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The blog of Kim Gentes. A place where you will find articles on worship, family, technology, church, music, and art.  We promise nothing. But try to never deliver.

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Entries in leaders (2)

When Authenticity Became a Fad (ThinkJump Journal #67 with Kim Gentes)

[Join in the conversation: Be sure to post your comments or thoughts at bottom of this post!]

A few months ago, I was sitting down to have a chai tea latte at a local Starbucks. I like my hot chai with extra cream. As I sat down, I wondered how many people drink the same thing I do. I couldn't think of a single person I knew that drank the same thing I do. Something about that made me feel pretty special. Then it struck me- why was the item on the menu? Of course, not just a few people, but likely dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of people around the world drink chai tea lattes, just like me. This was obvious simply because a huge chain like Starbucks (about 20,000 outlets worldwide) must have an economy of scale on any product in its selection in order to continue to carry it. But for a few delusional moments, I felt somehow unique in having a drink that I liked with the thought no one else was ever enjoying its great taste. I still enjoy chai tea lattes. We'll come back to this.

Today's worship leaders in local churches have an extraordinary amount of expectations placed on them by many congregations. This is partly because of the generational inclusion that is sometimes present in many congregations. Many churches have an age range that starts at infants and children and goes to seniors 70, 80 and older. Somehow in that range, worship leaders are expected to be attentive to all generations and styles and songs. As a worship leader, I love the challenge and try to remain current while reaching across the generations (or centuries) to borrow the best and gather them for the community I am serving in at the time.

Still, many churches (and senior pastors) don't recognize that we ask worship leaders to be something that no one can be. In trying to accommodate the entire community, pastors can often listen to many specific requests from the congregation (without filtering them) and then send "down" direct and indirect messages to the worship leader that they need to be all things to all people. Worship leaders end up having the unenviable job of being asked to be some perfect combination of all the icons of generations from George Beverly Shea to Don Moen to Ron Kenoly to Darlene Zschech to Kevin Prosch to Matt Redman to Marantha Praise Band to Delirious to Paul Baloche to Chris Tomlin to Kari Jobe to Michael Gungor to Mumford and Sons. And the worship leader who doesn't get it 100% right each and every Sunday is then asked why they aren't being more sensitive to the slice of the congregation that isn't touched by that week's "worship". And even when the worship leader does get a sense of worship and spans the generations and styles of their congregation, they are asked why they aren't "creative" and are just playing like a cover band. Of course, when they are creative, they are asked why they don't sound like one of the aforementioned names and why the songs aren't already pre-known, or why they aren't using songs that are already being played on K-LOVE. It's a no win situation for many worship leaders.

Obviously, I am exaggerating to make a point here. But not by much. The deeper question of why we have so much affinity for hearing the sounds and songs that connect with us is what we must address. People love music, and music speaks to the heart and soul of their knowledge and emotions. It combines what they know and what they remember. Music is the ultimate vehicle of experience.  So when you are talking about the music of worship, you are talking about the framework of the sacred space in which people experience God. It is no wonder that inside that space, you have such strong opinions. But we can't expect a single music style or experience to cover the breadth of expectations that exist across multiple generations - any more than we can expect a nun playing a banjo would cover all our bases!

The problem isn't with music having a place in our sacred space of worship. The problem is that we expect our time in that space to be re-iterated in a way which is genuine to our past experience. The music that framed our pivotal experiences in sacred space in the past will always be the music we deem as "best" for worship. Once we delve into talking about the things of music in sacred space, the waters become murky with theological and psychological debate. So let's take one step back.

What makes you love one song, style or person who writes/leads your favorite worship/sacred music? For most people, it is a sense of authenticity that the music has to their own story, life and experiences. This is, of course, what popular music purveyors have known for years. Tell people a story they know that connects to their own lives, but say it in a way which is unique- this has long been the formula of many country, pop and rock lyrics & melodies. Sacred space music may be different in its use as musical framework for worship, but it certainly has no less power. Because of this, when we hear a song that connects deeply to our story in the midst of worship, we feel a genuine connection with the music and truth it contains.

We may hear those same songs later and reflect to the meaning once again. Each time we worship, we can have a more or less authentic connection to restating and reaffirming the truths of those sacred space songs. This is why many pastors and theologians want to make sure the songs we sing in worship are "proper" theology. That is, they want to make sure the song's theology agrees with their interpretation of the Bible, so that it reiterates their understanding of correct doctrine.

