Insta-Church vs. Authentic Church

We’ve all seen and experienced the Instagram Influencer on social media. Even if someone hasn’t been crowned an actual “Influencer”, we all have those friends who post every bit of their seemingly perfect lives online for all to see. They tag themselves in exotic places, eating in fancy restaurants, with lots of beautiful friends, and pose beside well behaved, smiling children. People have quickly caught on to the problem with this carefully curated persona some individuals are creating on social media…this isn’t real life.

Do these “picture perfect” people ever have a bad day? A zit? Cellulite? Trouble breastfeeding? Do they ever have a lazy day, with no workout, or skinny tea? Do bad things ever happen to them? Do they cry? Grieve? Have anxiety attacks? Do they have fat rolls anywhere? Or have to see a doctor for their acne, migraines, mental health issues, or itching you-know-where? Do their kids ever scream, cry, or wipe poop all over the nursery wall? Does their breath smell bad? Are their homes really this clean all the time? Who are these robots?

That’s just the thing: while we know most people’s social media presence is curated to show the very best days, events, and vacations, capture the happiest or most exciting moments, or are even manufactured and filtered “candid” photos taken and retaken to get the right light, angle, color, etc., most of us are still negatively affected by the myth these types of profiles perpetuate. We fall into the trap of comparing our lives to others, and when our lives seem “broken” and their’s perfect... we panic, feel sadness, depression, anxiety, or jealousy. We hold ourselves and others in our family to unhealthy, unattainable goals and standards. There are studies that follow the correlation between a person’s happiness and self-esteem and the number of hours they spend on social media. There is even something called Social Media Anxiety Disorder characterized by withdrawing from “real” life, friends, and family to spend more time on social media and being unable to go a few hours without checking social media accounts and scrolling through images for hours.

Images are powerful. Messaging is powerful. Branding is powerful. That’s why no matter what we know to be true about people’s carefully curated profiles, we still compare our lives, happiness, families, cars, homes, clothes, wealth, vacations, even our bodies. More and more people are disinterested in this fake representation of people’s lives. There is a movement of Instagrammers, bloggers, and everyday people who intentionally show their real lives, mess and all. People Magazine recently featured celebrity women who “woke up like this”, with make-up free pictures, and Target has huge images in their stores in the swim suit section of untouched pictures of women in swimsuits: stretchmarks, full figures, cellulite, and all. Real is back in style.

After years of conversation with people who choose not to go to church, I have discovered one of the main reasons is very similar to the distaste of cultivated social media personalities. For so many, churches come across as trying to be Insta-ready with their polished pastors, cohesive ministry team, content adults, laughing young adults, diverse youth ministry, and perfectly dressed children (with no crying, stains, or poopy diapers and plenty of monograms). People are turned off by the implicit branding and messaging of most churches, and instead search for authentic community elsewhere.  

If the images (on social media or elsewhere), messaging, and programs churches use to brand themselves convey a group of believers who have their lives, faith, marriages, families, and finances all together, very few people who feel truly broken (as in broken in spirit), ashamed, strung out, divorced, unemployed, homeless, or emotionally bankrupt would feel comfortable strolling in and joining a small group, a Sunday school class, or even a worship service. Hurting people don’t want to be surrounded by people pretending life doesn’t hurt like hell sometimes; they want to find someone who will sit with them in their grief.

If you’ve never truly been in a “down and out” type situation, you may not understand the reality of not wanting to walk into a space where it feels like everyone has their shit together. The irony is, all churches and the members making up those churches have mess going on behind the scenes- businessmen embezzling money, husbands/wives cheating on their spouses, individuals strung out on drugs or alcohol, parents abusing their children, teenagers stealing from their parents, people dying of disease, people living with AIDS, ministers struggling with mental illness, the list goes on and on. There are literally all types of people in church, but no one may ever know it, even those in the same congregation, because church folk (southern ones at least) are great at hiding our true-selves in an attempt to feel accepted, loved, and unjudged. How can one expect to gather a group of imperfect people and imperfect ministers but have a perfect church?

Once upon one of my many churches, I would sit each Sunday for nearly an hour on stage in a chair to one side of the pulpit where the pastor preached. More often than not, I spent my time amused by the messy, unorganized “stuff” stacked on the shelves behind the pulpit. I was entertained by the fact the congregation had no clue what the pulpit looked liked from my angle, because their view was much different. They saw a beautiful pine pulpit, adorned with a cross, colorful paraments symbolizing the liturgical season, and a smiling, polished minister standing behind it. On the contrary, I saw everything from the typical water bottle, box of tissues, and a few extra Bibles to balled up trash, Polaroid cameras (like 1980’s style), toilet paper, lighters, five sets of reading glasses, mini grape juice bottles, cough drops, melted candles, a coloring book, stoles, one dress shoe, a stuffed animal, a bag of chips, a hammer, a kitchen knife, a beach towel, a fishing net, a small box locked with a padlock (I never figured this one out), a mini umbrella, and my all time favorite, a plate with an old, half eaten fried chicken leg and the remnants of what looked to be a slice of cake.

