Worship not Performance – the Pursuit of Authenticity
We are spending some time with Morgan Guyton’s new book, How Jesus Saves the World from Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity. Guyton represents one of the three main streams that has flowed out of American evangelical culture to form post-evangelicalism. This third stream, as we discussed in the comments last time, is somewhat diverse and includes people who might be deemed “emergent” while others might be labeled “progressive.”
Whatever the particular nomenclature one uses, people in this stream would likely be on the left end of the spectrum politically, more interested in social justice issues, less institutionally inclined, more focused on “authentic” spirituality and practice than on fitting into traditional patterns and structures.
Guyton’s first chapter brings up this issue of authenticity immediately, as he contrasts worship as “performance” with “loving God.” What he would call “toxic Christianity” is the type that is consumed with “performing” to please a critical God or others rather than simply trusting in the love of God and expressing childlike, unselfconscious delight in him.
He begins by talking about little children dancing in the aisles during his church’s contemporary worship service.
Even if they weren’t singing the words on the screen correctly, they were delighting in God’s presence. Psalm 37:4 says, “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” That is worship. That’s what human existence is supposed to be. God is the DJ of the dance party that is our world. Like every good DJ, God’s goal is to make us dance with abandon and wonder. Without an agenda. Without worrying what other people think.
Sentiments like these are appealing, but in my opinion they show both the strength and the the weakness of much of the teaching that takes place under the label of “authenticity.”
First of all, the text that Guyton uses to introduce this idea is from Matthew 6, which talks about doing one’s religious practices in public for the approval of others. What he doesn’t quote right away is Jesus’ antidote to this. In the verses that follow, which deal with giving alms and praying and fasting, Jesus doesn’t tell us to just forget about what people think and worship God publicly like children. Instead, he tells us to perform our acts of piety in secret, away from the gaze of others.
The contrast is not between performance and authenticity. It’s between public display and genuine piety that no one sees. Jesus even goes so far as to encourage us to hide from our own left hand what our right hand is doing. He is not encouraging us to be children, as Guyton suggests, free and unselfconscious and not “paralyzed with worry about making mistakes” or offending someone. Rather Jesus is advocating very mature and conscious decisions to invest in our hidden life with God without advertising it all the time.
“Authenticity” is the battle cry of youth. I remember screaming it from every rooftop myself when I was younger. The millennials of today, many of whom gravitate toward this emerging, progressive stream of faith-practice, are hungry for reality. They want to feel a sense of coherence in their faith and lives. They want to see that in the church, and they are leaving it in droves because they perceive it missing. But they have a limited perspective on what authenticity can look like.
I know as a young pastor it was hard for me to understand how people could not be simply ecstatic about Jesus, how people didn’t drop everything they were doing to go to Bible studies, how their singing and worshiping seemed so bland and without feeling. I didn’t get why people didn’t embrace small groups where people shared intimate struggles and feelings. Why they didn’t get so worked up about injustice as I did. It is easy for folks who are true enthusiasts to get discouraged and think that others who don’t express themselves as freely and openly aren’t genuine, and are perhaps hypocrites. We might even take their lack of enthusiasm as criticism of our deeply felt and publicly expressed piety.
Now let me be the first to say that I love the enthusiasm of youth and their desire for authenticity. I am constantly challenged by it. There is a lot of good in what Morgan Guyton says in this chapter. His insights on the performance mentality, for example, and how it leads to constantly trying to justify ourselves is spot on.
However, I suspect that much of what I used to consider mere “performance” in worship is a lot more genuine to the folks that practice it than I ever really understood. Because if they were doing it in a Jesus-shaped way, the bulk of their true faith and love for God was secret and inaccessible to my judging eyes. And perhaps it was even hidden from their own cognizance.
I have found that one’s understanding of what is truly “authentic” changes as one gains more experience and gets to know and understand oneself and other people better. And that’s not about becoming children again. It’s about growing up in profound and often painful ways.
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Photo by Gary Lund at Flickr. Creative Commons License