But lets get back to the sense of "authenticity" we find in some songs. What happens when we repeat these same songs and even try to replicate the same experience? It becomes less and less authentic. What made it authentic in the first place was not just the music and our connection to it, but the place it occurs in our story. As time moves on, we are changed. The experiences of life (even those experiences in the sacred space) change us. The next time we return to worship and music within the context of sacred space, we are different people. Our story is in a different place. But still, those songs that change us remain in our hearts and experience as powerful. They are "authentic" but now in a sense they point us to something different than they did when we first encountered them and were changed by them.

This is something of how we find the great songs of the church- they are songs that have become anthems for us and are sung around the globe. They join us together, beyond our local congregations and have an important place amongst our song repertoire. But we must be careful not to think that our local congregation should be defining its music of sacred space by only listening to the Christian radio top 40 or adhering to the CCLI top 25. We must look deeper.

Authenticity has become a catch word for much of the music industry, and a "claim" of many a worship album in their marketing blurbs. But the truth is, nothing is authentic without context. It may be authentic to the people who created the songs, and to the congregation that engaged with them as they were being birthed in their local communities. But whether they are authentic with the larger body of Christ is a matter of experience, of context and of our place in the story in which God has us.

Authenticity is, by definition, something we can't formulate. We can't "make something authentic". The moment we do, we are trying to force our sense of genuine experience on to that thing. For example, let's look at what happens for different people in a congregation on a typical Sunday. If you are the worship leader you may get various responses from people wanting to tell you about their experience related to worship.  A few people tell you it was the most authentic, amazing worship time ever. A few others give an obligatory "good job". Some may critique, but normally that comes later in the week in the form of emails or "anonymous" letters.  This range of response comes from the range of experience.

So, can we hope to be authentic? Yes, I think we can. But it must come from the unique identity, unique fingerprint of your local church, local leadership, and pastor and worship leader. Like a fingerprint, there are common features to all Christian churches (this make them all Christian) and unique features that distinguish them in local areas.  We must take both into account. 

There are obvious first steps that some churches take. The pastor and worship leader meet and talk about the real vision, the mission, the real values and the real ethos they intend for their church community/congregation. As much as possible, I encourage pastors and worship leaders doing this to answer how they are going to minister to the whole family in their church, as it relates to music /worship. The truth is healthy local churches are built on families, not just a single age group. Churches built on a single age group (normally young people) don't last, at least they don't last as is- they transform into family churches who have young children (a bit of age, marriage and life do that!).

For church leaders, ask yourself how your community gatherings can be places of authentic inclusion for the entire church family. The answer some churches have come to is age-segregated services. This can be one answer, though I personally think it is less healthy as a realistic image of the "family of God". Even if you are focusing on a certain music style, certain age group for your main church core, recognize that you must find ways to let the entire family be a part of the sacred space music and experience.

Being authentic as a community may mean that the worship leader must be wary of relying too heavily on their proclivity to specific songs or writers.  They must serve the community. But at the same time, pastors and congregations must recognize that at times they are asking the worship leader to be something no human being can be- an integration of all their leadership/music/songwriting styles.

We must stop trying to "be authentic" according to the definition of the worship music companies trying to market their latest release. We must rather be authentic to the local churches we are in, and live in community with them as a more important goal than the desire to try to be more like the heroes of the music we have enjoyed.

We must stop making authenticity a fad. The funny thing is, the business world has long seen this desire to falsely use "authenticity" as a guise for marketing. They, like we as Christians, understand that people who experience our attempts at "trying to be authentic" will automatically intuit the falacy in our efforts and our ultimate goals. Business Insider writer Greg Voakes archives a pithy letter from an advertising film director on this very subject (see it here). If we are completely honest, many of our attempts at authenticity in church settings are little more than a marketing ploy to bring in more people. Let's stop that.

Again, authenticity is not the "raw" factor, the "reality TV" exposé, or the attempts at being culture current that reflect something that doesn't have integrity with our actual community in which we live and serve. We must simply live rightly, in our communities, inviting them in with a breadth of understanding that is an invitation and not a notice that they are entering an exclusive club. Worship leaders, congregations and pastors all have important parts to play in developing authentic communities. What it comes down to is this- what we exemplify on Sunday mornings should have a consistency that looks like us all throughout the week (Weds, Friday, etc- any day). There is a sense in which our corporate gatherings do indeed allow "iron to sharpen iron" and that we can "spur one another on" by our meetings.  However, trying to espouse a false sense of identity by stealing someone elses definition of "authenticity" amounts to no authenticity at all. It amounts to forgery.

Hardly the authentic thing we said we were looking for.


Sincerely ;)

Kim Gentes