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What Does “Authenticity” Even Mean for the Church?

We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Colossians 1:3-5

Why Authenticity Matters

There is a lot of talk these days about authenticity. According to most “experts”, authenticity is among the very highest values in our culture’s two youngest adult generations. That reality has brought authenticity to center stage in most churches’ efforts to more effectively reach those two generations. All of us, after all, are deeply troubled by the mass exodus by our adult children’s generation from the church. But, while everyone seems to understand how important authenticity is (especially for the church), I wonder how much consensus there is among church leaders about what authenticity even looks like in the church corporately? When it comes to being authentic (as a church), what does the “win” look like? More specifically, are there metrics? Are there particular, measurable characteristics or attitudes in a church that translate into actual authenticity? I believe there are. And, while there are probably many places we could find such descriptions in scripture, the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Colossians is particularly compelling.

Why the Letter to the Colossians is Helpful

Paul wrote his letter to the church in Colossae having never met them. He did not start this particular community of believers and, to our knowledge, did not know them as of the writing of his letter. So, his introductory remarks wherein he found them to be particularly authentically Christ-centered, were grounded strictly on characteristics that were observable and measurable by others. In other words, he was not biased by any personal relationships within that church. For our purposes of looking for objective criteria, therefore, his words are particularly helpful. We see authenticity in BOTH his own attitudes and his descriptions of the Colossians’ attitudes.

Some Criteria for Authenticity

Gratitude. Paul’s first word to this church is about his own thankfulness for them. This is actually a pretty common word in his letters. It illuminates Pauls’ own authenticity, and I believe it serves as a measure of a church’s authenticity as well. Does my church exhibit, encourage and teach an attitude of gratitude? Recall Jesus’ healing of ten lepers in Luke 17:11-19. Only one came back to thank him. That story illustrates thankfulness as a criteria for someone who has been truly spiritually transformed. No doubt, not all gratitude is sincere or authentic. But a truly redeemed people whose lives are being transformed by the Spirit of God are thankful every day for the fullness of God’s presence in their lives. If an individual or a local body of believers is NOT marked by an overall attitude of gratitude, I would question his/her/their Christian authenticity.

Prayer. Paul’s next illustration of authentic Christ follow-ship is his reference to his prayers for this church. The observation here is simple: people who are genuinely following Christ pray. They cannot help but earnestly desire to enter into God’s presence on a regular basis. This is equally true of a church corporately. Real authenticity in a church can be experienced at its gathered prayer. Quoting the prophet, Isaiah, Jesus said in Matthew 21 “my house shall be called a house of prayer...”. Doesn’t it follow, then, that a church who does not gather for prayer is more or less just pretending? On this subject, I love A.W. Tozer’s comment: “It is scarcely possible in most places to get anyone to attend a meeting where the only attraction is God.” It is sad. And true. And a convicting criteria of authenticity.

Faith. Paul praises the Colossians because he had heard of their faith in Jesus. I wonder if that is the scouting report on my church? Do the people of my community point our way and say “those people place all their hope in Jesus.” This question convicts me in today’s climate, because there are some Christians to whom people point and say, “they place all their hope in political power”. Or in material wealth, or in charismatic leadership, or in innovative programming, or in polished communication, etc. You get the idea. I once heard Frances Chan describe this criteria in terms of worship preparation. In my preparation for gathered worship, am I preparing a sailing vessel that will move ONLY in the event the winds of the spirit blow? Or am I rather preparing a motor boat that will move on its own, just in case those winds don’t blow? To what level of faith are we calling our people?

Love. Paul describes having heard about the Colossians and “the love that you have for all the saints.” It harkens to Jesus’ words in John 13:35…“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” In the chaos of this current culture, if we as a church are not doing the hard work of figuring out exactly what love looks like in all our current circumstances, we are not authentic. Real love is always grounded in truth. And God’s truth is always best served in the context of genuine love relationships. We, God’s people, should be the world’s experts at this.

I am certain there are other criteria for what constitutes authenticity in a church claiming to follow Christ. But what if we were to start with these four? What might happen in our midst?

© Blake Coffee

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