Authentic. Starbucks uses this word as bait to entice new baristas. That’s no surprise, since “authenticity” is a sexy part of our cultural architecture.
Not surprisingly, authentic is an oft-used adjective in churches too. Mostly we hear it coupled with the word community. These days it’s hard to turn around in church without hearing a sermon, a conference, or a hundred small groups talking about “authentic community” as though it’s the stuff of church utopia.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s wonderful for everyone to experience that deep sense of belonging. But it makes me wonder: Should churches ever set out to build “authentic community?”
With mild apologies for the angst small-group leaders are feeling, let’s think about this. In my neighborhood I discovered dozens of places creating varying levels of community. My local YMCA has 9,000 people walk through its doors every week. They laugh, talk, sweat, and accomplish goals together. My local Starbucks allows moms and tots to laugh and enjoy community while discussing Oprah’s latest book pick. The community center down the road offers Pilates, scrapbooking, and family Tae Kwon Do. All of it makes me wonder: Could it be that most people’s need for community is more than met?
Thoughtful churches who see this will ask, “If we’re targeting ‘authentic community,’ are we aiming at the right thing?”
I used to believe my church offered higher-octane community simply because we paired it with the word Christian. Most of this thinking comes from reading the stories of Acts 2. In the wake of Pentecost, Luke tells us that people learned, prayed, and ate together. They lived in awe, meeting together daily, loving each other, and giving in shameless acts of generosity. Is it any wonder “authentic community” has become a goal for our churches?
But was “authentic community” ever the goal in Acts 2? What if it was never the goal but, rather, an incredible, life-giving, world-changing by-product of people devoting themselves to being fully grown, Spirit-filled followers of Jesus Christ?
If we could ask them, I suspect the disciples would report that no one set out to build authentic community. They simply followed Christ. Remarkably, every time people devoted themselves to following Christ, new communities of believers formed with an intangible quality that we now know as “authenticity.”
What if when Starbucks offers authenticity, it’s really God whispering a word to stir us to discover the One who, in drawing us to himself, draws us to each other as well?
About the Author
Geoff Vandermolen has been an associate pastor, church planter, and lead pastor. He now serves as director of vocational formation at Calvin Seminary.