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.”