When I was about 10 years old, I made friends with two brothers in my neighborhood, Tim and Jeff Ward. Perhaps because I didn’t have a brother living at home, or just for fun, I told them I had a twin brother named Mark. We would be playing Wiffleball, and I’d go home, change clothes, and come back as Mark. To help the ruse, I batted right-handed as Mike and left-handed as Mark. At first Mike was a better batter, but Mark steadily improved (which is how I became a decent switch-hitter).
After several weeks, Tim and Jeff started getting suspicious and asking me questions, like why we rode the same bike (our parents were too poor to afford two bikes) or why they never saw us together (because we only had the one bike!). When they came to our house, only one of us was ever around; the other had a game or was at another friend’s house. Then one day, Jeff asked my mom where Mark was. “Who’s Mark?” my mom asked. The gig was up.
Why do so many people pretend to be someone they’re not? I think it’s because they’re afraid others wouldn’t accept them as they are. So, we put on a mask that hides the real us. This happens particularly when the church gathers; we can’t be our real selves because we don’t think our fellow Christ followers would accept us as we really are: sinners saved by grace. We know the church ought to be the one place we should be accepted. But too often, it’s not. Someone said, “There’s more lying on Sunday morning than any other day of the week.” I would contend there’s just as much lying on Thursday night at small group, Saturday morning at the men’s fellowship, and other church gatherings. I would also contend people cannot grow spiritually in an environment of dishonesty.
Real discipleship can happen only where there is authenticity. If we cannot be real and admit our faults and frailties to one another, we cannot mature beyond where we are. But when we build an environment where we can be real with one another, sin loses its death grip on us. Because people love us “anyway” we have the encouragement we need to do battle against Satan’s attacks. The accountability of our friends helps us live the life we want to live but can’t live by ourselves.
I admit it’s not easy to be completely honest and transparent with others. It’s part of our sin nature that goes back to the beginning of humankind. Just as Adam and Eve’s sin caused them to hide from God and each other, our sin causes us to build barriers around ourselves to protect us from shame. The church needs the constant reminder that “There is no difference . . . for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22-23). That’s one thing we all have in common.
To live life to the full and to be the authentic church God wants us to be, we must learn how to become an authentic community.
We don’t have to fight our spiritual battles alone. But when we gather with friends we trust and determine to grow in Christ together, we break down the barriers and become increasingly more authentic. We do this together.
The kinds of groups I’m describing here display God’s purposes for his redeemed community as the Scriptures proclaim:
“Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy” (Proverbs 28:13). “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (James 5:16).
Authenticity is the secret to finding mercy and healing. God’s church should be known as an authentic community. This authenticity should be growing in every area of the church (not just small groups).
People are drawn to authenticity, especially in an age where it seems there’s so little of it. For a long time, people were separated from community because of a pandemic. Others have never entered into authentic biblical community because of their sin and fear of being exposed. Either way, they’ve experienced loneliness and a host of other related emotions.
Imagine if your church or small group were an authentic, loving, others-first community where people’s lives are being transformed. People would want to be part of that, just as they were in the early days of the church. In this kind of church, the Lord would add “to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). May that be the church today!
This article appeared as the “From the Editor” column in the March/April issue of Christian Standard. It is adapted from Michael’s book, Small Group Vital Signs: Seven Indicators of Health That Make Groups Flourish, Touch Publications, 2012.