Some years ago I twittered over on Frank Viola’s website (an absolutely cracking place to visit for some great thoughts, reflections and quality books etc) . . . he posted one word “Twitter” and wanted a response . . . . I replied, “All that twitters is not gold” (Ha!) . . . .
Well, that got me thinking . . . how do we sift the good stuff from the dross, the intelligent, quality comment from the inane cliche . . . or Christian soundbite, or Christian click bait or “post-truth” nonsense that we find ourselves spreading before we realise?
A few years ago I read a great book, called “Authenticity” by David Boyle (check it out here).
It is a great, great book . . . and I am thinking about it again now as we approach Christmas. As we start lighting candles in Church, getting ready for the “true light” (John 1:9) to enter our world.
That word “true” used here by John means real, authentic.
Never mind some of the shallow dross around us at Christmas time – all that glitters in our Christian fermament might not be actual light – we live in a world of artificial light, bulbs, tubes, flickering screens . . . we can almost be blinded by ACTUAL light, never mind its warmth and life bringing properties . . . we long for something real.
David Boyle taps into the desire that we all have for something REAL – even Atheists, like Alain DeBotton seem to be hankering after something that might help people have an “authentic” EXPERIENCE of Atheisim (with “Religion for Atheists“) and, as atheism is not life enhancing or enriching, he plundered religion to try and bring more meaning to what it is to be an atheist!
We all want something REAL at the end of the day . . . we may even look in the wrong places, and even in the Church . . . we might chase after what someone else has said or written about the AUTHOR of life, rather than seek Him for ourselves.
As Christians we all have “a friend in Jesus”, but when it comes to sharing our faith or being a natural evangelist we get a bit odd.
In any other context it would be strange – if we had a good friend and people knew that this person was our friend – but, if they ever asked for an introduction . . . rather than do it ourselves, we suggested they speak to one of our other friends who also knows the person . . . weird! Yet, we do that quite often with Jesus.
How can we be REAL about Jesus, REAL about the Church . . . how do we live, breathe, have . . . an authentic community life that others are attracted to? Does the “real” light of Christ and our love for each other draws others in? What better time to be thinking about this than now as we get ready to welcome thousands of people for whom this is their only church outing of the year.
Well, from “Authenticity”, here are ten things that David says . . . (I don’t know if this guy has a faith, the book was written about authenticity – not about the Church – but, lets ask ourselves, “If my church practiced these things, if these things were real in our church community – would we be attractive to others”?
#1. Real means ethical – We have some great social justice campaigns in the Church, we need to strive for ethical living – but also ethical governance of all things “church”. Is it right or even ethical to have historical riches insured for tens of thousands in some of our oldest churches whilst people walk past on their way to a food-bank this Christmas?
#2. Real means natural – Got that forced smile on for church? Is being “community” something we put on because we are together, or does it flow from a natural ease with each other that can only come if we share our lives together? It is hard to be natural and relaxed with those we only see twice a month.
#3. Real means honest – We need to wake up! Honestly, we are in trouble (we have generations missing from the Church). We also need to acknowledge when we make mistakes, have greater transparency and not be ashamed of the good the Church does and the benefits of our work nationally for local communities that, if the Church wasn’t involved (e.g. in delivering youth work and children’s clubs) very little would be happening.
#4. Real means simple – Do we make it hard for people to join? How many hoops do people have to jump through before they “belong” in your church? Do we complicate the Gospel? The Shepherds grasped the good news . . . they couldn’t wait to share it – they hadn’t been on an “Evangelism 101” course for six weeks. They heard news, responded to the news, had an encounter with Christ and shared their joy. Could we simply do the same this Christmas?
#5. Real means unspun – Do we spin our numbers, our influence, our engagement, our profile? Social Media doesn’t help us here . . . it is easy to signal “virtue” by joining in with something that doesn’t ask much of us. We can spin ourselves in to thinking we are making a difference, doing the stuff by . . . sending a tweet or, er, writing a blog. Is it real? Is it truly “us”? Or are we portraying a picture that has been edited, sanitised, homogenised?
#6. Real means sustainable – How many “pet projects” can the church get involved in over the course of one year, there is a new fad, new expectation, new national initaitve from somewhere in the Church every other week it seems . . . we can’t do ALL these things, what will we DO that we can sustain – we WILL sustain what we really value, maybe that is why so much in the church comes and goes. More ideas for more activities grow and spread when we are anxious or in a panic about what we are doing and who we are. What “next thing” will help us discover the missing ingredient? We cannot continue like that! What would the local church look like if we did one thing well. One thing. Did it really well. Kept doing it for centuries. It is no coincidence that much of the worship in our Cathedrals has remained the same for many years and they are growing.
#7. Real means beautiful – What is this about? Well, so much of design is about function – purpose. Have you noticed how “new build” churches could be any kind of community building? You look in an ancient church, high up – where nobody can see there are intricate designs, amazing pieces of work . . . these artists, architects and designers were not doing it to show off to the congregation . . . they were making and creating (sometimes for YEARS before they finished) to the glory of God. Think about that for a moment, there are works of art in our ancient churches – in the very stones themselves – that only God has ever seen. What, about our places and spaces for worship – do we inspire awe and wonder? Do we point others to an encounter with Christ or is the “beautiful” thing how great our band sounds? How fantastic our visuals are? We have a guest speaker for Christmas that everyone will want to hear from?
