Of all the things the millennial generation wants out of church, authenticity may be the most important.
As a twentysomething pastor who lives in Silver Lake—a very creative, diverse, and subversive neighborhood in LA—I see the need for authenticity in the hearts of my neighbors, as well as in my own heart. It’s the battle cry of our generation, often expressed publicly with ironic clothing and accessories, or more privately with heart-to-heart conversations over coffee and other things we love.
I think the cry for authenticity stems out of the reality that we’re a generation let down by previous ones. Past ideals don’t work for us. We’re fed up with wearing masks and hiding the truth about ourselves in an effort to blend in because it starves our hearts and leaves us empty. We crave a place and people we can be our true selves with and be truly loved. We’re crawling out from the bushes and searching for more. We’re calling others out to do the same, too, and are creating new standards for relationships.
However, the quest for meaning isn’t without its challenges. Authenticity itself is hard to define and—because of that—it’s even harder to find in churches.
What is Authenticity?
A lot of things can be mistaken for authenticity: relativism (“whatever seems right to me has to be OK with everyone else”), social elitism (“only people with a dark past and tattoos belong”), and dedication to causes (“meet my cat, he’s a rescue”) are just a few examples.
However, I think when we search the Scriptures for definition, we discover authenticity is much more than all that. One passage that sums it up well is Ephesians 4:22-24, in which believers are called, “to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”
Thus, authenticity in the Church is the quality of our exposure of brokenness and adornment in God’s grace. An authentic person is one who is both privately and publicly putting off the old self and, by God’s grace, putting on the renewed self.
This kind of authenticity expresses itself different in people based on their unique journeys, but it is unmistakably glorifying to God. With that in mind, let’s consider a few steps to possessing authenticity, using Jesus’ words in Luke 9:23 (‘“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me”) as a guide.
1. Be Vulnerable.
“Deny yourself daily.”
Be a storyteller. Among believers, confess your origins as well as the ways you’re still broken. Try to articulate how you’re not yet whole in both your beliefs and your rhythms of life.
All of us need redemption and renewal in all of life, and so we must be intentional to communicate that everyday “right now” need to others regularly. How did you need Jesus yesterday? How do you need Him today? How do you need Him tomorrow? Tell that story to God, yourself, and to others.
2. Embrace the Tension.
“Take up your cross daily.”
After you’ve been vulnerable about your brokenness, find your way to the cross, to death, and to burial, and stay there for a while.
Don’t shy away. The experience is supposed to be awkward and emotionally uncomfortable. Accept that the journey is a painful process, and cooperate with God as He initiates and carries out change in your life. As surely as you experience the death and burial of your broken self, you’ll also experience the resurrection of it.
Remember, too, that other believers are all in the middle of the journey, too. We’re all processing. Even as you’re striving to be authentic, you’ll find that others are not reciprocating, but don’t let that stop you from faithfully taking the steps you need to take in your own journey. Your journey into authenticity starts with you, so embrace the tension. Don’t wait on everyone else.
God didn’t wait on you to show you grace. That was a one-way street, with Him initiating the giving and you simply receiving. So it is with authenticity. You give it away, no matter how it’s received. On your part, though, be ready to respond rightly to others when they’re authentic. No shaming. Stay with them in the tension, ask questions and encourage them about what’s ahead. To what extent are you prepared to surrender yourself to Jesus and His Church? How will you react when others do?
3. Recover with God’s Story.
Follow Jesus daily.
After you’ve been vulnerable and have stayed at the cross and in the tension, receive God’s Word, letting it be what covers you. Jesus’ story is yours, like a new garment to cover your nakedness.
What you believe—the story you tell yourself—is what what will determine what color, shape, and texture your life has. What is true about you because of Jesus? What is true about the others in your church because of Jesus? What does that mean for your life with others? That is your new reality, and it’s theirs too, and it’s how we should see and treat ourselves and one another.
Ultimately, Jesus is the standard for authenticity. He defines what it means to be an individual, to be loved in God’s own community, and to offer real hope to the world. Every day, we need to let go of ourselves more and more, that Christ might be displayed in us increasingly and endlessly. When we let Jesus be the hero and leader of our stories and follow Him, He brings beautiful change into our broken hearts and leads us to places far more beautiful and satisfying that we ever could imagine.
If you want an experience with authenticity, prepare yourself for for a wild but glorious adventure.
Stephen is the lead pastor of Adorn, a church plant in Los Angeles that cultivates community movements for Gospel renewal. He lives in Silver Lake with his wife Emily, daughter Remedy, and their dog Taco. He enjoys family time, local coffee, food trucks and being missional with neighbors. You can follow him on Twitter (@stephenmcalpin).