"Can't you use some other word other than 'authentic'?"
This was the frank and honest response my wife had when I first started talking to her about what I believed God was calling me to. After 30+ years of preaching, teaching and being part of the leadership team of a ministry that today would be described as 'organic' -- oh and 7 years of deep personal trial and wilderness walking -- God was renewing my call to serve. As clearly as anything I had ever known in my Christian walk, I believed God was calling me to be 'a catalyst for authentic community' and that I needed to share it.
There was that word my wife had a problem with -- authentic. And actually, I admit I shared her concern given how over-used and devalued the word has become. It has lost any real power to move, inspire or persuade any more. It's as mundane and unexceptional as cheap vanilla ice cream. Truth be told, we've ripped the “ahhh”, the wonder, depth and remarkability, right out of the word.
Larry Crabb in his book, Real Church, puts it this way,
“…I don’t think that what we often call authentic relating is authentic enough. I can count on the fingers of both hands and on the toes of both feet (that would be about twenty) the number of literally life-changing authentic conversations I've been part of in my sixty plus years of living. Why so few?”
That said, fact is I am stuck with the word! I have tried countless times to come up with some other descriptor to bring some 'wow' into what God is speaking to me about, and each time I get this check in my spirit saying, 'nope, not the right word. God gave you the right word, so stop obsessing about it!'
So there you go! Authentic is the descriptor I am going to connect to our discussions about the community God intends us to be part of and enjoy. I'm not going to try and qualify it, amplify it, justify it or apologize for it. I'm just going to use it...authentically!
Hopefully after all is said and done we will have a greater appreciation of the concept that there is a true, honest, transparent community that God has called us to participate in and that we will step into that calling with humility and thankfulness.
To start the conversation, I want lay a foundation of how I will loosely define 'authentic community.' I say loosely, because none of this is set in stone. It is all about moving forward and being formed by the vision of what is possible in Christ. I trust with all my heart that in the days, months and years to come the definition of authentic community becomes more expressive, more impactful and more transformational.
Until then, I want to suggest at least seven characteristics of an authentic community. Authentic Community is:
- A place that is profoundly safe -- we experience what it is to live 'in the light, as He is in the light', living with nothing hidden, daring to be open and vulnerable knowing we will be loved more, not less for it.
- A place where we never give up on one another -- we embrace what it means to be a body where every member is treasured and esteemed and, in our love and care for one another, protection always trumps accountability and shame is banished in the acknowledgement of who we are in Christ.
- A place where wisdom about how to live emerges from conversation -- gone are the days of 'thou shalt' and 'thou shalt not' and someone lording it over us! We now engage in conversation with one another about what it means to be new creations in Christ and bringing experience and insight to bear on applying the answers of scripture for the messiness of life.
- A place where what is most alive in us is touched -- here is the place where we experiment with what it means to live out of passion and calling -- being affirmed, empowered and enabled to live into what God has for each of us.
- A place where we embrace the reality of 'many hands' -- throwing off the limitations of reliance on a professional clergy to do the work, we all pitch in, we all contribute, we all bring our unique and special talents to the calling to be part of Kingdom activity without envy or fear.
- A place where we model what it means to wrestle with the unknown and embrace the mysteries of faith -- we are learning to live with the tension of not having a pat answer for everything, for struggling with the 'whys' of our journey and the perplexing contradictions in our world, while embracing what it is to be a life-long seeker and learner.
- A place where Christ's life is enough -- amid all the self-help guides, how-to manuals and anecdotal resources available to us, we recognize that God is doing something uniquely spiritual and that the life of Christ in us, through us and to us is completely sufficient for His transformative work -- if we would just trust it.
So there you have it...at least a skeleton for the vision of authentic community. To me it sounds wonderful, and I want more the anything to experience it in increasing depth and with increasing frequency.
Maybe you share that longing, but the practical side of you is saying, 'that sounds all well and good, but you're missing the most important point -- we're dealing with flesh and blood people here and that makes this all too improbable, impractical and frankly unattainable. We can't really experience that kind of community until we get to heaven!"
While I totally understand that perspective and sometimes start sliding down its slippery slope to disillusionment, I sincerely believe that authentic community is not an option or wish dream -- it is exactly what God has called us to experience in ever increasing reality right here, right now. In all the messiness of our real life situations and relationships, we are being formed and fashioned for what we will be enjoying throughout eternity...authentic community.