#8. Real means rooted – This is a hard one, we live in a transient culture – with people who move around A LOT – but we need rooted leadership, rooted volunteers, rooted groups and activities . . . we need to change the culture of volunteering for a couple of years with youth work and then doing something else – lets be rooted in each others lives, and together rooted in Christ. Ephesians 3 says, “rooted / established in love” . . . this is in Christ, but we are also a body living in community. I believe that greater commitment to the place we are IN will bear fruit in our own lives and the lives of those we seek to reach with the light of the Gospel. I love the way The Message puts it in John’s gospel, as Eugene Peterson talks of Jesus “moving in to our neighbourhood.”
#9. Real means three-dimensional – Real experience has depth, a book a few years ago was called “The McDonaldization of the Church” (check it here) – in this book John Drane is concerned that we have created a homorgenous kind of experience . . . worship, liturgy, preaching etc . . . where is the light and shade? where are the dimensions where we can plumb the depths . . . ? Where can we honestly wrestle with stuff that makes NO sense? We can play semantics with the timing of things in the Bible – but, if we have people in our congregations just once a year . . . isn’t it WORTH telling them things they may never have heard about Jesus’ early life? For example, Herod’s attempt to kill him; Jesus and his family fleeing as refugees – this is our God, this is our Saviour – born in to a corrupt and broken world, born poor and running from an evil tyranny. Sound familiar? Lets get real and authentic – lets not just rest on a cosy image of a hay filled manger and cattle gently lowing while a new born baby gurgles contentedly.
#10. Real means human – I am writing a blog, I will tweet about it – it will then appear on my Facebook page and on my Linkedin network . . . others might comment (or not) , all this can be done with no human contact. I believe social media is a great tool for communicating with each other, sharing ideas etc – but NOTHING can make up for actual human contact. If we can reach millions with our profound thoughts online about the importance of relationships – but struggle to make eye contact or string a sentace together with someone in front of us – we have LOST what it means to be real. Whether it is a blog and a “long form” kind of post, or short snappy sentences stripped back to the bare bones – you can’t see my face, detect the nuance of tone . . and this isn’t a conversation – this is a monologue – I write this, you either read it (or don’t) and comment (or don’t). I don’t have to pause to listen to you – you can’t interject when I am half way through. I’m not waiting to see what you might have to say . . . lets get more human and re-discover the word made flesh in one another. Not the word mad digital, not the word as a PDF nor the word turned in to a hipster cool picture with the latest filter (that says more about what I think of my own skill with a camera or smart phone than it might about Jesus).
Finally, at the end of this great, great book, David Boyle recommends things that organisations can do in this “age of authenticity” . . . this is also great stuff – think about your own context. Would trying to do these things, or thinking about them – make your light shine more brightly and more naturally?
Make it personal. Who are we aiming at? The more local, the more specific, the more we are likely to connect with people . . . you might NEED to run a bunch of small groups for young people that 4-6 attend rather than do a “one youth group” for all model. The days are gone when we had 100 on the register and 95 turned up every week. What about some personal invites this year to Christmas stuff? Make it personal – visit the local school, business, pub, social enterprise – bless them with some mince pies, say an actual hello to others. Don’t just leaflet drop your invites to Christmas services? God so loved the world he didn’t post a flyer through our door.
Maximise human contact. Quantity is just as important as quality. I have two amazing daughters, it matters when I am around if we play together . . . but, just as important to them in terms of their sense of peace about their world is my “being there”. In the house, around, bumping into eac other . . . contact is contact – it counts – whether we are “doing something” together or not. It also means they see me just being “me”, not just trying to be “super dad” . . . our young people in our churches, youth groups need to just be around us and we need to be around them. Those we seek to each should not just see us when we are in “seeking to reach” mode – they should be our actual friends, the actual people we spend our actual lives alongside. It would be a very weird church (a cult perhaps?) if the only other people we knew and spent time with in our communities were just those already in the church.
Split up the organisation. This is a challenge for the church – I don’t just mean lets all worship together – I mean with the para church organisations, some of the national initatives that the BIG players insist we are all “in on” . . . meanwhile, in the world that has moved on. Localism is THE agenda, more local, more geographical, more specific. Unity is not found in us all being the same, or all agreeing – unity is found in BEING in Christ. It is not a state we bring about. Yet there is a persistant call to “join” to be seen to be “united” in specific acts. Some of this is good . . . but, why is it that we have not seen (in predominantly white churches) churches with 10,000 plus in this country? Well, in many other nations a whole church may never get together . . . there are loads of pastors and leaders released to effectively lead “mini churches”, we are not geared up for that – but, also, we have not dealt with some of our issues to do with controlling power . . . lets “split” and see more happen, lets plant and see more grow!
The Authentic Life of God. Final, final thought . . . God lived an authentic life on earth, He came and actually lived, He sought out – understood and encouraged human contact among his followers – He did not encourage them to disappear up their own backsides arguing over theological differences . . . in his calling of the 12, he tried to bring some authenticity back to the people of Israel – this so called “light to the nations“, who had lost their way, was symbolically brought back together by the “light of the world”.
God then died a real, actual, horrible death – God suffered, really suffered. God died. God was then ressurected. Actually, came back to life. In the risen body the marks of death remained as an authentic reminder of what had gone before.
We need to live deep, real, authentic lives – we need to live those lives together, we need to recognise that SO MANY people in our society – especially so many of our young people are after something – ANYTHING – real, authentic and life giving.
This Christmas time, lets bring the LIGHT.