If you read the literature on reaching Postmodern people and young people, you’ll find a huge emphasis on “authenticity” in our worship. If you read older material on worship, you’ll find that “authenticity” is not a new concept. It’s just begun to receive a much greater emphasis because those outside the church have come to value authenticity so very much.
The first few times I ran into the word, I was perplexed as to its meaning in this context. I mean, an “authentic” Rembrandt is a painting by Rembrandt that is not a forgery. And so I took “authentic” to mean “not fake.” But no one has ever argued for fake worship or fake Christianity. I knew that those bandying the word about had something deeper in mind, but I struggled to understand what was being said.
Finally, I figured it out, not from church growth literature but from two stories I’ve been told.
A friend was in a new town looking for a church home. On the recommendation of some others, he visited a highly liturgical church. This congregation enjoyed ancient rituals, and he found that he enjoyed worshiping in a church this way. But although he liked the people he met and the preacher, he wasn’t quite sure that this was the church home he was looking for.
Several weeks later, he overheard a conversation about the work some members were doing in the inner city with children in deep poverty. Later on, he learned about the congregation’s mission work in other countries. Eventually he learned that the church was highly missional and very engaged in evangelism and benevolence. But none of this was apparent in their worship. You see, the worship was so ritualized that it didn’t reflect the life of the church.
Another friend became disillusioned with his church home and went looking for a new congregation in his hometown. He tried several churches famous for their upbeat praise services. He loved the celebrative worship and the great music. But he found that the members weren’t friendly and they seemed to be there to receive an emotional lift. It was all very consumerist, and so they weren’t “authentic.”
Later on, he stumbled on a more traditional church. The worship was good, but not nearly of the quality of the churches he’d visited earlier. Nonetheless, the people he met seemed genuinely committed to Jesus. He came back for more visits.
One week, immediately after the tsunami hit Indonesia, they raised a large sum of money to provide relief to the victims. He was impressed. Then they asked for volunteers to go to Indonesia to provide medical care and rebuild the villages — and many members came forward to volunteer, including doctors and contractors. Now he was really impressed. Plenty of churches gave money. Only a few sent people. And fewer still sent members who took time from high-paying jobs to help devastated people in a Moslem country.
This, he concluded, was authentic. And he placed membership.
Ironically enough, what many of the lost are looking for from us is the same thing Jesus wants from us: authenticity.
In the context of worship, “authentic” means (a) that the church is about walking the walk, that is, actually honoring the commands of Jesus, and (b) letting that walk shine forth in our assemblies.
The appeal of the second church was that their assembly was not just a place to worship. It was also a place to do Christianity. It was a staging area for their attack on the Gates of Hades. It’s where the church encourages each other to very specific love and good works as the culmination of their worship.
This idea solves another riddle. Anytime anyone discusses the theology of worship, someone points out that “worship” is the entirety of our Christian lives. Nothing confines worship to Sunday morning. Some would even question calling the assembly “worship.”
And yet, it seems much more than traditional or cultural that we, as a body, worship God when we are together. Worship seems entirely natural at the assembly. Indeed, we’d struggle to imagine an assembly without worship — in the traditional sense of the word.
But when corporate worship becomes authentic, when it’s an extension of our Christianity outside the auditorium and preparation for further worship outside the auditorium, the theology works and the riddle disappears. There is little contrast between the church assembled and the church on mission. The assembly is simply a part of the church’s honoring of Jesus.
I conclude, therefore, that the assembly should always be connected to the life of the congregation in God’s mission. It’s a serious mistake, I think, to so ritualize the assembly that it’s the same whether the church is alive or dead. Rather, the assembly should be an intensification of who we are outside the assembly.
Which brings us to some practical suggestions —
* The sermon should often be about the vision and work of the church. For example, this month our preacher is speaking about the principles behind Celebrate Recovery as the church initiates a Celebrate Recovery (12-step) program. It’s great material, but it’s material connected with what’s going on the congregation’s life. It’s relevant because of what’s going on in the body, not just generically relevant.
* The announcements should not be a mere accounting deaths and sicknesses. They should also be tied to the congregation’s mission and vision. We should be talking about joining small groups, or volunteering at the Soup Kitchen, or whatever else will push us to be a bit more like Jesus.
* Testimonies therefore become critically important. We desperately need to hear stories about our fellow members’ encounters with Jesus. We need to hear how small groups or inner city ministry made a difference. We need our brothers and sisters to encourage us with victories from the front in the battle against Satan.
There are, of course, many other ways to bring our stories into the assembly. The point is that we should think of the victories God gives us, the stories God brings into our lives, as gifts from God to be shared with each other in the assembly. It just has to be a time of sharing by some means or other.
It can be as simple as letting the teens string 26,000 paper chains across the auditorium, so they can share with us their passion for starving children around the world. We should celebrate the fact that they’re coming closer to the heart of Jesus, rather than wondering if it’s authorized or what some sourpuss at another congregation will think.
It’s simple. We need to have a Christianity that is real, that changes us. And we need to bring that reality into the assembly — encouraging one another.
If we’ll do this, then should there be an unbeliever present, “he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you!'”