don’t know filet mignon when they taste it. If anything, we should feel sorry for those folks because they are victims of the culture and their upbringing. Just because they can’t determine what is best for themselves, doesn’t mean that they don’t sit in a pew on Sunday and wonder of this is all there is. They are the ones with the nagging feeling that the other group (above) never seems to feel. Problem is, the nagging feelings people have been so messed up by what they’ve been a part of or what has been shown to them in the past, they may forever be trapped with that nagging feeling, even when the real thing lands in their laps.

        This all assumes one grossly erroneous belief: That the Holy Spirit can’t bust through that nagging feeling. I don’t believe that, though. I believe He can.

        But none of that will be the case if we are doing church in a manmade, prepackaged form that would happen with the Spirit or without Him. And sadly, that is how many of our churches are operating.

        • Nate Fikkert

          I would agree with Dan in this posting and in his comments. I’m 24 years old and I have seen so much pretense of standing firm in the truth of the word but the actions behind this are dead.

          I would like to add a group to your list Dan if you would allow :). There are also a group of people who though they dislike what they are hearing decide to stick it out in the fellowship they are attending because if everyone who sees the truth leaves the “church” will die. But then what ends up happening is instead of invoking change in the church fellowship they end up becoming complacent and give up on invoking change and become like the rest of the crowd that goes to church listens to the sermon and when they get home they say well there…I haven’t forsaken the assembling together.

          The thing is no one stops to think what does the assembling together mean that the apostle Paul is talking about? We have a tendency to forget who Paul was talking to…Paul was talking to other believers…so could it be that he was talking about the division that was between the Jews and Gentiles? Just like the church(meaning the body of Christ) has divided itself with their own doctrinal positions and have in fact made the church spiritually dead. Because now the focus is no longer on Christ but on the music quality or the way the preacher sticks to the word.

          Christ told the pharisees you search the scriptures for life but the scriptures speak of me. So instead of focusing on the music or the preaching or the doctrinal position how about we start focusing on the love of Christ because God is love and without which we are a noisy gong and a clashing symbol.

          By loving God and focusing our all on Him and Him only then we will automatically desire to be obedient and lives will begin to be changed. Because of God not because of what we do or what we have made the scriptures to become.

  6. Don Taylor

    As always I agree with you. I wonder why as I read C S Lewis and not N T Wright that I see nothing in their writing on the organized church. The center of both writings is how we relate to and see Jesus and our response to his message of the kingdom of God being here now in us. I think as we get close to God and become more in Christ that we see the organized church for its faults and success as just part of the plan and not the plan. The church is a place where we get introduced to Christ and learn to be like him and change the world. As we grow in this we think more of the world outside the church and less of the church which may be what we should be about. Keep us the work.

  7. Eli

    so true. and the love of money/mammon is the root of all kinds of evil. I’ve gotta say from my vantage point american christianity is thoroughly infected with the love of money. Even out of church or emergent or organic or whateverisnoninstitutional christians are hustling to cash in on the faith… through books, blogs, conferences, product etc… its sickening and unfortunately a total blindspot which is being exported to the rest of the world with force.
    Healthy, christlike authenticity isn’t bound up in chasing after money, status and following.
    Honestly I dont see this as a modern problem… as if churches more connected to historical or conservative or mainline roots are better… they may not have the same problems as the walmart megachurch but authenticity and the life of christ can be squeezed out in both.
    A lot of what we see in these flashy slick churches is a reaction against things that were genuinely out of whack with certain past and present streams. Like it may seem weird when a church service feels like a rock concert, but then so too does it feel weird when a church service feels like a funeral or going back in time.

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