I have used this story so many times to describe what working in a church was like… it looked one way to everyone on the outside and a very different way to those on the inside. I think this same analogy can help explain why so many people do not feel comfortable or choose not to attend church. As outsiders, they see and interpret a very different message than those on the inside feel they are conveying.

Churches and congregations are made up of people who have real lives and families that are just as messy as any of our families’ lives. If they are unwilling to show their messiness, one must question why. I think many people in church want to give the impression they have their mess together because they think it reflects on their faith or their relationship with God, as if somehow, having a close relationship with God will keep you safe from illness, divorce, bankruptcy, mental breakdowns, anxiety, depression, rude teenagers, or challenging children. Maybe there is an unspoken idea that people who truly trust in God, don’t need to worry or grieve or scream or cuss or have mental breakdowns. I don’t know.

Authenticity attracts authenticity. If someone is willing to open their life and share about themselves and their family, they seek the same in return. If someone is hurting or grieving or angry or depressed, they want someone to simply listen or hold their hand. If someone is having trouble with their marriage or their children, they want a community to say, “We’ve got you. This is tough. We’ll get through it.” If someone is sick, they need someone to bring some soup and crackers. Authentic people do these things naturally, not to capture the moment, post on Instagram, and then #helpingothers (#servingothersinneed, #missionwork, #wwjd).

Most people don’t want others telling them to pray more, memorize scripture, or attend worship more regularly. They don’t want to be told how God healed your grandmother because everyone in her Sunday school class prayed for ten weeks without ceasing, so you should too. They don’t want to be told it was God’s will that their child died of cancer. They don’t want to come to church each week knowing they are being judged and talked about. They especially don’t want to feel coerced or forced into membership, volunteering, or any other one-sided relationship, being seen as a means to an end and not a part of the body.

I know it sounds so negative, but it’s what I have heard so many people say. People who have been in church and experienced these things first hand. I, too, have experienced many of these things or heard ministers and congregants saying some of the most inappropriate things to people in pain. People genuinely want to be a part of something larger than themselves, but they don’t want a “pay for play” relationship. People genuinely want community, but they want to be honest and accepted as they are. (And saying “I hate the sin, but love the sinner.” is total B.S. It’s a total shirk, skip, dodge, and sidestep from saying what you really think. You love someone or you don’t. No “buts.”) People genuinely want to cultivate a spiritual life, but they don’t see the value in a shallow faith that doesn’t make sense with what they’ve experienced in life.

I think authentic churches are difficult to find, because authentic people are difficult to find. Many people are unwilling to be honest with themselves about who they are, what they need, or what they believe. Opening ourselves to others is an even larger risk. This type of vulnerability can be taken advantage of, mistaken as a flawed or fragile personality, and can cause people to withdraw from you. Real life has more questions than answers, which means real faith relies more on what cannot be explained than what can.

I have hope that churches can become places who strive for true authenticity, but it will require so much grace and space. Grace will have to be extended all the time, because people and ministers are not perfect. We all make mistakes, say the wrong things, make the wrong choices, and we will need grace extended to us, instead of shame, and space to heal, or hurt, or seek professional help. We will need to extend grace to those who have a difficult time letting go of what the church once was and they will need space to grieve the loss of what it was and to see all it could be. And in return, those who will grieve what church used to be will need to extend grace to those who are frustrated that change isn’t happening fast enough and those folks will need space to express their ideas and creativity. In order to create a more authentic space, all must be considered equal contributors to the church (it’s mission, ideas, worship, and role in the community) and there cannot be a hierarchy of power and decision-making based on who tithes the greatest amounts or who’s been there the longest. An authentic church will have to address issues churches have been unwilling or at least uncomfortable discussing that still separate the eleven o’clock hour across the United States: racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia to name a few.

It says so much that Jesus spent his days among the “messiest” of people: thieves, prostitutes, outcasts, mentally ill, sick, and those who were just too “different.” Jesus was a man with a messy profile who still had thousands of followers. The original “influencer” who cared nothing about how he was seen and never filtered, but was murdered for his authenticity and prophetic voice.

Carra Greer