Is This Message For You?

I couldn’t stay another minute at Catalyst. There are great speakers, of course, and some good, original music. In some ways it feels like the best (and worst) contemporary evangelical Christian culture has to offer, a giant pep rally and motivational time for church leaders. But after just a short while I felt God calling me elsewhere.

Part of it was that I could lip-sync to the event. I’ve heard the speakers before, and I’ve recently had training up to my eyeballs. I was very conscious of time slipping through my fingers.

But the other part was being made very aware that what they were selling isn’t for me. While I would very much like to buy into the idea that we’re all Christians and all on the same team, it’s difficult to do so when people’s language continually reinforces the idea that they are the team captains and you are the last picked.

Maybe that’s just my childhood insecurity coming out.

Anyway, Andy Stanley talked about leading as parents, and I enjoyed what he had to say about following our fear, and allowing our vulnerability and hurts to shape us for leadership in ministry. In one story, he even gave a shout out to St. Mark UMC in Atlanta, and I appreciated his recognition of the unconditional inclusiveness of St. Mark and his honesty about the problematic relationship conservative evangelicals have not just to homosexuality, but sexuality in general. It still had a “love the sinner, hate the sin” vibe, but you know, whatever. At least he’s helping conservative evangelicals wake up to their own issues.

During one part of his closing prayer, I actually held my breath. The line was something like, “God, strengthen these people who you are calling to ministry. Lord, I know there are some women here who are afraid…” This is where I nearly gasped. Was he about to say something really powerful and controversial about women in ministry? “…of what God is calling…” Oh my goodness. He’s about to do it! “…their husbands to do…”

I don’t know why I let myself expect otherwise. I guess I just got caught up in his message. He is an excellent speaker.

He was followed by a band who had a retro folk-rock, Mumford & Sons vibe going on. This is the kind of thing I *should* love, because I’m always asking “Why can’t contemporary Christian music sound like this? Or this? Or this?” But in their enthusiastic, foot-stomping lyrics I couldn’t get past one line. As they implored God to set the church on fire, and send us out to do good work, and so on, they also sang “win this nation back.”

Now, this could mean all kinds of things. Bringing a nation back to God is certainly a prophetic theme of the Hebrew Bible. It also happens to be code among the religious right for defeating Obama, repealing Roe v. Wade and putting non-straight persons back in the closet. And instantly I went from thinking, “I’d like this kind of music in my church” to thinking, “I could never have this music in my church.”

Now, it’s entirely possible that they didn’t mean anything by it. But the nature of privilege is that you don’t hear how you sound to other people. It’s also possible that I’m hyper-sensitive to coded messages.

On the break, I wandered around the exhibits and looked at the materials promoting awareness of human trafficking. While I am very glad that there are stronger voices within conservative evangelical culture calling on Christians to be involved in doing justice, I couldn’t help feeling a bit cynical after what I’d just experienced. Church leaders know that many folks are hostile to the church because of a perception that it has been hypocritical and unconcerned with justice. We want to counter this perception, but we are too politically polarized to do anything about climate change, or women’s rights / abortion, or predatory lending, or drone attacks in Pakistan, or gay rights, or militarism, so we need a “safe” cause we can all agree on. Nobody is FOR human trafficking. Like Joseph Kony’s practice of using child soldiers, it’s something we can all agree is bad.

Before anyone begins angrily composing a reply about me being dismissive of human trafficking, please hear me: I am glad we can agree. I am intensely practical about such things, and I don’t particularly care why someone is motivated to do justice. Nobody has to meet an ideological litmus test before they can do good, or be passionate about a certain social issue before it is cool to be so.

But this is yet another way that the experience felt like God telling me, “This message isn’t for you.”

I am aware that there are cool hunters who serve conservative evangelical culture trying to keep their fingers on the pulse of what’s hip. They want to be able to reach more people, and so I do not resent their appropriation of what’s cool (like DIY trends). As I said, I’m intensely practical about such things. But for me and, I suspect, the people I’m trying to reach, you can’t just take the same message and wrap it in skinny jeans and hipster glasses and expect it to work. It will come off as fake, even if you self-deprecatingly talk about how uncool you are.

Now, for some people, it isn’t fakeThis is because we’re dealing with social discourses, those ways of talking, dressing, and presenting yourself that mark you as belonging to a certain group of people. We all “pull off” being a certain kind of person. If we succeed, we are “authentic,” and if we do not succeed, we are “fake.” But Christians often seem to have this idea that they can opt out of such discourses. They profess that they follow their faith, that they are neither conservative nor liberal, that their God transcends mere politics, or bandwagons, or economic ideologies, or brand loyalties. It’s charming, in a way, like Holden Caufield complaining about “the phonies” in The Catcher in the Rye,  even while he can’t keep himself from lying.

But it made me aware of the contextual nature of the gospel. I do not think God’s “Good News” is necessarily the same news for all people. It isn’t, as many evangelists argue, a timeless truth that you wrap in a different package to reach a new generation. It’s a living truth that gets embodied, incarnated in a group of people with a particular mission. So their message wasn’t for me.

And if this blog post bothers you, or is incomprehensible, then maybe this message isn’t for you. Those with ears to hear, let them hear.

What Does “Authentic” Mean?

Our clergy continuing education group spent three years studying “Young Adults, Authentic Community, and the Future of the Church.” One of the things we were concerned about was how many people say they left a church because it did not feel “authentic.” You probably know the familiar refrain: “People have not stopped being spiritually hungry. They’ve simply stopped trying the institutional church.”

But as we wrestled with the topic, we kept coming back to the question: what does “authenticity” actually mean? Is it something you can measure?

Everyone participates in “social discourses,” meaning that you are trying to be a certain kind of person. How you dress, how you talk, what you consume, all of it communicates information to the people around you. Nobody gets to opt out of social discourses. “Normal” or “regular” are also social discourses. It’s why you don’t see more men wearing kilts or togas in Birmingham. When you do, you think, “Hey, what’s he trying to say?” But every man wearing shorts is also “saying” something. Part of authenticity is if you can “pull off” being a certain kind of person in a convincing way.

And what does it mean to be an “authentic” community? We shared experiences of visiting churches that were trying so hard to be authentic that it felt fake. And there’s nothing faker than fake authenticity. “Look! We have tattoos and cool glasses! We’re edgy!” I like the ways these guys point out the social discourses they are using:

In our travels and visits, we came to understand that healthy communities have what Luther Smith calls both intimacy and mission. Intimacy is the warm-fuzzy group feeling that we have being part of a community together. But by itself, warm-fuzzy group feeling is toxic. Communities that turn inward and worship their own sense of community will die. They must be focused outward and have a clear mission. Likewise mission without intimacy becomes brutal. The community guilts its members into service. Healthy community requires both intimacy and mission, which in turn creates a sense of identity. We can say, “This is who we are. This is our history, and this is our future together.”

My friend Bill had this insight: In such a community, I can have a sense of authenticity when I can say, “This is who I am in the midst of who we are.” I can clearly state the kind of person I am trying to be. I do not feel that I have to walk on eggshells around other people, that I’m going to somehow hurt the group with my own identity if I disagree with someone, or if I don’t live up to their—or my—own expectations. In fact, I relish being held accountable. In such a community with a clear mission, I can have my own mission as well, and other people are helping me achieve it.

So, for now, that’s my working definition of “authenticity.” I want Saint Junia United Methodist Church to be a place where people can find their mission in our mission, where they are free to say “This is who I am in the midst of who we are.”