In recent years, evangelical Christianity has made its imperfection a point of emphasis. Books were published with titles like Messy Spirituality: God's Annoying Love for Imperfect People, Death by Church, and Jesus Wants to Save Christians, and churches popped up with names like Scum of the Earth and Salvage Yard. Evangelicals made films like Lord, Save Us from Your Followers, wrote blog posts with titles like “Dirty, Rotten, Messy Christians,” and maintained websites like anchoredmess.com, modernreject.com, churchmarketingsucks.com, recoveringevangelical.com, and wrecked.org—a site that includes categories like “A Hot Mess,” “Muddling Through,” “My Broken Heart,” and “My Wreckage.”
Meanwhile, self-deprecating humor sites like Stuff Christians Like and Stuff Christian Culture Likes became hugely popular repositories of Christianity's many warts, and writers like Anne Lamott and Donald Miller became best-selling, “non-religious” expositors of messy spirituality.
Evangelicalism—both on the individual and institutional level—is trying hard to purge itself of a polished veneer that smacked of hypocrisy. But by focusing on brokenness as proof of our “realness” and “authenticity,” have evangelicals turned “being screwed up” into a badge of honor, its own sort of works righteousness? Has authenticity become a higher calling than, say, holiness?
How Did We Get Here?
Erik Thoennes, professor of biblical and theological studies at Biola University, sees the authenticity trend in the undergrads he teaches. At the beginning of each class he asks his students to write down two things they love and two things they hate. Consistently, one of the things they say they hate is “fake people.” But the Christian life involves a whole lot of “fakin' it” on the path to being integrated, Thoennes says.
“There's this idea that to live out of conformity with how I feel is hypocrisy; but that's a wrong definition of hypocrisy,” Thoennes said. “To live out of conformity to what I believe is hypocrisy. To live in conformity with what I believe, in spite of what I feel, isn't hypocrisy; it's integrity.”
Thoennes hopes his students understand that sanctification involves living in a way that often conflicts with what feels authentic. Still, he gets why younger evangelicals have such a radar for phoniness. They grew up in an evangelical culture that produced more than a few noteworthy cases of fallen leaders and high-profile hypocrisy. Their cynicism reflects a church culture that often hid its imperfections beneath a facade of legalism and self-righteousness.
All of this contributed, in the early and mid-2000s, to an authenticity boom in evangelicalism. Recognition of the biblical calls to confession (James 5:17) and “walking in the light” (1 John 1:5-10) had not gone away in Protestantism; they just became more and more couched in language of being real, raw, transparent, and authentic in community.
Typical of the many articles written about the topic is Josh Riebeck's 2007 piece for Relevant, “Fighting for Authenticity,” which announced that “authentic community, authentic faith, and authentic Jesus are the cry of the new generation.”
“We don't want to be fooled anymore. We don't want to be gullible anymore,” Riebeck wrote. “We want flawed. We want imperfect. We want real.”
But why must “real” be synonymous with flawed and imperfect? When someone opens up about their junk, we think, “you're being real,” and we can relate to them. But what about the pastor who has served faithfully for decades without any scandal, loved his wife and family, and embodied the fruit of the spirit? Is this less real?
When 'Authentic' Is Actually Inauthentic
Often, what passes for authenticity in evangelical Christianity is actually a safe, faux-openness that establishes an environment where vulnerability is embraced, only up to a point.
Becky Trejo, a 20-something photographer from Los Angeles who attends Mars Hill Church's Orange County location alongside her husband, Neph, has observed this trend in some small groups she's attended.
“There's this 'sweet spot' of authenticity,” Trejo said. “Like if you reveal that you struggle with gossip, people are like 'whoopdee!' But then there are some sins you might share where it's like 'whoa, that's too much.' There has to be this middle ground, like 'I'm struggling with wanting to sleep with my boyfriend.' That's the sweet spot where people see you as really vulnerable and authentic, and it's required admission.”
