When I ask my students what matters most to them in worship, they don’t have to think long before they answer. “Authenticity,” they say immediately. “Worship must be authentic.” However, when I ask what they mean by authentic, it’s another story. Apparently, authenticity is one of those things that is hard to define but easy to spot, at least in the negative. We can’t exactly say what it is, but we know when it’s not there.
On the whole, I think authenticity in worship is probably a good idea. But I doubt that my vision of authentic is the same as my students’. Sometimes my authentic self is the one who would prefer that woman two rows up to stop waving her arms around while we sing about God’s reckless love. It would also prefer to stop calling God reckless. The real, authentic me would rather be somewhere else doing something else.
My pastoral students feel that authenticity is important in ministry too. Most tell me that authenticity is foundational to the pastoral task. But if I ask them how they know whether a pastor is authentic or not, their answer is just as vague. When I press for an example, they usually describe someone who isn’t afraid to talk about their failures to the congregation.
This definition of authenticity seems somewhat problematic to me. In the old days, we used different language to speak of a pastor who told you what to do and then admitted that he himself was unable to live that way. I believe the term is hypocrite. But of course, that is not at all what people mean when they talk about someone being authentic. They mean real. No masks. The public persona is the same as the private. Fair enough. But the truth is, we really don’t want the pastor to be authentic. Not completely authentic. Just authentic enough to make us feel comfortable with our own failure.
Despite what we say we want, in actuality, the fabric of human civilization is largely held together by a set of behavioral codes that teach us to be inauthentic. We call them manners. They include rules and responses which basically amount to socially sanctioned lying. You say you want the truth? As Jack Nicholson famously declared, “You can’t handle the truth.”
Imagine that one evening you are visiting someone in their home. You’ve been having a good time but you notice your host yawning. “It’s getting late,” you say. “I really must be going.” “Do you have to?” they reply. “Won’t you stay a little longer?” Most people know that this is really code for “You should have left an hour and a half ago.” The few people who don’t know this are the ones whose visits you dread.
Several years ago, one of my students wanted to introduce me to his fiancée. I really liked this student. He was the kind of kid I would have wanted my daughter to marry if I had a daughter. So I was looking forward to the meeting her. She was nice enough, I suppose. But I’m glad that afterward, he didn’t ask me for an opinion. The authentic answer would have been, “I think you could do better.”
People often tell me that my preaching is authentic. They also say that it is prophetic. I think what they really mean by this is that I am irritating. I suppose I could ask them to clarify. But I’d really rather not. I suspect they’re just being polite.