"Authenticity" has become a buzzword. It has become a mandatory addition to any version of Christian Conference Buzzword Bingo. (A game utilizing bingo style cards with overused words de jour in each bingo-space. Who can be first to score 5 in a row and declare "BINGO?")
Thirteen years ago, I attended a national pastors' conference. At the time I was helping with an emergent-style church plant and I was sent to plunder as many growth strategies as possible. I remember that "authenticity" was all the rage at the conference. Regularly we were told that the future of preaching required a new commitment to vulnerable communication. There were even break-out sessions that taught techniques of authentic communication—and at the time these seminars made perfect sense.
Much has happened in the last thirteen years. Culture has shifted significantly and so has religious rhetorical style. You could rightly say that authenticity—and even stunning vulnerability—have become normative in many Christian books, at conferences, and from Sunday pulpits. Pastors are admitting their unanswered questions. National speakers are operating from their brokenness. And courageous writers are opening their spiritual closets full of addictions, abuse, doubt, and shame.
But today, I want to try to do the unacceptable. I want to take a few moments to critique authenticity. More specifically, I want to start a conversation about speaking styles and techniques.
I know, I know, how can someone critique another person's expressed humility or passion? Well, I believe that we can (though at the same time I acknowledge the inherent danger in such a practice).
It is important to point out that I am not going to critique another's heart motivation when speaking (for the most part). What I want to do is ask some questions about the exchange of vulnerability. I want to suggest that true authenticity is a relational act. It is not enough for one person to intend to be honest and open; their words must also be received as honest and open. Much like love-languages within a marriage relationship, it is important to consider not only the ways that I like to communicate love, it is equally important for me to consider what ways best communicate love to my spouse. (For instance, I might like to give gifts but she may place greater value on quality time.) It is the same with the communication of authenticity, which you could say is a love language as well. Isn't it?
Our culture today has a very adept authenticity-antenna. This antenna exists because the rising generation is desperate for truthful honesty in a world which is otherwise virtual, shrink-wrapped, automated, plastic, and polarizing. Couple that with the fact that religious communication is not given the benefit of the doubt as it was in generations past. This leads to a culture that is parched for authenticity and yet ever-critical of religious techniques.
You can see how this can be a rhetorical challenge.
Recently, I have had the chance to visit several large-stage Christian conferences. These conferences would be considered pretty cutting edge. They utilize well-known Christian voices and focus on important contemporary issues. I was surprised to recognize several rhetorical styles, intended to illustrate authenticity, which may not be as effective today as they once were.
Again, I have no desire to question people's hearts. In fact I believe that most leaders believe they love their audience through both their words and through their speaking styles. However, like the marriage illustration above, I am not sure their authenticity-techniques are effecting the next generation as well as they hoped.
To start the conversation, here are a few of the styles I witnessed:
This is when a speaker saturates their lecture with doe-eyes, pursed lips, long pauses, and often a particularly breathy speaking tone. This style can make for great pillow-talk, but when it happens from the podium it can feel syrupy in the ears of much of our culture. The real tragedy (since I assume that these speakers are in fact sincere people) is that this style can actually have the opposite of the intended impact. To many, it can feel like emotional manipulation.
If Super Sincerity persuades through empathic appeal, Power Speaking utilizes constant dramatic emphasis. Each phrase (sometimes every word) comes at the listener with such strength that they lose any sense of a narrative arc. IT IS THE RHETORICAL EQUIVALENT OF WRITING IN ALL CAPS. IT CAN BE TRYING. IT CAN BE OVERWHELMING. IT CAN FEEL LIKE BEING YELLED AT.
I heard a speaker recently, who had outstanding things to say, but delivered every line punctuated with piercing passion. If every line is forcibly important than no line is. Where is the build-up? Where is the subtlety? Where is the dramatic rise and fall? The person with an authenticity antenna can feel riddled by this style, when they may instead want to be wooed.
Most all of us do this. It is hard not to try to slip our accomplishments, successes, stunning stories, and fame-encounters into everyday conversations with friends and co-workers. However, when resume accomplishments are slipped into a spiritual speech, it can seriously undermine the speaker's authenticity and credibility.
I recently heard a famous Christian speaker who gave a great talk that included stories of failure and doubt … and yet all along the way he would unnecessarily slip into the sermon famous people he knows, initiatives he has begun, and the size of his followership. The authenticity-antenna interprets this as self-serving. Many of us employ this, but from the pulpit it can erode credibility.
Many religious leaders desire to model vulnerability in order to connect with their audience. However they struggle, like all of us do, with a desire to be perceived as impressive, enlightened, and having their junk all figured out. To accomplish these two seemingly mutually exclusive goals, some choose a technique I call the Vulnerable Straw-Man. They choose to share an issue they struggled with long ago, or a mistake they made somewhere in their distant past. This issue can be illustrated with great passion and regret … but the secret is to choose something for which the speaker has now fully recovered from, defeated, and corrected.
Mission accomplished: vulnerability and spiritual arrival. The only problem is that many authenticity-antennas now pick up on these "vulnerable without being truly vulnerable" techniques and may dismiss the speaker's otherwise important message.
Okay, so that should get the conversation going. Again this article is about styles and techniques, not about content. The assumption is (and my observations have been) that folks have great hearts and important messages, but any communications teacher will tell you that how you say something is just as important as what you say.
Also, a culture of authenticity requires that I acknowledge that I utilize all of the above techniques (and many more) … and, if I am honest, my motivations for doing so are rarely pure.
Tony Kriz is a writer and church leader from Portland, Oregon, and Author in Residence at Warner Pacific College.
Copyright © 2014 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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