Brief Thoughts: On Community and Authenticity

I.

What does it mean to be an authentic Christ follower?

Authentic Christianity–that term splashed across the internet, espoused in the pages of well-written books, preached ad nauseam from modern-day pulpits. Some are drunk with the notion that authenticity is found only in the spilling of our idolatrous histories from red-wine glasses or broad-brimmed cups of microbrews in bars where the happy hour banter is thinly coated with Jesus. Doubt is authentic. Adultery is authentic. Coffee stains on the front of your teeth are authentic.

Certainly, these are a facet of authenticity. After all, the truth is authentic.

II.

Some friends meet in a minister’s home. Our community group has grown beyond manageable, and we are discussing our split into three smaller groups. Joseph, a joy-plagued friend, is perched on the arm of the couch drinking red wine from a coffee mug. We are talking about the hallmarks of our group and someone says that we are authentic. “What does that mean?” he asks.

We pause and he gives us space to consider the question.

“Authenticity is not reserved for the dirt of your life; it’s not relegated to righteous anger at the injustices of the world.” This is an immediately convicting statement. “A part of authenticity is learning to show authentic joy, how to authentically be in a good place. It’s okay not to be hurting all the time.”

I consider my stabs at authenticity, my attempts to over-identify with the down-and-out, my penchant for the melancholy. Maybe in our quest for authenticity, we’ve become mired in something else. Maybe we’re just playing a different version of the same age-old church game, the one we’ve accused our parents of playing.

III.

An authentic life is not measured in degrees of sin-sharing comfort. An authentic life is measured in totality.

IV.

There are corollaries to authentic life wreckage–ultimate joy and peace are found through reconciliation in the cross; reconciliation has a cost, but it’s reconciliation nonetheless; and joy comes in the morning, so if it is morning, celebrate the joy.

V.

Wisdom has mixed her wine, set her table, and invited us to dinner. There are some things worth celebrating authentically. Are you free to celebrate?

Well, are you?

Have you considered authenticity? What does it mean to you? What are the barriers to it? Have we stripped the term of meaning by its overuse? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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34 Responses to Brief Thoughts: On Community and Authenticity

  1. Jessica Y says:

    This was very convicting to me. I, too,” attempt to over-identify with the down-and-out” and brush aside (dare I say) the folks hangin in the “alright place”. Maybe not brush aside, but ….you get what I’m sayin. I am good at participating in the sin sharing part….Thanks for exposing my heart to this. I need it.

    • Jessica Y says:

      I sit here and
      think about how strangely comfortable the sin sharing part is and quite a bit harder for me to “just be alright”.

      • sethhaines says:

        I know what you mean. I think the sin sharing part is more comfortable because it assumes a type of humility (whether genuine or false)?

        Do you think that it’s difficult to express the “alright” because we’re afraid of sounding prideful?

  2. What a wonderful post for me to stumble upon, Seth, considering my/our book on exactly this topic (Soul Bare). It is vitally important to me to present “authenticity” without just giving writers/readers an excuse for whining or complaining without purpose. To me (and it was my publisher, Jonathan, who helped me sort of construct this idea), authentic community is the freedom of sharing the truth with purpose. In light of my faith, authenticity is the sharing of truth with a *redemptive* purpose. I think there is a Christian subculture that is becoming quite popular (doubt, adultery, microbreweries and all) and honestly, I’m prime to be roped in by it because it feels a lot like a refreshing change of pace compared to a side of the church as a whole that has felt, for me, a lot like a happy-slappy sea of fake faces in pretty dresses lining church pews. There is a balance, for sure, and it’s worth being mindful of, so as not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Thanks for posting this relevant food for thought.

    • sethhaines says:

      I like the thought of “redemptive” purpose. But we’ve been recasting the language, maybe gone back to an older language. In our community, we’ve begun focusing less on purpose and more on aim. I.e., we’re asking whether we are pressing forward in spiritual maturity.

      Confessing junk may be a firs step toward that… but it ain’t the last, if you know what I’m saying.

      • Less on purpose and more on aim. Hmmm. Sounds like a place I want to settle my mind for awhile… think on it and roll around in it a bit. I wonder how, in all my ways, I can focus my energies more on pressing forward in spiritual maturity, which I think sounds like a better thing to aim for, really, than having a destination mapped out, or an expectation of redemption without always being clear on what that means…since I’m so prone to wander and all. Thanks for the thoughts. Gives me a spark…

    • Bridget says:

      I do think you’re right about this “subculture” being a backlash of sorts. Or, as Seth said, exactly the same thing under a different guise. Perhaps it’s time for the pendulum to find a happy medium, or better yet, for the Church to come closer to real truth. And I suppose this is often the way we find it.

  3. And, sorry for the flagrant abuse of parentheses in the comment above. Been a long day… 😉

  4. DavidAndKalli says:

    We like this.

  5. Annie says:

    I don’t think all the banter about authenticity bothered me much until I heard a person describe someone else as inauthentic. And I may not have used the word inauthentic, but I have been guilty of judging those who don’t see eye to eye on the value of the reflective life and verbal processing as less self-aware, less fully themselves. (As if I’d be an adequate judge of these things, at the ripe age of 31, and blessedly blinded by my own brokenness.) But the unknown pain sealed fifty years back or the narrative of nice guy status or the just plain happier temperament of another are just as valid as my story. And I wonder if our quest for authenticity is really a quest to know and be known, and if we’d all do well to just start listening, make space to really know one another. This was a good post, Seth.

    • sethhaines says:

      I like this thought–“make space to really know one another.”

      I think that authenticity is not found in the effluence of our words but in the depth of our lives. Maybe we should understand each other’s depths more.

