The Importance of Authenticity in Ministry

6 December 2017

Today we live in a world of fantasy.  The truth is that this has been so for some time.

From the early soaps Peyton Place and Crossroads, with the enduring Coronation Street of course, to the myriad of other imaginary communities, our lives have become accustomed to living in a parallel universe where the final scene is nearly always a cliff hanger to keep our anxieties high till the next episode.

Then of course historical fiction has also played its part in establishing a world of fantasy. Such novels may be thoroughly researched and beautifully written, but they often owe more to the author’s imagination than they do historical accuracy.

There is also the medium of cinema. Films ‘based on actual events’ have merely added to the fact that fantasy has become more interesting for many than truth. In some cases such versions of the events they depict have been more strongly believed than the original documentation or even eye witness accounts. Did Private Ryan really exist? No. This I had to state only earlier this week when someone was telling me that he did. However I confess that some years ago I did not have the heart to tell the lady at the church door that Forest Gump wasn’t a real person.

Then along comes social media of course. Thanks to social media everyone’s opinion is often judged to be as valid as anyone else’s.  In truth, of course, this is clearly not so.  My opinions on climate change are nowhere near as well informed as those of environmental scientists. I wouldn’t expect an environmental scientist to be as well informed on biblical criticism as I am. Nor would I expect my views on global warming to be treated as of equal significance to those of someone who has spent their adult lives studying the issue.

Social media has also enabled conspiracy theorists to promote their ill-founded claims in ways that appear to be well-researched and irrefutable.  In an interview at the Labour Conference a few weeks ago film Director Ken Loach was asked about the presence of Holocaust deniers, to which he responded that history is always open to interpretation. Such views lead to claims that what is happening in Gaza is akin to Auschwitz – recently re-tweeted by a Church leader I hasten to add. Not only is such a claim historically inept it is morally abhorrent.

All of this is an acute danger to the world we have forged over decades, a world based on verifiable facts; a world that holds truth as the core element to an open and honest society, where respect for the experts and admiration for those who wrestle with the issues exist.

When Michael Gove dismissed truth during the Referendum last year, yes it was only 18 months ago, by saying that we’d had enough of experts he was adding yet another slash to the fabric of a well-ordered society.  When challenged by the claim that Trump’s inauguration crowd was bigger than Obama’s the new President’s senior advisor, Kellyanne Conway, suggested that there is such a thing as ‘alternative fact.’

We have stepped into a world of fantasy and it’s a very slippery slope.  It means that lies can displace truth.  It means that all sorts of wrong can be committed without recourse.  It means that few, if any, can ever be trusted again.

And it is in this world that we are called to not only serve but lead.  A minister’s responsibilities have always been great, but none more so than today.  After hands are laid upon our heads at ordination the President prays ‘may they boldly proclaim your truth.’  There is little more challenging today than to boldly proclaim God’s truth.

I have let it be known that I have never been more despondent of the world and the world of politics than I am today. But nor have I been as convinced of my vocation and the calling of the Church. We have a job to do. And it is as clear as it has ever been.  But, and this is a big but, it will demand our lives, our souls our all.  It will demand something that is so often lacking in almost all areas of life today; and that is authenticity. This call to ministry demands us to be authentic in an age of lies.

There is, you see, too much pretence in our world.  Too many people, and too many organisations, trying to be something they are not, or even trying to not be something they are.  There are just too many games being played.  Much of them with good intention for sure. People play games because they are anxious. They are afraid to be themselves. They try to be someone they are not so that they might fit in with their peers. Or they cover up who they really are lest they lose their friends.  Concerned that others might spot their weaknesses or frailties, their misunderstandings or lack of knowledge, they cover up.  And we minsters are not immune.  We often prefer to hide as an icon to being an honest travelling companion.  So many of us are not just anxious about our reputation we are also anxious about the state of the Church.

Every three years, of course, Conference receives its latest report called statistics for mission.  You might wish to consider it as the report on how far our numbers have dropped since the last report.  It is no secret – I no longer get despondent over decline.  I have stopped beating myself up about it. Why?  Because the truth is that the Methodist Church has been declining in numbers throughout my life.  In fact for about a century and a half.  The last time we grew in numbers the older people in the congregations might well have been blessed as toddlers by Mr Wesley himself.  This fact has not got through to many of us. Or where it has there often exists a state of denial.

