Cultivate Genuine Faith

Gary Wilkerson

In the modern Western church we have the outside of the cup polished to a perfect sheen. For most today, you past a sign that says “Welcome Home” outside, and there’s coffee available in the lobby, and the services start right on time (or a minute after), then there’s a pitch for women’s ministry or Bible study groups, and the music only lasts 35 minutes, and the sermon hits all five points but doesn’t go over 45 minutes, then everyone’s out on time. Everything’s clean and kind of cookie-cutter.

Now I don’t want anyone to think that I’m against all this. I think that the Lord is a God of order, but we live in such an overly marketed society that we’ve often let the church become a shell of everything it could be. That means that we have to work extra hard to get past the surface down into something that’s real. The world wants to see if the people of God are walking what they’re saying out in the most basic places in their lives.

So often—not always, but often—when there have been big Christian leaders who have had a moral failure, you can look behind the curtain in their life and see that there were many earlier failures to live out what they were teaching in other areas.

I don’t mean to take the side of the world here, but even with leaders who haven’t had a big moral failure, too often, we look behind the curtain, and there’s nothing there. They have nothing that answers the big moral questions or really deals with sin.

When the church starts pretending that sin isn’t having an impact on our culture or even believers because we want to be uplifting, we lose our ability to really talk to the people outside of the church. They’re dealing with the pain and difficulties of sin every day. They’re living it out.

Christians have the answer, but if we’re not willing to be genuine and address the fallout, we’re never going to be able to really give that answer to the people asking, “Is there any hope?” Or rather, our answers will ring hollow. It's like we’re trying to market a soda can so hard that we forget to put the soda in it. The spiritual hunger in people gets dressed up really nicely but never gets fed.

Years and years ago, there was a revival on Wall Street where people just started getting together at noon to pray and suddenly there were more and more people coming to pray. There was another revival called the Haystack Revival where a couple students were caught out in the rain and crawled under a wagon full of hay then started praying together. Soon thousands of students were gathering out in this field, and revival broke out.

God seems to do that a lot. He works through such small but genuine things. It's like the bypassing of King Saul in all his pomp and circumstance, and God goes to the simple shepherd David. God is not going to allow us to superimpose our pragmatic systems on top of him.

This reminds me of how when people first get saved and start telling their testimony, it’s raw and unfinished. After a while, a lot of believers get very polished with their testimony. Every serious struggle was 25 years ago, and now we just occasionally deal with a little anger. I think a lot of Christians do this with the best intentions. We have a 5-minute elevator pitch for Jesus.

Too often we think the end justifies the means. “If they get saved, it doesn’t matter if I added a few details to my testimony or made the healing of my sins sound more dramatic or smoother than it actually was. I took out the bit about my relapse or my chronic depression because that makes God sound less powerful, right? What if someone scoffs or questions how God could let that happen?” We feel like we’ve got to get their attention or give them something shiny before they move on to something else.

God is not going to bless us if we take a spiritual nugget of truth and misuse it in some smooth marketing appeal for heaven, though. Besides, the world tells us that it’s interested in something else. The phenomenon of reality television writes that on the wall in bold letters. I know it often has scripted parts, but people are longing to see what’s genuine. Even if it’s not completely real, they still want something at least more real.

People long for something transformative, but they won’t find it in church if we don’t give them the truth and trust that it will be enough. If no one acknowledges being in need, though, we lose an incredible witness to God’s presence. The battle is ongoing, and we’re still in it. Nobody has “arrived” and only has struggles from 25 years ago. As leaders, if we live this way, that filters down into the people we oversee. Like shepherd, like sheep.

People are tired of wearing the mask but thinking, “I’m hurting inside. I’m depressed and anxious. I want something real to heal me and change my life.” This is part of why people love the testimonial service so much. People are acknowledging real hardships, and God is revealed to be still active and powerful in their lives. The excitement there is really, deep down, people saying, “Yes! God’s really there, and he's still doing stuff. If he helped them, he can help me.”

Testimonial services are messy, though. I know this well. As a young pastor, I had a woman who’d just gotten saved from drugs and a very rough life, and she got up to give her testimony. I don’t know how else to say this, but…well, her testimony was colorful to say the least. She was just barely getting to know God; she didn’t know the politeness codes for church.

As a young man, I was alarmed because there were a lot of f-bombs suddenly being dropped from the stage, but I was also kind of in awe. She was talking about what Christ had done for her. She had a little baby whom she knew she was going to be able to take care of now. Her witness was so pure, in some ways.  It was so brutally authentic. It pointed frankly to the glorious nature of God without frills or religious jargon. It was glorious.

There are some groups in the church who perhaps take this and go too far. They sensationalize and even romanticize their sins to a certain degree. It’s almost as if they’re glorying in their sins in the name of being authentic. Yes, Jesus accepts us the way we are, but he loves us too much to leave us there.

Now as that lady grew in Christ and was discipled, we discussed some different ways to communicate the gloriousness of what God had done for her. I think, though, in the process of doing that as church leaders, we sometimes slip into trying to make people into less of Christ’s disciples who all reflect God’s glory in unique ways and more of model American citizens who look and talk and act a certain way.

The cure is to live in a wide and varied community, especially as leaders. When we have people in our lives who are coming from different backgrounds and have different gifts, we will see the fullness of God in ways that challenge our religious culture and cultivates our godly maturity. I’m not talking taking theology off the rails of sound doctrine, but I am talking about friends who offer us different perspectives on important topics or help us work through complicated circumstances with grace. This not only helps us grow in Christ, but it magnifies God, especially as it invites us to be vulnerable with one another.

My wife and I were helping to run a marriage course with some couples. Of course, the beginning was a little awkward because everyone’s still getting to know each other, and we’re going over pretty basic questions about our marriages and going through this book.

After a little bit of time, I put the book aside for a moment and asked, “So how are you really doing?” The first couple said, “Oh, we’re doing wonderful. It’s great.” Second couple said the same thing. We got to the third couple, and the guy said the same thing as everyone else, but his wife was silent a moment. Tears started rolling down her cheeks, and she said, “Not me. We’ve been married two years, and I’ve hated every minute of it. Even from the honeymoon, I knew I’d married the wrong person.” You could see from the shock on the guy’s face that he hadn’t heard this, and she started crying so hard.

There was nothing in that book that could tackle this problem, but it was like lightning struck this group and brought it to life. People became so much more honest and—dare I say it?—alive. Other couples came around this young couple and were honest about struggles they’d gone through in their marriage. People got real about the current difficulties they were facing with their spouse. The cry of this young woman’s soul awoke all of us to the absolute necessity for God to be present and merciful to us every day in our marriages and all our relationships.

God will not work through half-truths or manipulations. He only works through the truth. Power is found in the raw and messy stories our lives tell about his grace and goodness.

Gary Wilkerson is an author, public speaker, and the president of World Challenge, Inc.


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