Friday, July 18, 2008

What's authenticity got to do with it?

authenticity- The modern ideal of being true to oneself.

Last night I was leading our ongoing book discussion of "Christianity for the Rest of Us" by Diana Butler Bass, in which she examines spiritual practices among vital mainline churches. Now there's a concept for you- "vital mainline churches". It's an engaging book and our conversations this summer have been fun, often thought provoking, and sometimes deeply challenging of how we currently experience church together. You could say a sub-theme of our
conversations has been, seeking a church for the "21st century."

Out of the blue, in the course of our time together, someone piped up: "We're looking for the perfect worship experience." Now I couldn't figure out where that comment came from, because we were discussing the search for "diversity" as an image of God's dream for the church.
Right back out of the blue I said, "I gave up on looking for the perfect worship service a long time ago." I'm hungry for what's real and authentic, both in worship and in the preaching I'm called to share with a community of faith. Most of all I'm drawn to living an authentic faith as a human being. Perfection just isn't in the equation for me.

As someone who serves the church, with a call to ministry as a pastor, that means being perfect can't ever be the ideal. Once you get trapped in that mind-set, what level of grace do you have to offer others. At the same time, I care about how I lead worship and how I preach. So what does that mean? For me, it comes down to whether I'm passionately engaged with worship and preaching. The way I see it, if I'm not moved and shaken and energized by what I'm preaching about, why should I expect anyone else to be.

A new book on preaching speaks about what I'm seeking and trying to offer in preaching and what I hope to find with others in a genuine practice of faith. That search comes down to authenticity. A recent book about the preaching life examines what that means.

The book is "Preaching Words" by John McClure. McLure writes that "authenticity is often used to describe preachers who seem to be openly human, searching, and accessible in the pulpit. Authentic preachers do not represent themselves as removed, perfect, or on a pedestal, but through various forms of self-disclosure and identification, attempt to communicate a genuine desire for self-awareness and self-knowledge. The goal is to achieve the relational authority of one who with listeners is on a search for their real humanity."

Now, I resonate deeply with what McClure is saying. In fact, I just don't see any other way to be.
Gone are the days, in my experience, where a preacher can pontificate from some remote celestial platform about the struggles to love, believe, and have hope. Too much hypocrisy and phoniness has been exposed in the church and among preachers to pretend otherwise. And younger generations, just on principle, don't buy any ideal of perfection. They haven't seen it in their own families, in churches, or anywhere else in society. And they just don't trust preachers who claim perfection! Like I said to our book discussion group, I gave up on the ideal of a perfect worship service quite some time again. After all, life is messy and far from perfect. What I do respect is passion and an effort to offer the best we have, with what we've got.

So, I say we in the church are invited to search for authenticity in our experience with each other and in our faith. Think how freeing and grace-filled that journey could be! We might have some meaningful words to share with one another about that kind of pilgrimage.


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