James H. Gilmore might not be the first person you'd turn to for pastoral wisdom. The business consultant and co-author of Authenticity and The Experience Economy (Harvard Business School Press) is better known for overturning conventional ideas in business and marketing. But Gilmore also has a deep love for the church. In addition to lecturing at a business school and architecture program, he teaches at a seminary. Skye Jethani talked to Gilmore about cultural understandings of authenticity and about how transparent pastors should be with their congregations.
Does a pastor have to be transparent with congregants in order to be authentic?
If people are going to see you as being real, there must be some degree of transparency, sure. But be wary of revealing everything. Pastors who are too quick to divulge their innermost struggles can actually do harm. At times, Jesus was silent. Why? Because Jesus was not always transparent, but he was always honest. He said things only to benefit his hearer. That was his motivation and it should be a pastor's as well. Honesty trumps transparency. Honesty is not unloading everything that's on your heart; it's saying and sharing only that which benefits the other party. I'd rather have an honest pastor than a transparent one.
What do you do with a pastor who is teaching the truth but living a sinful, duplicitous life?
Well, that would be a terrible thing. And given the need to be "above reproach," if truly two-faced, such a pastor probably needs to step aside. The safeguard against such hypocrisy is not for pastors, in the name of transparency, to air every sin in every detail every week just to make sure they're not being hypocrites. Far better to change behavior. And I'd have to wonder why such a pastor might come to live such a life. Is it because he can't live up to some self-imposed works-based standard? Or because he fails to truly grasp the gospel?
In recent years preachers have begun including more stories from their personal lives. But is there a danger that people walk away remembering only those stories and nothing else from the sermon?
Whatever skills it takes to tell a good personal story can be better channeled to tell the story of God's grace. There are plenty of good tales to tell from Scripture.
The goal of telling stories shouldn't be for listeners to remember something about your personal life. The goal should be to make the text come alive. Years ago I visited Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia when Philip Ryken was pastor there. It was right after a particular Philadelphia Phillies baseball game was in the national news. During the game a foul ball had gone into the upper deck and a father caught it and handed the ball to his young daughter. Cameras caught the whole thing. The little girl looked at the ball, and then threw it back below. Other dads might have been upset, but this father's reaction was one of immediate love. He didn't yell or reprimand her. Instead, he instinctively hugged her. Ryken was preaching through 1 Corinthians 13 and the way of love. He used the story of that father's love to illustrate the passage he was expounding. Ryken didn't start with his own story, "Let me tell you about a time I went to this baseball game with my son." No, he used a timely news event to connect people with the text, because the tale so wonderfully illustrated how Paul tells us our heavenly father loves.
Maybe we could use this rule of thumb: if you tell 10 stories, no more than one of them should be personal. Focus on making the biblical story come alive. Consider stories from contemporary culture more than ones from your own experiences. As a pastor, you have to know what happened this week. Congregants need to know their pastor inhabits the same world they do. If they know that, they're more likely to give you their attention.
For a leader to say, with Paul, "Follow me as I follow Christ," the people have to know something of that leader, right?
Maybe so. But perhaps it's even more important for pastors to know the lives of their people. Look at Paul's affection for Timothy. Paul knew Timothy's circumstances, loved his mother, and loved his grandmother. Do you know and love your people in the same way? Do you know the everyday worlds they live in? I think a lot of pastors struggle to follow Paul's example here.
Of course there are pastors who lead such large churches they don't have the wherewithal to connect with all their parishioners at an intimate level. That doesn't mean they can't still have a personal impact. I didn't know James Boice. I only heard him from the pulpit at Tenth during my college years. But his sermons influence my faith to this day. He loved to open up God's Word, you could tell. I'll take getting to know a pastor through sound preaching any day over getting to know him through his personal life.
What do social media have to do with authenticity? Can those tools ever be of use in a holy way? Or are they inherently bad?
