Have you noticed that, when it comes to the local church these days, nobody seems to be happy? The millennials whining about the Church from the outside are about as bad as the boomers, builders, busters, and now GenXers whining about it from the inside. Every generation seems upset for one reason or another.
Sorry, I know "whining" isn't a particularly kosher thing to say as a pastor, but let's call a spade a spade. And this needs to be said.
Let’s talk about my generation, the one in between the Millennials and the Boomers: Gen Y, as we are known. My generation is the first one that has been raised in a multimedia-saturated, internet-connected, information-overloaded environment. We’ve heard autotuned music most of our lives. We’ve seen models that look a bit too perfect in every magazine we’ve ever read. We’ve been told that we just have to click on this link because it’s the most amazing SHOCKING thing ever to grace the internet (especially #7!). We grew up hearing about the scandals of the Evangelical movement and tend to associate “Church” with the uber-polished smile of the televangelist who spends widows’ money on expensive cars and prostitutes.
Our BS meters are pretty sensitive.
And there really are churches that are trying to attract our generation based on weird ideas about what we want. Some churches think it’s a particular style of music or a brand of coffee or a style of dress, and while it might help us feel more at home in the long-run, our BS meters go off when you’ve chosen to attract us with gourmet coffee but not friendliness, when you play our music but don’t even try to learn our names, when you look almost like us but just … aren’t. I often hear from others in my generation how they don’t like megachurches, because those churches don’t feel authentic enough - they’re too polished, too pristine … they feel “too fake” to us. It might be that we associate modern music with those televangelists, but it might also be that we have this inkling that the Church is supposed to be different - more gritty, more raw, more involved in the world with the purpose of transformation rather than imitation.
And so my generation talks like we invented authenticity. “The church today just isn’t very authentic.” “I’m sorry, that’s just how I feel, I’m just trying to be authentic.” “That’s too polished, it doesn’t feel very authentic.” “I need an authentic church.” I hear it
In my generation - the one that grew up with autotune and photoshop and clickbait and lying televangelists - authenticity feels like it should be something slightly less polished. Not TOO unpolished, mind you (because that would be boring), but just slightly unpolished enough that a few flaws slip through … a few unresolved dissonances or a little cellulite, or even a pastor who has a bad day and is willing to admit it. Those things have a “true” vibe to them because we too can’t sing perfectly or have the perfect body … we too fight with our loved ones on occasion. Our generation wants to identify with the flaws of others because those flaws are common ground and it tells us that we're not trying to be sold a product.
But authenticity is nothing new; every generation has wanted those they trust to be transparent and honest and real with them - to simply be KNOWN. It’s just that in our generation, "authenticity" has now become the next brand to sell, but being truly authentic is not safe, so like good Americans, we fake it and then mass-produce it. We sing our harmonies slightly off-tune, or we admit "safe sins" and "safe doubts" from the pulpit (you’ll never hear a pastor admit to struggling with child pornography or self-cutting, for example, even from their past), and we set up straw people arguments about the church's supposed exclusivity and then burn them in the media. Burning such straw people, honestly, is easy to do, and is a cheap shot because it's so popular now.
Spirituality instead of religion and all that.
But authenticity tends to look different from generation to generation. We forget that it’s not inauthentic to be polished or pristine or excellent, that it’s not inauthentic to play modern music written by Christians (even the fluff played on KLove), nor is it necessarily inauthentic to be a large church or to have a good smile or to be a polished speaker. In fact, I suspect that we GenYers secretly value those things, but because we’re so used to seeing them, we assume that “real” HAS to look different from our everyday reality where everyone is trying to sell us something.
We want unpolished, and we also want exceptional.
The truth is, “authenticity” has lost its meaning in pop culture from over-use and has taken on more of a "filler" sort of role to sell a brand - any brand. It can mean anything you want it to, thus leaving you justified in your critique and yet strangely not responsible for making anything better. I often wonder if "it's not authentic enough" is the passive-aggressive excuse used when what's going on doesn't match our preferences because it sounds super-spiritual without actually being something we can verify and thus enables the “victim’s” sense of self-righteousness. Some of us, having bought into the lie of individualism, may be simply looking for an excuse to write off the institutional Church, despite the fact that our spiritual lives would be dead without regular gatherings.
Accusations of inauthenticity often seem to be a faux-humble way of saying “I don’t like it.”
Make no mistake, every generation does it. This just happens to be our way.
The thing is, whoever you are, if you whine about the Church not meeting your needs, you’ve already missed the point. God did not establish the Church “for me,” and that’s ultimately what an argument for inauthenticity so often is: an argument for my emotional safety. Not always - God knows that the Church has many problems because it's made of many people - broken, hurt, scared, weird and wonderful people. But that is why the Church exists in the first place: the Church is for the mission of God in the world, and to paraphrase CS Lewis, God is not safe; God is good. Yes, we should be "authentic," but we need to recognize that it won't attract anybody because it's not cool, and it's not actually … well, true authenticity is not safe.
Being truly authentic is always a risk, and on this journey of transformation, we will get hurt. Sometimes it will be the church that hurts us; I can personally vouch for this reality (I have stories, and I guarantee you almost every pastor with more than a year under her or his belt will tell you the same thing). True transformation of a community or even a church will involve pain. That might not sound good, but it's a part of what it means for the world to be in the midst of reconciliation. "Think of yourself with sober judgment," says Paul, an act that carries with it inevitable discomfort, even anguish with what we'll find.
But don't forget: God is at work. Furthermore, God would not be at work if God thought there was nothing worth redeeming.
So if you tell me there’s something horribly wrong with the local church - especially if you say that it's not authentic enough - I’m going to want to know what you’re doing to help make it better. The Church is a necessary, fundamental part of God's plan for redeeming the world, and so you don’t get to "whine and walk," as it were, because that helps nobody, least of all you.
If you’re going to point out a problem, you must then by necessity be part of the solution.