Our culture loves authenticity. You can see it in the marketplace: from the classic Coca-Cola ‘It’s the Real Thing’ campaign, to ‘organically grown foods with no additives’ to distressed, “vintage” products and ripped jeans – we’re all longing for something real.
True, part of the aim of connecting with this felt need is to promise satisfaction, and this is not lost on the advertisers. Listen to a current leader in the marketing world:
“The more virtual our lives get, the more we hunger after something genuine. What people really want now is not just a product or a service, it’s an experience. An experience that is more honest and transparent …more authentic – and businesses are going to have to keep up with growing consumer authority and give people what they want if they want to survive.”
Neil Patel, The Truth Will Out – Why Authenticity is the Key to Growing Your Business
Patel knows that deep down, people relate (and tend to be drawn to) others who are authentic. We have hypocrisy-detectors for “reality shows” that aren’t, pictures that are obviously photo-shopped, and movies with CGI that look fake, distracting us from believing “the real story”.
Might not the same hold true for our websites?
Who We Are
Yet it’s also true, As T.S. Eliot wrote, when it comes to ourselves, ‘humankind cannot bear very much reality.’
Consider the following six basic, human struggles: anger, guilt and regret, shame, suffering, (including loss, victimization, and sickness), fear, and saying “yes” when we should say “no” (this includes everything identified as an addiction).
On one level, as Ed Welch notes, everyone recognizes and has experienced these to some degree – Christian or not. We’re all in the same (broken) boat.
And if we’re honest – willing to be authentic – we as Christians would have to admit this reality: we still struggle with them. Yes, we’re growing in certain areas – thanks be to God. But we still do “the things we do not want to do,” as Paul himself confessed in Romans 7:15.
This admission from the Apostle is remarkable; only Christ could give a former “boast in my own righteousness” Pharisee like Paul such freedom (Philippians 3:4-10). In Jesus, he no longer has anything to prove, thanks to the amazing and liberating power of the Gospel.
Because of indwelling sin, we never grow beyond our need for Jesus – his forgiveness, and the perfect acceptance we have through his imputed righteousness. The question is, ‘are we willing to admit it’? Can we be truly authentic about who we are (loved sinners who still need a savior) so that others will see there’s also hope for them?
An Authentic Website
So let’s pose a question: Does your website and messaging give the impression – either subtly or overtly – that your church is somehow removed from the world (or would like to be), and that you’re on a different spiritual plane looking down on “this evil culture”?
Don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly true (and gloriously so) that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20). If you’ve got a NOTW sticker on the back of your car, you’re not wrong – though you may want to ask how this squares with our mission of being sent into the world, rather than giving the impression that you’re dissociating from it.
The Roots of a Lie
There’s an old, gnostic idea that has hung around the church for millenia, which is that the physical world (ourselves and others included) is intrinsically evil. Real salvation, the idea goes, is found in escaping this material realm.
But if “the heavens declare the glory of God, and the earth his handiwork,” (Ps. 19:1) then what does that say about the physical?
As one author puts it,
“Scripture proclaims the profound value of the material realm as the handiwork of a loving God. That’s why biblical morality places great emphasis on the fact of human embodiment. Respect for the person is inseparable from respect for the body.”
The implication? All of us are made in the image of God – believers and unbelievers.
Further, God loves the body – he created it. Jesus himself was unashamed about taking on flesh and didn’t think it made him dirty. And when he died, did he view it as escape? No, he reinforced the goodness of bodies by coming back in a physical one – the resurrection.
If you think about it, it’s not surprising that a worldview exists – and has for millennia – that denigrates the body, and says that only your inner feelings and spiritual desires truly matter. Like a madman who tries to slash a work of art with a butcher knife because he hates the Artist, Evil is bent on defacing the image of God in us – part of which is physical. The question is how we let him wield the knife.
We must ask then: is it our aim to honor our bodies (inside and outside the church) as he does? If not, could it be that shame about our bodies – perhaps from past abuses – has led us to a convenient theology that says escape from this world is the only answer because the world really deserves to burn?
Honest, Authentic Community Attracts
The truth is, a church community (as reflected on your website) will either attract or repel. Why not show genuine glimpses of things in which you’re actually engaged: worshipping, serving the poor, loving your neighbor, enjoying fellowship over a good meal? The stuff of real life?
As one writer suggests, “You don’t have to fake happiness or stage candid moments. Just take photos of the things your church does during the service, through your ministries, and in other gatherings like small groups or events. It will help newcomers envision finding a real community at your church.”
Also, be sure to include a page for ministry leaders, with relatable photos and bios that convey real people, and that’s not a “showcase for saints.”
A Billion Little Pictures
Avoid the grandiose slogans that sound like they came from a motivational talk: ‘Be the Change you Want to See in the World,’ or a Christianized triumphalism that’s not really rooted in the gospel and isn’t genuine, meeting people where they are.
One pastor wisely says,
“Not that I don’t care about the big picture. It’s just that the big picture is actually a composite of seven billion little pictures; seven billion precious individuals who cannot be neglected for the sake of any “world-changing” cause. If I unwisely adopt the glamorous concept of leadership, I can head out to change the world, while leaving behind many souls—including my own—in the process.”
Finally, when the verse above (in Philippians 3) continues and says “we await a Savior from there,” the implication is that Jesus is coming back. Here.
To do what? Create an immaterial world? No, a new heaven and a new earth. Literally, it’s a picture of heaven coming down to earth. Down to the ground.
In other words, the eternal kingdom is a physical one. Jesus is preparing it all now, as he said: “I am making all things new.” He started that by washing dirty feet. Getting his hands dirty… and even bloody – for us. Not superficial images in the slightest.
May our churches and ministries aim for the same.
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