    • Bridget says:

      “I wonder if our quest for authenticity is really a quest to know and be known”
      Annie, I’ve wondered this, too. Talking about our faults, fears, and mistakes is one way to say, “this is who I am.” But then we’re also so much more.

  6. I think I’m with Cara here – and likely, with you, too. To be authentic means, I think, to be who we are – all of who we are. When we’re awestruck with wonder – say so. When we’re weighed down by the cares of life – say so, appropriately, with people you trust. Happy-Slappy is not okay. But neither is sharing secret sins just for the sake of ‘coming clean.’ Somewhere there must be a space that is real, somewhere in the middle, somewhere near the cross . . . and the empty tomb.

  7. Oh. Oh.

    My soul is a’jumping after this one, Mr. Haines. You call a spade a spade – or maybe even a shovel, because who says spade these days? This is so accurate. I have felt this pressure – the subtle statement that the dark things are more real than the light. It’s like not having a testimony. Those of us saved out of sucking our thumbs – where is God in that?

    But he’s there. And he’s there in our joy, and he’s there in our sweet peace and in our all-rightness. Let’s give testimony .

  8. Jody Lee Collins says:

    Seth–thank you for forging ahead and speaking out about this issue. I don’t think it actually has a name, but it’s a collective idea that says ‘the real-er I am about the awfulness/hardness of my current life (including gritty details) will no doubt draw people to Christ because they’ll see just how ‘authentic’ a person I am AND I talk about Jesus a lot. (you said it far more eloquently).
    People are drawn to the Kingdom of God by its beauty, they are drawn to cross by God’s kindness and they are drawn to us when they see our joy.
    You can’t fake joy. It’s black and white, you either have it or you don’t–and it only comes from Jesus. Period. We need to get back to being willing to be a little less comfortable and safe and learn to tell the truth about God, not us.
    That’s authentic Christianity.
    Why did Jesus die? “For the joy set before him.”

  9. This is timely for me. Just yesterday I had a conversation with someone who asked me about the stories I tell–whether I consider them cautionary tales or stories of hope. I’ve often joked that the purpose of my life is to serve as a cautionary tale, but that’s not it, is it? If I remember my catechism correctly, my purpose is to glorify and enjoy. Great post. And I appreciate so many of the comments above.

  10. dukeslee says:

    This really resonates with me. I tend to be a rather upbeat personality in my life — not just in the church pews, but also when no one is watching. Yes, I have tear-filled and angsty, crappy days. Yes, I analyze and wonder and question and doubt and brood. But typically, I’m rather joy-filled, even (dare I say the word) “happy.” There are some people who might think that’s not authentic. But I can tell you this: That is very much a part of my own authenticity. I appreciate the opportunity to share that here, Seth. Thank you for opening the door to this level of honesty.

  11. bhirschy says:

    Just a thought – from where I’m sitting, ‘authentic’ as a branded term* is used when someone (or something) is trying to prove that it’s authentic… which means there is some level of inauthenticity. Truly authentic doesn’t require the name tag and can speak for itself.

    My most authentic friends don’t have conversations about the word, it just is…

    *I do think the word has become one of the bastardized christian branding terms that are used now. It used to be such a good word but now is dying a lonely, meaningless death. Think about the phrase “authentic love” – Love is authentic or not.

  12. Brandon says:

    It seems authenticity is what happens in the presence of a safe environment. (As a therapist) Perhaps this is why authenticity is more easily achieved on my couch in my office than in an environment where social customs dictate your mood/presentation (regardless of this being in a church pew or over a microbrew).

    If someone in my office is in extreme emotional pain despite frequent prayers for redemption that is okay. Where does that fit into the schema of the happy pew or the “i have joy b/c jesus gave it to me”? Of course, this isn’t a mandate to be stuck in a place of constant down-and-out mentality … but if you are there then be there.

  13. Josh says:

    The word itself brings to mind the ideas of authorship, authority… the power of Truth emanating from alignment with the purposes of the Author and Creator.

    Such an idea must be consistent with itself, and so the idea of integrity comes to mind as well… the willingness to let that which is be seen for what it is without equivocation.

    That doesn’t mean just showing off the ugly stuff, although I think that transparency with regard to secret sins and so forth is a point on the trajectory toward authenticity for many. Because it is helpful to short-circuit the desire to create a best-me “personal brand” out of selective truths. But then cool Interwebby people start writing about it, transparency becomes trendy, and it can become just another branding strategy.

    I’m starting to see murmurings of the pendulum swinging back the other way – toward less public sharing, more privacy, etc – and I think that’s a good thing. I think authenticity is best expressed and experienced on a human scale, among the people with whose lives yours is so intertwined that it’s not even possible to create your brand because they know better.

    And as someone else wrote: among those people, authenticity just is. There’s not even a need to put a name to it, or discuss it.

  14. Bridget says:

    Seth, I’m not sure why, but “over-identification with the down and out” seems to be trendy outside the Church, as well. It’s somehow less than okay to have a life of abundance — How dare you celebrate when there are people in the world who mourn? How dare you enjoy what some cannot?

  15. My heart is so full with a screaming YES at your words. I have long found myself longing for a balance of the extremes….your words here bring life to that space in my heart…!

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  17. well that was sorta a punch in the gut (in a good way). as i am in a hard place right now it is difficult to share–but it was easy before to express how authentic i was. sigh.

    i do think there is value when we are awake to the world. this might be what we are all striving towards in our quest to burn our parents religion and create one of our own. and i don’t think this is bad, in a way. but self-righteous indignation is another way of living a cloudy, murky life.

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