|The Barnabas Ministry
Stuff vs. Fake Stuff and the Church
We live in a world with a lot of fake stuff. A lot of fake stuff. Not only does this topic have implications in all sorts of areas of everyday life, it has special importance for those us dealing with unhealthy churches and matters of spiritual abuse.
Let's take a look at some different kinds of fake stuff. I'm not sure about all of the items fitting perfectly into these various categories, but we have to start somewhere.
First, there is run-of-the-mill fake stuff where the "fake" constitutes some sort of improvement or cost savings, and everybody pretty much knows what it is:
Now sometimes we know something is fake and we get a kick out of it anyway:
"The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you've got it made." (Jean Giraudoux)
So perhaps the most insidious fake thing is fake sincerity, perhaps saying that all others are fakes. Yikes! This fake stuff is deep.
That's a lot of fake stuff. I list these not to be thorough (as I am sure there is still more fake stuff), but to illustrate how much fake stuff is around us, how we are inundated with fake stuff, and how our senses and ability to make judgments have been tricked over and over by fake stuff. I hope by listing all of these things I've connected with the reader somehow, someway.
Why Fake Stuff Fakes Us Out
We live in a day where the popular saying, "Perception is reality" guides many of us. For whatever reasons-- the overwhelming amount of information, the fragmentation of daily life-- we accept perception as reality. Of course, this mentality isn't really new for mankind; Jesus addressed the phenomenon back in his day.
In his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini discussed how compliance professionals take advantage of the ways people process the myriad of information that hits them. His theory is that there is so much going on in life, so much detail, that we can't possibly pay attention to all of it. So things that appear to be something, we just accept them at face value. We then direct the bulk of our energy towards other more unusual, interesting or demanding matters. Most of the time, this works just fine for us. And the compliance professional takes advantage of this shortcut to persuade us.
In fact, Cialdini discusses the practice of using canned laughter in television. His research found that it is almost universally mocked and despised, but it is still successful at influencing people. Television executives who have a vested interest in getting more viewers (which translates to higher ratings, higher advertising rates and more money) use the laugh track for one reason: it works. It persuades viewers to think the show is funnier than it would otherwise appear. This takes advantage of the principle of pluralistic ignorance-- the idea that in the absence of knowing how to react to something, we look to others for how to react. And if the others are laughing-- even if they are fake "people" inserted at the director's discretion-- we are persuaded by their laughter as a social proof that the show is indeed funny.
It's one thing to be persuaded that something is funny because a bunch of other fake people are laughing, it is another thing to have fake things mislead us on matters of spiritual importance.
Fakes in the Spiritual Realm
Modern Christians and churches spend a lot of effort and energy giving a certain impression. This is particularly true in groups that are interested in growing numerically and those using "seeker-sensitive" methods. Typically, the idea behind this is that in order to be effective evangelistically, Christians and churches need to appear a certain way. So churches train their members to act a certain way and carve their image to fit the desired appearance. This would be especially noticed in the behavior of church leaders and in weekend church services, church websites and church marketing materials.
More insidiously, Christians often think that for people to accept us and our faith, we have to have a certain appearance, we have to "be cool." In particular, Christian men do not want to appear wimpy in the exercise of their faith. So we may do things to appear more acceptable to others.
But collectively or individually, at this stage we are on the brink of becoming fakes. There is a fine line between putting one's best foot forward ("becoming all things to all people") or exercising one's freedom in Christ and being a fake. Once the line of fakedom has been crossed, it's pretty easy to keep justifying more and more fakeness in pursuit of the desired ends. This fakedom takes on a life of its own and becomes a tangled web of outright deceit. Churches and people become enslaved to the bogus image they have created of themselves.
Watch the Fruit
Jesus certainly had his share of fake stuff to deal with in his earthly ministry, and his teachings give us a road map out of this maze of fakedom.
First, Jesus spoke of false spiritual leaders. He used several terms and metaphors, including false prophets, hired hands, hypocrites, and whitewashed tombs. They key behind all of these is that 1) they made special efforts to appear a certain way and 2) the leader was not the same thing on the inside as they looked like on the outside. Jesus forgave penitent prostitute and religious person alike; but one thing he seemed to have little tolerance for was the fake-- the person who acted one way but was different on the inside. And religious people, especially leaders, are particularly prone to this temptation.
Jesus also taught his followers about sorting out the conflicting data and gave some key guidelines about how to tell the phony from the real thing.
"Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 "You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor figs from thistles, are they? 17 "Even so, every good tree bears good fruit; but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 "A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. 19 "Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 "So then, you will know them by their fruits." (Matthew 7:15-20)
Jesus' point is that the fruit-- the end result-- of spiritual leaders testifies to the authenticity of the leaders. People don't naturally look at the fruit of spiritual leaders and systems, they look at the "show"-- the nice clothes and buildings, smooth speech, gentle manners, nice sermons. Looking at fruit is harder. Fruit takes time to develop. Fruit may not always be obvious either-- if part of the fruit of a spiritual leader is people leaving to get away from his influence, you won't see them around him anymore. Scripture speaks of how hard it is to count that which is lacking (Eccl 1:15); Christ-followers have to consider this "missing fruit" as part of the picture in looking at fruit.
What are some other fruits to consider? Jesus spoke of leaders as either wolves or shepherds. Wolves destroy people, shepherds care for people. Where there are destroyed people, there has been a wolf. Where there are cared-for people, there are shepherds.
Some fakes know people are looking for authenticity and they try to fake the measurements out. So in a fake spiritual system, watch for people acting cared-for as opposed to being really cared-for. But how can you tell?
Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment. (John 7:24)
Jesus knew that mere appearances and superficial perceptions could mislead people. In the context of the above comment, he was being criticized for healing somebody on the Sabbath. Laughably, the religious critics had decided that healing somebody was "work" and thus it shouldn't be done on the Sabbath. But Jesus' defense was that 1) the Law allowed for animals to be saved from danger on the Sabbath, and 2) he was healing the whole man. In fact, his argument was that the Sabbath was particularly appropriate for healing somebody. So Jesus taught that if you want to get down to the truth about something, it has to go beyond mere appearances and be concerned with end results and fruit.
Words vs. Actions
Another guideline Jesus gave had to do with the differences between words and actions.
"The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. 3 So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. (Matthew 23:2-3)
"Practice what you preach" is one of those Scriptures that just about everybody knows. In our day, we also have other sayings that also remind of this important distinction. "Talk is cheap." "Walk the talk." "Stupid is as stupid does." One of my favorite quotes on the Barnabas Ministry "quotes" page is this one:
"As I grow older, I pay less attention to what men say. I just watch what they do."
In our day and age, the practice of "spin" is too common. "Spin" is the dark art of saying something very carefully. It may sound like one thing, but in reality something completely different is said, or perhaps nothing at all is actually "said." Fakers are notorious for spin. Watching out for carefully worded statements is important, but can be difficult. But if you watch what people do and not just hear what they say, you'll be less likely to be taken in by carefully worded statements.
Done For Public Consumption
Another guideline Jesus gave is that what is done for public consumption isn't always real.
Be careful not to do your `acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.... And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6:1, 5-6)
Fakers pay attention to things done in public. They often work off a "script" (a specific guideline or methodology) to ensure they give a certain impression. Everything from jokes and anecdotes to personal stories and confessions can seem genuine but they can be the result of a scripted code of behavior too. I once heard a well-known preacher give a sermon at a conference, then heard the same speaker at another conference a few months later. He gave the exact same talk-- the same jokes and anecdotes even with the same "off-the-cuff" comments and delivery. What I thought was a great, sincere sermon the first time came across as a scripted performance the second time. Many churches have multiple services, and I don't expect each service to be completely different. Doing the same songs and delivering the same sermon is ok. But when you see the same service more than once you realize how much of it is scripted, and it's more than most people would think.
In the text above, Jesus spoke of those who would give to the poor, pray or fast for the express purpose of being seen doing so. Jesus instructed his followers to do these things in secret and not get caught up in the show. This also suggests that what is done in secret, when somebody thinks nobody else is watching, or when somebody is "off script" shows us who they really are.
So, the pastor can seem all warm and personable shaking hands in the lobby of the church, but what's he like in dealing with people around town, at home, or in other places outside of the carefully controlled environment of the church? Or consider a preacher who seems all concerned about something or another while preaching, but his actions don't back up that supposed concern.
Now this doesn't mean that people trying to do well are fakes just because they don't reach their ideals. Nobody reaches ideals; everybody needs a good deal of grace. Catching a fellow human being messing up doesn't mean he's a fake, it means he's human. But we can have a realistic expectation of others to be reasonably consistent in their lives. When we see inconsistency, it points to some degree of fakery.
Shrewdness and Caution is Spiritual
It takes time and effort to critically examine things. Now we can't be hyper vigilant and examine everything single thing, but when it comes to spiritual matters we have to look more closely.
For those who have had bad church experiences or suffered spiritual abuse, the days of using our old, naïve rules with regard to spiritual things are over. Jesus didn't use words like "beware" or "watch out" for nothing. Too many Christians think naiveté is a spiritual attribute, as though trusting people was the same as trusting God. Nothing could be further from the truth or less Christian.
There is a place for trusting other Christians or spiritual leaders, but that trust must be earned and warranted. Unquestioning or absolute trust opens the door for fakedom to take over.
How to Not Be a Fake
Those of us who have been around unhealthy churches and spiritual abuse have a few things of our own to deal with when it comes to this whole "fake" thing. We may have been trained to be fakey about things. We may have a hard time figuring out what was fake and what was genuine. It's one thing to spot a fake here and there, but what about the fake in the mirror, the fake in the chair we're sitting in? How do we escape from the web of fakedom and not get caught in it? Let's turn Jesus' guidelines above into instructions for ourselves.
From Jesus' talk about false teachers and fruit, we have to be concerned with long-term results. For example, it is far better to have your children grow up with a real and true faith than for them to appear "godly" at a young age by following certain behaviors only to have them reject these later. We have to be concerned with the long-term and the big picture, not just with what is expedient or some short-term result.
From his discussion of mere appearances, we must take care to just be real and consistent on the inside and outside, not trying to persuade people by superficial or shallow things. It is better to have a real faith than to look like you have a real faith. We have to give up the "show." We should be more concerned about the genuine spiritual health and well-being of others instead of just how things look or how they conform to the rules of the day.
From Jesus' talk about the things done in public vs. things done in secret, we have to be the same person publicly and privately. We especially should be wary of doing things to impress others. We have to know in our heart that what we do in private is more the measure of our character than what we do that others see.
Lastly, we should not expect people to trust us implicitly. If we want to be trusted, we have to deserve it.
In all of this, we must remember the message of grace. Our acceptance by God has to do with Christ's death on the cross and not our ability to gather favor from people or appear a certain way. We all yearn for the approval of others, and this drives much of the spiritual fakery out there. Jesus wants us to be concerned with God's approval, not the approval of men. God's approval doesn't come by persuading or faking out men.
Ironically, God's approval comes by grace. We are pretty much empty-handed when it comes to impressing God, and accepting this is the true power of the gospel.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:6)
He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy. (Proverbs 28:13)
But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ--the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. (Philippians 3:7-9)
When we accept this, we are free to be real and have the authenticity for which we all yearn. We can finally give up this "fake show thing" that gets us all into so much trouble.
Copyright © 2007 John Engler. All rights reserved.