By Dan Hyun
It may be my internal contrarian speaking but I believe many of us can sense when something feels a little phony. And in a culture where snarky skepticism seems to be a defining zeitgeist of our times, the church can also feel less than genuine, even if intentions are to sincerely present our best for the Lord.
I don’t think this stems from a lack of desire. Many churches I know have some sort of stated values such as “Authenticity” or “Come as you are.” We genuinely desire to foster a loving community where people can be honest in who they are in order to experience the life-changing gospel of Jesus. That’s not, however, always the feeling people experience.
Sometimes, it’s a church’s lack of self-awareness. Without really knowing we’re doing it, a church can send vibes that outsiders aren’t welcome. This may be more along the lines of tertiary matters of expression, such as how people dress or particular jargon, making it difficult to connect with those outside the church.
This can also be true, however, of the most culturally relevant church—one that’s fully aware of how the world thinks. Sometimes our challenge is almost feeling too much like the world. Giving the benefit of the doubt, churches do this with the hope of building relational bridges with neighbors.
Yet, I’ve observed that what’s intended to be “relevant” can instead be received as “phony.” Especially to younger generations, excellence can often come off as fake—fair or not.
Admittedly, this isn’t always on the church. A church can do the most epic job of making people feel welcome. However, for some of our neighbors, their skeptical view of the church is formed from an amalgam of their own bad experiences, issues, wounds, and sin.
Even allowing for those factors, though, it serves a church well to recognize the potential challenges that may negatively impact someone’s capacity to receive the message of Christ. It’s really a matter of missional fidelity to foster authenticity in the church.
I’m aware that it seems disingenuous to even address how to be more “real.” I mean, that feels like the exact opposite of real. You can’t program “authentic.” Though I’d agree this kind of culture needs to develop in a church organically, I can also identify some intentional considerations that have been helpful for my approach to ministry.
To be clear, I’m not advocating we set a lower bar. Excellence is a worthwhile aim in ministry. Rather, even as we express ourselves in an excellent manner, may we consider the raw beauty of conveying that the path of following Christ is often walked in the shadow of darkness.
As I lead our church, I’ve tried to pull open the curtain on spaces that some have felt closed off in these kinds of environments. Whether addressing how therapy has helped in my journey toward mental health wholeness, the hateful anger I still wrestle with from traumatic memories, the lust I just can’t pray away, or the rising doubts of faith in my soul from a terrible year of family cancer, I’ve made concerted efforts to share aspects of my life that my shame probably prefers that I keep hidden.
Obviously, there is a need for Spirit-led, prayerful discernment to disclose wisely. But in most cases, God leads us in the freedom to be more open beyond our natural propensity to cover up in our fig leaves.
Many folks have internalized that the church is where you hide who you really are, lest you be branded with that scarlet letter. However, when people witness a raw kind of transparency from their pastors, it puts flesh on the values many of our churches hold to be authentic communities.
And that flesh will be marked by scars.
It’s also a way to model that transparency doesn’t exist for its own sake but as an invitation to God’s extravagant grace. It’s a tremendous opportunity to teach the truths found of Scripture and the good news available of a Savior who meets us to walk together in our darkest places.
If you’re like me, my flesh prefers to put my best face forward as I lead others. My spiritual wins and trophies as evidence of God’s transforming power. When I say “Follow me as I follow Christ,” I usually picture myself in the more “David slaying Goliath” kind of moments.
Yet, God gently continues to remind me that He is glorified in ways counterintuitive to the spirits of our age. As Paul described, “Therefore, I will most gladly boast all the more about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may reside in me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)
Transparency can be a powerful gift as our churches witness that grace is available for them in their honest darkness just as it’s sufficient for their broken pastors.
When a pastor shows that it’s OK to not be OK, the church grows to be a family where it’s OK to not be OK.
Dan is the husband to Judie, father of two girls, and lead pastor of The Village Church and Send City Missionary for Baltimore, Maryland.