One of the words I hear a lot these days, inside and outside the church, is authentic. Christians use this word to indicate a level of honesty and even vulnerability that ought to characterize relationships in the church. It means leaving behind the facades we normally hide behind. Another way of putting it is that we should “be real.”
Though a term like authentic can become a catchphrase, if taken seriously it’s an invitation to bring our whole selves to Christ in the context of community. Since salvation means being made whole, being healed, I think that it’s safe to say that being authentic in a genuine sense should be integral to the life of the church. I want to explain why I think so from a more personal perspective.
Currently, I am a full time pastor of a small, rural congregation. Because of the kind of person I am, I tend to
hide some of what goes on in me. Or to put it another way: there have been times when I’ve acted happier and more together than was actually the case. While sometimes I was hiding personal struggles, most times I am hiding something going on in my family. In any case, the experience is frustrating because, like it or not , church culture often includes the underlying assumption: no one wants to know you are really doing; they just want to hear that you’re fine.
So there’s that.
This assumption also applies to the pastor and his family. Because the pastoral family are there to encourage, to minister, they always have to be doing so from a position of strength and wellness. I risk generalizing here, of course. I know there are varying degrees to which congregations are able to handle ministry families that experience significant struggles.
Our most significant struggle as a family has been with my wife’s health. More specifically, she suffers from major depressive disorder. This means she goes through extended seasons when her depression becomes much more serious, to the point of being paralyzing. At its worst, her depression cuts her off from everyday life, leaving her usually unable to cope with normal responsibilities.
What makes it even more difficult for us is that a lot of people find depression very difficult to understand. My impression is that most people don’t know how to behave around and relate to someone who is depressed. It’s awkward, not unlike being around someone who is grieving.
To put this in the context of ministry, my wife’s depression has reduced her church involvement to nil . She rarely participates beyond attending on Sunday mornings. Most of the congregation is used to this by now, but I also know there are some who experience disappointment with her near total absence from church life.
This has made things more difficult for me as a pastor because it means I have had to spend a lot more time looking after our kids and doing housework than a lot of other pastors and most working fathers. It’s often left me feeling guilty and anxious, since it feels like the balance often gets tipped in the direction of home and not church.
What does any of this have to do with being authentic? Simply this: my experience is that I don’t have the freedom to be honest about what our struggles are like. Yes, our church knows about my wife’s depression. What they don’t know is how awful and stressful it can often be, that there are days when I wish I could just explode, letting all of the pent up frustration, anger, and stress blow up like a balloon stretched too far. What they don’t know is that there are Sundays when I just don’t want to be there, when I’d rather be doing anything else, and partly because in our current church culture there is precious little room for a pastor to stand before his people and be truly vulnerable and even emotional over the brokenness that marks their lives as well.
Wrestling with these issues I find myself thinking that the church, that “authentic” Christian community, should mean having the freedom to be so vulnerable. Surely this is what Scripture in part means when it speaks of bearing one another’s burdens. And of course bearing someone else’s burdens means knowing about them, sharing them, all in an environment of love and compassion. Such emotional honesty and maturity, I sense, is rare in many churches.
It’d be foolish to think that cultivating community of this sort is easy. But I also don’t think we can avoid it. People both inside and outside the church are in need of such community. And there are even some who long for it. It’s both an evangelistic and pastoral care issue, one that requires and, yes, even demands our intentionality.
Not only that, but becoming more and more whole in Christ means letting Christ into areas of deep pain and insecurity, allowing him to do his healing work. Indeed, salvation is all about being healed, about being made whole. But becoming whole in Christ requires community, and is possible only in relationships of mutuality, accountability, and, yes, vulnerability. This is because it is in the faces of our brothers and sisters in faith that Jesus meets us.
It’s my feeling that we both long for and try to avoid such intimacy. Either way, the local body of believers ought to be a focal point for such authenticity in community. Too often, however, we in the church pretend, put on fake smiles, and allow our relationships to remain largely superficial.
Jesus became flesh and blood. He touched the lives of the hurting and the lonely, the kind of people that are in our churches. But we wouldn’t always know it. No wonder so many find church less and less relevant. If the deepest, most personal part of ourselves must be kept under wraps, how are we letting Jesus become incarnate through us?
I confess: I need Jesus. I need his life, his forgiveness, his friendship, his presence. I want to know him more than I do now. I want him to invade the dark, hidden corners of my life and bring healing. I need him to put me back together.
Like anyone, I need community, people into whose arms I could safely run and even weep. A community that embraces the weak. A comhmunity thatl accepts me in all of my messy glory.
Perhaps in all this I am alone. Maybe my struggles are unique. Who knows? What I do know for sure is that whatever else people mean when is looking for a church that is authentic, this is what I need.