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Taking Off Our 'Happy Faces' at Church

It’s Sunday, time to put on our ‘happy church face’, but the pastoral staff will be the first to admit there are plenty of tears during the week. What would happen if church were the one place you could share your struggles, fears and joys? What if church life could be lived out in high definition?

Studies show there is definitely a disconnect between what Christians say they do and what really goes on behind closed doors. According to a 2007 study of lifestyle choices among active Christian believers, just as many believers as nonbelievers were likely to: bet or gamble, visit a pornographic website, take something that did not belong to them, consult a medium or psychic, physically fight or abuse someone, consume enough alcohol to be considered legally drunk, have used an illegal or non-prescriptive drug, said something to someone that was not true, gotten back at someone for something he or she did and said mean things behind another person’s back. (American Lifestyles Mix Compassion and Self-Oriented Behavior, The Barna Group Ltd. February 5, 2007, Barna.org)

Although one may question the moral dilemma of living out these types of behaviors, perhaps even more disconcerting is the pretence of ‘holy living,’ while propagating a facade. Shouldn’t church be the one place where we can ‘keep it real'?

Stained Glass Windows

Pastor Pete Scazzero, author of The Emotionally Healthy Church (Zondervan) and co-founder with his wife Geri of Emotionally Healthy Spirituality; a ministry dedicated to applying emotionally health to biblical spirituality in order to transform leaders, relationships, churches and organizations (<a href="http://www.emotionallyhealthy.org">www.emotionallyhealthy.org</a>) suggests that church attendance needs to be more than a extracurricular activity.

“The church is the place where we are living in community, where we are not enmeshed and smothered, where we can respect differences and be real. If you’re not interested in being honest and sharing your struggles you might as well go join a club. Why join a church at all?”

Scazzero believes that a body of believers living in transparency is something that sets the church apart from the world. “The church is hopefully the place where people can come and it’s safe. We want to be in a place where we admit we are broken, we are vulnerable and we are authentic. If we really believe in grace, we can come out of hiding and hopefully be something that will make the world a little thirsty for Christ. Without transparency I’m not sure we have much to offer the world.”

Unsafe Churches

So why is living an authentic life so difficult, even for those who call themselves Christians? Scazzero says it often starts at home. “I think most of us come from families where we couldn’t be ourselves and it wasn’t safe to be who we really were; we ended up putting masks on.” explains Scazzero, who suggests that even if home was a safe place, our culture isn’t. “The world is run by works and performance. We keep score, whether it’s wealth, academics, success or position in society; therefore the world’s not a safe place. We’ve grown unsafe as a church because we conformed to the culture around us. To be a church in transparency is a very radical concept, it requires a whole transformation.”

As a senior pastor at New Life Fellowship Church in Queens, a large multiracial, international church, Scazzero is the first to admit that every revolution must begin with its leaders.

“Do I lead out of a place of transparency and brokenness or lead by my successes? It’s much easier to lead out of success and not be vulnerable, because people might judge me. But, if I’m not looking for validation from you, and received it from God himself, I’m secure in God’s inexhaustible love for me. Then I can be myself and be vulnerable, even if others find that too weak.”

Some pastors are afraid all that transparency might land them on the outside of their churches looking in. Nevertheless, they still must lead by example says Scazzero. “Many leaders will tell me if I’m that open, the church will throw me out. Don’t worry about anybody else, lets start with us being honest and transparent, and then hopefully that will encourage others to follow.”

The Messy Church

Worshiping in a transparent church may sound nice on paper, but in reality it can get pretty messy. Scazzero suggests discernment to control the bleeding. “Be wise. You don’t need to bring everything to the pulpit. If a man’s been unfaithful to his wife, I’m not sure he wants to bring that information to the small group that his wife is part of. You have to be careful.”

Sometimes finding a safe environment for sharing means gathering with others who have shared your struggles. In California a group of Christian men struggling with sexual addictions chose to meet weekly for prayer, Scripture reading and accountability. Christopher, who at one time battled with Internet pornography, found the group to be just what he needed.

“It was a chance to free ourselves from the trap we found ourselves in and expose our darkness in the light of God’s truth,” says Christopher.

While some churches might cringe, labeling this type of sin as ‘heinous’, Christopher was thankful he had a place to receive help. “When you tell another brother that you’re struggling, it takes away the shame that Satan uses. A large percentage of the men have found healing.”

No More Fakers

In Acts we observe the early church trying to define what it meant to live transparently in community with other believers. It soon became apparent how important honesty and integrity were to those who claimed to be ‘followers of Jesus Christ’. Ananias and his wife Sapphira were first century believers that wanted to appear more generous than they actually were. After lying about a donation to the church, and then refusing to repent for their attempted deception, God struck both dead.

In contrast we read in the Old Testament about King David who also initially lied about his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba, but then repented when confronted by Nathan, his advisor. In fact, David later went on to record his mistake in his worship and history books. David must have learned the secret to pleasing God when he wrote in Psalm 51:17, God delights in a broken spirit and a broken and contrite heart.

Time to Grow Up

Today we live in a media-saturated culture. There’s really no place to hide anyway. Scandals are leaking out of the church as fast as in the rest of society. Maybe it’s time to fire the spin-doctors and instead choose to live openly and honestly. Our message needs to be clear: we are people who struggle too. We need Jesus and believe He is our only hope for healing.

Is transparency in the church really mandatory for everyone? Scazzero believes we can’t continue on without it. “I’m not sure you can grow in Christ any other way. How else are you going to grow into an emotionally healthy, mature follower of Christ? By pretending and hiding? Just you and Jesus? It’s not biblical. We don’t have a choice but to press on and try to be this transparent community.”

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Copyright 2009 Lynne M. Thompson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.