In 1787, so the story goes, a Russian named Grigory Potemkin erected a portable, fake village in order to impress the visiting Empress Catherine II.
Potemkin village” has come into our lexicon to describe anything literal or figurative that is constructed in order to deceive others into thinking that the situation is better than it really is.Thus the phrase “
The next time you are at church, take a look at the people around you (and at the one in the mirror). See all the polished and pretty Potemkin villages, each pretending that everything is OK.
Note the polite smiles. Hear all the God-chatter and well-worn holy phrases. How desperately we need to hear the words of William Sloane Coffin: “Without vulnerability, we don’t really meet one another, we just bump masks.”
The sad truth is that most of us spend way too much energy maintaining our facades — energy that could be spent dealing with our real pain and hurts. Our lack of authenticity not only buries our own struggles deeper; it also isolates the person sitting beside us, because she is led to believe she is the only one with doubts, fears or failures.
Paul Tournier once wrote, “Nothing makes us so lonely as our secrets.”
All of this becomes tragically ironic when we read the research that indicates that unchurched people are looking for a community of transparency and honesty — in short, a place where people are real, not fake.
News flash: Glitzy worship and professional programing are way down the list of what the unreached masses are longing for.
Years ago, I sat in a preaching class at seminary. Before we tackled our homiletical assignment for the day, the professor asked for prayer requests. We never made it to the lesson that day.
A student opened up about the pain in his own life, how his church was struggling, how his marriage was suffering, how he was doubting his own call.
Everyone in the room could relate. Everyone, that is, except for one. It so happens that another student had brought a lay person with him to school that day, “to show my deacon what seminary is like.” Oops.
At our next class session, we heard a report that the deacon was very upset. He refused to believe that such conversations took place in the hallowed halls of a theological seminary. To paraphrase Jack Nicholson in the movie, “A Few Good Men,” he couldn’t handle the truth.
What has happened that the 21st-century church has moved so far away from authenticity?
A quick read of our New Testament shows one thing clearly — an honest, forthright report of the good, the bad and the ugly within the early church. Yet today, we find more transparency at an AA meeting than in a fellowship of Christ-followers.
Jesus said we are blessed if we are poor in spirit and blessed if we know how to cry (Matthew 5:3-4). He was inviting us to live his kingdom’s values, and those values invite us to begin embracing — not denying — our failures and poverty of spirit.
Years ago, I developed this definition of humility, which serves me well (except when it doesn’t): Humility is having nothing to lose, nothing to prove and nothing to hide.
When we become transparent about our own brokenness, God begins to change us. What’s more, God is then able to use us as change agents.
Let’s stop bumping masks and get real. Let’s dismantle the Potemkin villages and get to know one another’s hearts.
Doyle Sager is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Jefferson City, Mo.