In this dynamic we often reward those who are most vocal about their authentic struggles in the “sweet spot,” without giving equal weight to the “too small” sins or creating a space that is safe enough for the most embarrassing sins or darkest struggles.
This dynamic reflects another problem: our skewed understanding of sin. It's almost as if our sins have become a currency of solidarity—something we pat each other on the back about as fellow authentic, broken people. But sin should always be grieved rather than celebrated, Thoennes argues.
“Brokenness is an interesting word because if it's sin, we should call it that,” Thoennes said. “I only feel sorry for broken people. God's mad at sinful people. Woundedness and brokenness are aspects of our sinful condition, but they tend not to emphasize the 'I'm giving God the finger' part of it.”
We've become too comfortable with our sin, to the point that it's how we identify ourselves and relate to others. But shouldn't we find connection over Christ, rather than over our depravity?
Authenticity Means Growth
Our notion of authenticity should not primarily be about affirming each other in our struggles—patting each other on the back as we share about porn struggles while enjoying a second round of beers at the local pub Bible study. Rather, authenticity comes when we collectively push each other, by grace, in the direction of Christ-likeness.
Reflecting on Christianity's “current obsession with brokenness” for her.meneutics, Megan Hill wrote, “If we are constantly looking for someone else who is broken in all the same places, we overlook the comfort we can have in the perfect God-man.”
Hill wisely notes, “Grace covers. And it covers again and again. Thanks be to God.” But if we stop there, “We are only telling half of the story. . . . Receiving grace for my failures also includes Christ's help to turn from sin and embrace new obedience.”
Could it be that the most authentic thing any of us can do is faithfully pursue holiness and obediently follow after Christ?
In Scripture, Paul teaches again and again that Christians are “dead to sin” and risen to new life, no longer slave to sins but to righteousness (Rom. 6). That doesn't mean the battle with sin is gone. But as Paul describes the struggle in Romans 7, he says “it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me” (Rom. 7:17), noticeably separating his identity from this unwanted alien thing still residing within. The struggle is neither the point nor the marker of one's identity. In Christ we are new creations (2 Cor. 5:17), called to flourish through life in the Spirit (Rom. 8).
“I think goodness is more real in that we are actually living more as humans were intended to,” Thoennes said. “Jesus is the realest human we'll ever see. He's authentic. He understands our brokenness. But he's as real as can be.”
No Authenticity Points
Sin is necessarily part of our story as redeemed people. We shouldn't ignore or make light of it. But we also shouldn't wallow in it or take it lightly, for the sake of earning authenticity points.
As someone who became a Christian in his 20s, after having experienced the rocky ups and downs of a life without Christ, Luis Salazar of Whittier, California, finds it sad that so many young evangelicals seem to think dramatic struggles with sin are more real.
“I would never want to walk through it again,” Salazar said. “I wish I hadn't gone through all that. A lifestyle of flashy sin isn't necessary to experience grace. It's not necessary to have a grand testimony of brokenness in order to be an authentic Christian.”
To overcome our “authenticity” confusion, evangelicals must see themselves differently. Rather than focusing on our brokenness, we should look to Christ and those who model Christ-likeness. We should move in that direction, by grace and through the power of the Holy Spirit.
We should also, perhaps, stop speaking of ourselves in such “we are scum” terms. In Christ, we can be more than scum. And that's a message the world sorely needs.
“While we think self-deprecation causes us to be more relatable and empathetic to non-Christians, it's ultimately communicating a sense of disappointment, disillusionment, and discontentment,” Stephen Mattson wrote for Red Letter Christians. “It thrives on negativity and kills our sense of hope.”
“The reality is that there are many things wrong with Christianity,” Mattson said, “but instead of focusing on the bad, let's attempt to reclaim the hope that Jesus represents—redeeming our world by personifying the sacrifice, service, grace, hope, joy, and love of Christ.”