I have such a dim view of what I call now "anti-social media" that I'm not sure I am the best person to talk about this. I don't get Twitter. Tell me a tweet you remember from 30 days ago—or from ever. I'm standing right next to you and you are not talking to me, you're tweeting about some ridiculous pseudo-thought to no one person in particular. I love to point people to an article that appeared in The New York Times about some friends who decided to go "exploring New York, unplugged and on foot" for 12 straight hours in what they called "I Am Here" days. The article reveals much about how we have become desperate to have more meaningful relationships and conversations than those offered from via electronic devices. I see signs of many longing for something more significant.
How can pastors cut through all the noise and still be authentic?
My main body of work focuses on a certain progression of economic value that goes from commodities, to goods, to services, to experiences, to transformations. There is an intelligence hierarchy that corresponds to this progression—from noise, to data, to information, to knowledge, to wisdom. Most new media increasingly pulls the level of intelligence down. It's just filling the world with more noise. If you are going to tweet or blog amidst all this noise, your communication must aim to stand apart and offer true insight. But can this even be done via tweets, blog posts, emails, RSS feeds and so forth with which people are so inundated? I believe a sermon, if well-studied, well-constructed, and well-delivered, can still cut through all of the noise and make people say, "Today I heard the truth." It can still put people in the pews. Especially today, the word will get out!
And in terms of "being authentic," remember that being true to your-self—the world's standard for realness—is not the same as truth itself. The very notion of authenticity is a relatively recent human concept. There's not a single use of "real" or "fake" or "authentic" or "inauthentic" in the entire Authorized Version of the Bible. If we go back to our Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament Scriptures, they are completely void of any notion of being true to self. The whole notion of authenticity flows from the noble savage of Rousseau and/or Shakespeare's Polonius, not the Bible.
Do you see the resurgence in liturgical worship and symbol as being linked to this same idea?
A big part of authenticity is a longing for a previous time. Americans think Europe is authentic because it's older than America. Young kids think Disneyland is authentic because it's older than they are. So, yes, the return to older practices in the church does represent a nostalgic cry for some sense of permanence, of wanting to tap into ancient practices that we feel we've lost.
I think it's funny that you could have a pastor with torn jeans and an untucked shirt and a goatee and someone says, "He's authentic." Then at another church you could have a pastor in clerical robes burning incense and someone else says, "Oh, that's authentic," because that really seems like church.
This just confirms our definition of authenticity as "buying on the basis of conforming to self-image." The cars we drive, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, are not so much grounded in any objective measures, but merely a subjective response to asking oneself, "Am I the kind of person who would drive this kind of car, or eat at this type of restaurant, or don this particular style of garment? Now we're bringing this same consumer sensibility into the church: Am I the kind of person who would go to a place whose pastor dresses like that?
Anything else that you want to add to this conversation?
At the risk of not being true to what I advocated above, one quick personal story: Some time ago I traveled to a conference in Canada to speak on the subject of authenticity. The night before the event someone I knew greeted me as I was checking in to the hotel. They told me that that day's conference sessions were dominated by a "Green" tone. So the next day, during my talk, I was sure to take frequent sips from my SIGG water bottle, a distinctively iconic Swiss-made bottle. Each time I unscrewed it, which takes about eight turns, I'd take a sip, and then screw the cap back on. At the end of my talk, I asked for a show of hands to poll how many people had noticed that I'd been drinking from my SIGG bottle—versus drinking from a plastic bottle. Every hand went up. I then said, "Keep your hand up if you think that because I'm drinking from this SIGG bottle that I'm more environmentally conscious than most people." The vast majority of the hands remained up. Then I shared, "But the truth is that I filled my bottle up with water from two plastic bottles this morning. You see, issues of real and fake are not the same as issues of true and false. Being true to oneself is not the same as truth itself." I think it's a good reminder: our perceptions are notoriously unreliable. Leaders need to be very conscious of that fact. There is no sense in being real if you don't speak truth.
The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves,
by Andrew Potter.
Authenticity as the desire to feel superior
to one's fellow human beings.
by William Ian Miller
How we all fake it more than we're willing
Inauthentic Culture and its Philosophical Critics,
by Jay Newman
A rich philosophical exploration of the
standards used to define authenticity.
The Thing Itself: On the Search for Authenticity,
by Richard Todd
Cultural criticism on our unease with anything inauthentic.
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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