Now, this is not to say that we should ignore the decline nor accept it as a given, and we should ask ourselves why this is so.  But it is a massive problem. And we must not pretend otherwise. I believe that we would be healthier and so much more effective if we were to embrace our decline.

You see, some will argue that the Church began to lose its authority at the Reformation; others with the scriptural studies of Spinoza; or because of the Enlightenment; or indeed the rise of evolutionary theories in the late 19th century. Of course, the trenches of the First World War and the inadequacy of the Church to counter fascism or even when they acted with complicity in Nazi Germany quickened the demise.  Whenever the decline began we cannot ignore the fact that the Church is continuing to lose its impact upon society.

In his 2007 book Secular Age, the philosopher Charles Taylor wrote that in 1500 it was impossible not to believe in God while today many find this not only easy, but even inescapable.

In attempts to reverse this trend all sorts of innovations are considered by the Church and even put into practice.  Important though these innovations are in attempting to stem the decline, they are not the whole answer, for they can only attract some for a while. They cannot win over the majority of people and fully alter the trajectory of overall decline. And if we think they can then we are kidding ourselves and conning those whom we inspire to partake of the scheme. The gulf between the believers and the non-believers, you see, is simply far too great.  No, a conversion of theists, including us Christians, to more relevant and sophisticated theologies and philosophies could help bridge the gap; so too would be ridding ourselves of the nonsense that we have built up over the course of millennia. But such a transformation of thinking is clearly not going to happen any time soon.

So what are we to do?

What can we do with the little resources we have at our disposal and so little time to accomplish something, if anything at all?

Well, if the Church claims to hold truth in its heart by following the One who claimed to be the Truth, and ordains those who are charged to boldly proclaim that truth then pretence will not work.  Any claim to truth that is shown to be false, any boast that is empty, and any model where promises are not met will only compound the problem for us.  In an age that is not only secular, one without recourse to God, but an age of lies, fantasy and historical denial, we need authenticity.

We will glance very briefly at two components of authenticity.

Firstly, I believe that, at the very least, authenticity includes honesty: honesty about ourselves, honesty about our faith and doubts, honesty about our limitations and errors.  Such an undertaking would be the beginning of an authentic model of leadership.  To act with such honesty is to also be clear that truth is sometimes difficult to grasp and therefore hard to define. Indeed, that the presence of mystery is also at the core of our beliefs and there is nothing unusual about those clouds that often limit our vision and knowledge.  This approach will be seen as a weakness of course by those who want the confidence of certainty. But certainty also has its pitfalls.  It was certainty that led to the Great Famine in Ukraine and the gulags in the East.  It was certainty that led to the gas chambers at Auschwitz.  It was certainty that led to many a failed project on lesser a scale than those aforementioned.

And here is a warning for those that want to be seen as victors over others: we are not called to win an argument; we are called instead to lay down our lives for a cause that only God need judge.

We will not necessarily see the outcome of such a ministry, but we can be assured that it will contribute to something far greater than we could have ever achieved alone or in our time.

So firstly, honesty is a vital component for authentic leadership.

So too is context, our second component.

Lifting what works elsewhere into a wholly different place is not necessarily going to work. In fact, I believe that it is highly likely to fail.  Every scheme, every model, if it is to reach its full potential has to be adapted to context.  Better still, however, for each place to develop its own model of working, its own form of mission and ministry.  How often now have I seen people’s morale sag because having become excited by what is happening elsewhere they suddenly realise that it is something that they do not have the capacity to achieve? They might not have the numbers, or the energies or the skill set.  Boasting of what is happening in another place, without thought of the limitations placed on those who wish to replicate it elsewhere, is unhelpful to say the least.

Context, you see, determines capacity and context, therefore, determines the model.

I have long stopped thinking about finding people to realise a vision, and prefer, instead, to value those people whom God has placed me alongside and what, therefore, we can together achieve.  Surely God has placed us in a time such as this and in a place such as this, and indeed amongst such people, for a purpose.

We should not lament what we have not got.  Instead we should rejoice in those with whom we share this time and place.  For we are here but briefly.

In conclusion: honesty and context are vital components for authentic ministry.

We began by setting the scene.  We cannot deny the fact that we live in an age where people often prefer fantasy to fact, where truths lose out to lies, where certainty to reality is the prime mover.  None of this will lead to salvation, it will end in destruction; it has done so in the past, it will do so again.

Our calling, as Methodist ministers, is to boldly proclaim the truth.  This we must do at all costs – even to our own – so that we might do so with the integrity of authenticity and leave the rest to God.

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