The Trouble With "Authenticity" as a Faith Formation Goal

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During the eighteen years that I served as a university chaplain and ministry professor, I heard over and over again that millennials prized authenticity as a chief value in their faith journeys. At first I jumped on the train with them, but gradually doubts began to gnaw within me.

Earlier this year I led a workshop for Christian school teachers focused on leading classroom devotions. A few of them said, “I can’t lead devotions because I’m not a spiritual leader; it wouldn’t be authentic.”

Yesterday a Trump voter made this comment during a TV street interview: “I voted for Trump because he’s authentic, he’s real. It doesn’t matter to me that most of what he says is not true or that he makes promises that he can’t deliver on. He’s not like the political establishment; he says what he thinks, he’s real. And that’s what I want in my president.”

As I reflected on these experiences (and others), I’ve concluded there are two significant problems with naming authenticity as a major faith formation goal:

1. Biblical authenticity is always described in partnership with other aspects of faith formation.

Left on its own, authenticity bows before the idol of human autonomy, and its favorite hymn is Frank Sinatra’s “I did it my way.” If “being real” is an end in itself, it degenerates into a celebration of myself.

The Psalms wonderfully embody authenticity in partnership with prayer, surrender, longing, deep emotion, and a worshiping community that lives inside the story of God’s faithfulness. I can lament with deep authenticity the grief(s) that I carry (as, for example, Ps. 88 does) because there is a God who hears, a community that encourages, a redemptive narrative that evokes hope, and the practices of prayer that shape my authentic lament. In other words, there are vessels of truth that surround my authenticity and place it in a context in which I am not at the center.

And these vessels of truth declare that our current culturally acceptable notion of an “authentic liar” fits only with the biblical descriptions of foolishness.

2. Biblical authenticity is able to hold together the paradoxical tension between the now and the not yet.

I’ve learned in ministry that verses like these are favorites for many: “Confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Phil. 1: 6). “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (I John 3: 2). Such verses sing the wonder of the now and the not yet: Jesus has already done good things for and in us, but just wait until his work in us is done!

Authenticity on its own celebrates the now. Authenticity in partnership with the fullness of God’s faithfulness celebrates the tension and lives in a state of transformation that moves from the now toward the not yet. Worship scholars like to remind us that worship is both expressive and formative. It frees us up to declare what lives in us now. It also offers us up to the Lord as softened clay as he continues to shape us toward what we will be. Worship that invites expression without formation is shaped by idolatrous authenticity; worship that invites both gets the biblical tension right.

I said to those teachers who told me they could not do classroom devotions: “In your classroom you are both who are you now and the one God is shaping you to be. Inside that tension you can be a spiritual leader with authenticity, sharing both the good work the Lord has begun in you and finding appropriate ways to lean into your “not yet” with your students.” I’m thankful to say I think they got it. (Side note: there are life seasons when one cannot function as a spiritual leader with integrity, but these teachers were not dealing with such seasons.)  

I celebrate the beauty of authenticity in the Christian life, and the ways this beauty is embodied in the Bible. Two of the numerous gifts that we receive through Scripture include (1) life narratives of “giants of the faith” that bluntly describe their sins and failures, and (2) Psalms and other worship texts that provide capacity for every kind of authentic expression of our lives. Authentic faith formation experiences in small groups, worship, service activities and other venues have had a profound shaping impact on me and the communities I am part of.

But we are living in a cultural season in which a kind of “stand alone authenticity” is celebrated and encouraged everywhere. It’s a false idol that needs to be discerned, named and rejected.

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Thank you for this Syd. In my church over the last few years I hear a lot about wanting to grow in authenticity. That sounds like the "stand alone authenticity" you describe. Knowing that true authenticity is linked with spiritual practices gives us a path forward to developing real spiritual community.

A number of our churches are engaged in learning about how to rightly understand godly authenticity through the Ridder Church Renewal Process. To continue to build on what you have shared, Syd, I'd like to share some of the insights from the Ridder Process.

True authenticity happens when you bring all of what you know about yourself to all of what you know about God. I find that this fits perfectly with what you share under #1. Such a life of reflecting and growing through various avenues of spiritual formation/practices leads to continuous transformation of our knowledge (as well as directly impacting how we live) of our self and of God; which is connected to your second point.

A third value to consider when discussing authenticity is the growth point to challenge our strident individual practice: authentic community, that is, a community of people who share and sustain a common purpose with one another. It is in these small communities of individuals supporting one another in the practice of authenticity that the Spirit works to admonish, challenge, encourage, and help one another in truth, with love and patience. (1 Thes 5.14) Others helps us see our blind spots, being in community helps us live in God's design (i.e. relationally) and helps us to experience the very fundamental Christian truth: transformation does not happen without submission. In particular, such communities are the only safe place to be authentic before others because they are the only place where we might hear that what we know of ourselves is not true in light of what we know of God. 

When we "fill out" what we understand about authenticity in this way, we see that the key value is not simply saying what's so for you as you are right now, but coming to understanding and action surrounding where Christ through the Spirit is leading you to be transformed to the Father's design. In authenticity, we are coming to terms with the old that needs to go and the new creation that has come (or is coming!) (2 Cor 5.17)

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