By Eddie Pipkin
When checking out a recently published article about how families decide whether to choose an artificial Christmas tree or a live version, I was fascinated to read about the evolving nature of increasingly realistic fake trees. You will have noticed that you can now buy trees with genuine-looking bark, needles that are practically indistinguishable from their natural counterparts, and even trees that emit a bona fide evergreen scent. There has even been a recent movement to make artificial trees that are intentionally imperfect. That’s right: the new search for Christmas tree authenticity means that you can purchase a specimen that is flawed by design (since perfect trees are not a real-world phenomenon). This got me to thinking about our attempts as church leaders to promote the authenticity that people seem to be seeking. Sometimes we can lean so heavily into the bullet list of “things that make church/worship feel authentic” that we unintentionally end up with something that feels manufactured and fake.
First of all, here’s the explanation of the evolution of artificial tree design, as related by home designer Marni Jameson in an interview with Mac Harman, founder of Balsam Brands:
“Consumers are leaning toward more organic looking, asymmetrical trees,” said Harman. “For years consumers have wanted full, perfectly shaped trees, with no gaps, but trees don’t grow that way.” Harman travels the world snipping tree branches and snapping tree photos to bring back to mimic. . . . While the company still sells plenty of full, symmetrical trees, the trend is toward “trees that have arms shooting off unevenly, and are not as dense,” Harman said. “They leave more room for ornaments and show some trunk, which has long been a no-no.”
So, consumers want their Christmas tree to look real in every conceivable way from needles to bark to misshapen limbs, but they also want perfectly wired lights, an absence of sap, and no watering required.
Church seekers, as we all know, can function like consumers, and they sometimes confuse the trappings of engaging worship with the demands of discipleship. We can be guilty of promoting that confusion. When we are too focused on how good worship looks and sounds, too absorbed in the entertaining aspects of the message, and too indulgent in self-help gospels at the expense of the biblical gospel, we trade in a kind of fauxthenticity.
The trouble, on our end, is that we make decisions based on what’s popular and trending (particularly what’s trending at the megachurches, which so dominate the conversation and culture of contemporary Christianity). As captured by the Renewing Worship website, authors of the “Sunday’s Coming: Movie Trailer” parody of contemporary megachurch worship, there is a cookie-cutter template that has evolved that demands we imitate it or fail:
In other words, to do things not because they are heartfelt, or an authentic reflection of who you are, but because they are a means to an end. Going back to the satire of the video, much of what such churches intentionally do is very important to be intentional about, but also easy to become plastic about. By plastic, I mean having a motivation that is more about establishing a posture than about manifesting a heartfelt desire to authentically present Christ in the most winsome and compelling manner possible to our culture.
This last temptation is the darkest of all, and can seep into the rest of the temptations, for example, being hip: you wear glasses, or dye your hair, or grow a soul patch because it is hip. This is particularly obvious when the person in question is, um, a bit on the older side of things. Or you go green – not because you really care about the environment, but because you know it’s a cultural selling point. Or you support AIDS orphans in Africa, not because you really care about the pandemic, but because you know it makes you look good in the eyes of others as an institution.
If people are showing up on our doorstep on a sincere search for answers, they can sniff out those affectations from a mile away. If they see us “putting on a front” in worship, they will not trust us in matters of connection or discipleship.
And beyond the aesthetics of worship, there is also the issue of how free people are to express their true spiritual struggles. At the Sojourners website, in an article entitled “Fake Church vs. Real Church,” the authors wonder if we’re getting it right:
Transparency and honesty are virtues that the church needs to start implementing into their regular routines.
Jesus’ ministry was powerful because it addressed people directly where they were at — dealing with the thorny issues of life. He didn’t provide an alternate reality; he simply gave people the inspiration and ability to change, reform, forgive, and start over.
Many Christians don’t understand that the church isn’t meant to be void of guilt, but rather a place to admit it. It’s not meant to be a place to avoid pain, but a community where it can be shared and addressed. It’s not meant to be a distraction from sickness, but a care-center where sickness is either healed or made easier to deal with.
People who are showing up at our churches, broken and searching (not just for a hip worship hour, but for real solutions to life-crushing problems), are looking for validation of their own experiences. When we create an environment in which they can be heard and where we give them relevant hope for their struggles, we provide them with a sense of authentic community.
In a timely article from the United Methodist News Service on the different approaches UM congregations take on Christmas Eve, there are tips for what all churches should be doing to make visitors feel welcome, and there is also reinforcement of the truth that each individual church is different, and, therefore, authenticity means being true to your context:
There are some pitfalls churches should avoid on Christmas Eve. Powe’s Lewis Center colleague Ann A. Michel urges church leaders not to be snide with infrequent church attenders, with such remarks as “Hope we won’t have to wait another year to see you again.”
Even those who attend only once a year visiting family can act as goodwill ambassadors for church, Powe said.
Unwelcoming attitudes aside, he stressed that there is no one way to practice Christmas hospitality. “But it has to be authentic to who you are,” he added.
Patodia of United Methodist Communications puts it this way: “There is no perfect church — just the ones that are perfect for me.”
By beginning with avoidable pitfalls, this article offers a pointed example of an authenticity trap: if we say we welcome all people and then make fun of them for joining us, we don’t sound authentic. There are many ways we struggle to be faithful to the platitudes that we spout with regularity. “We believe all people have value,” we say, but we are divided into social and leadership cliques. “We love families,” we say, but we roll our eyes when children are loud or disruptive during worship. “We value different perspectives,” we say, but our worship always offers exactly the same kind of music, and our committees are filled with the same sorts of folks. True authenticity holds us accountable to the values we publicly express.
True authenticity also means being confident in our identity within our geographical, cultural, and theological context and leaning into that identity.
I love that line, quoted above, “There is no perfect church – just the ones that are perfect for me.” When we are trying to be too many things to too many people, we are on a direct path to fauxthenticity. There is strength in being true to who we are as individual leaders and as a congregation.
Some churches go big and pull out all the stops for Christmas Eve services. Some people do Christmas Eve just like they would any other worship experience. Neither of these strategies is right or wrong. They each communicate an authentic message to the visitors who come through their doors – as long as they are true to the spirit of that individual congregation. We are not called to be like anybody else. We are not locked into a certain performative face that we must put forth if we are to be true to the gospel. The message of God’s grace is adaptable. It thrives in a diversity of expressions and welcomes people where they are.
As I was writing this, I remembered one of my favorite scenes from the pantheon of animated Christmas specials, the Grinch poised at the top of Mt. Crumpet, maliciously preparing to dump the Who Christmas loot off the cliff. He tilts his head and cups his ear, expecting to hear their wails of despair as they awake to find Christmas stolen, but what he hears – and what changes his heart – is that instead they are singing, singing with love and gratitude. Their singing is an authentic expression of who they are and what Christmas means to them. It’s not fake, it’s not engineered, and it’s something they are not doing just to impress seekers who might be listening in. It’s real.
Are you familiar with examples of fauxthenticity? How do you and your church encourage authenticity without it becoming something that’s fake or staged? What are the biggest challenges of leading an authentic church? What are the biggest rewards? Leave some comments in my stocking and make my Christmas merry!