It happens when we enter the front doors of a church, meet in small groups, get involved in Bible studies, participate in worship services, attend Christian-sponsored events, and fellowship with other believers—we transform into our Christian Personality.
The posture improves, voice changes, and behavior becomes conspicuously religious. We fix our hair, put on nicer clothes, stop cussing, temporarily stash away the cigarettes, and pretend to get along with our family.
Although the appearance changes deep inside we’re still exactly the same. This is the biggest danger of the Christian alter-ego: pretending to be someone we’re not.
It’s tempting for many Christians to put on a disguise. This is especially true of people within church leadership. Expectations need to be fulfilled, roles need to be played, and responsibilities must be carried out.
So when pastors walk up to the pulpit to preach a sermon—their voice, style, attitude, and demeanor often shift. It’s as if the person you know and love became someone different. They become a pastor, a worship leader, a deacon, a bible study facilitator, or the person leading a prayer—embracing their Christian Personality.
It happens when your friend is unexpectedly asked to pray: suddenly, the gruff-voiced joker who has a bad habit of saying “like” and “um” and “totally” every ten seconds—who can hardly string together coherent sentences—suddenly starts speaking like a somber Priest, using expressions such as “Holy Father” and “thou” and “commandeth” and other flowery King James-esque language. How did this happen? Why?
Spiritual communities are unique in that they have defined rules, standards, doctrinal statements, expectations of morality, and authoritarian structures (and unofficial social networks) that react to people’s actions and behaviors.
Few environments in society exude such accountability, relational influence, and sheer importance to individuals more than their spiritual communities. To avoid being alienated, many prefer to maintain the spiritual status quo rather than cause dissension. Thus, they create their Christian Persona.
Part of the problem is mimicking. Being immersed in Christian culture causes us to mirror the things we’re inundated with. We copy the behavior of others simply because it’s all we’ve ever known.
Worship leaders are supposed to sing like that. Pastors are supposed to preach like that. People who pray are supposed to sound like that. We fit into the spiritual stereotypes we’ve created for ourselves.
“Christian” environments can also cause people to be hyper-aware, guarded, and even fearful. Churches too often use judgment, shame, guilt, and exclusion to punish, humiliate, excommunicate, ostracize, and belittle.
Unfortunately, we often feel less comfortable, peaceful, and accepted in church than anywhere else. This causes us to put on a show—to be someone we’re not.
Some of the best, most honest, fulfilling, live-giving conversations and interactions happen everywhere except in churches. Bars, restaurants, parks, trains, airplanes, in the car, at work, at school, and in our homes are where we—and everyone else—feel safe to freely express ourselves. Unfortunately, churches aren’t known for fostering these kinds of environments.
Of course, it’s not always bad to change one’s demeanor. I’m surely going to act differently in front of the President of the United States than I would interacting with the guys on my rec softball team. Relating to a divine God—and participating in spiritual practices—is surely going to cause some variation in the way we think, talk, and behave.
The problem is when we create a false identity and use spiritual pretenses to hide our true selves. Holiness coincides with transparency, righteousness requires honesty, and relationships demand vulnerability and truth—no matter how ugly, messy, or disturbing it may be.
To follow Christ is to strive after authenticity. We should never sacrifice truth for the sake of self-righteousness.
Being real is hard. Admitting sin, sharing your opinions, and living honestly invites judgment, hatred, and conflict. Many people simply avoid it.
It’s no wonder pastors—and Christians—get caught up in scandals. They’ve made a habit of hiding. Often, the very last place they can go for comfort, support, and help is within spiritual communities. Thus, they slowly become internally disconnected while maintaining their outward appearance of having it all together—even when they don’t.
Honesty, truth, and transparency mean facing real consequences and conflict. Christianity isn’t a form of escapism. Grace, love, and forgiveness don’t diminish God’s attributes of justice, fairness, and equality.
This is why Christians often avoid responsibility. They dodge honesty because they don’t want to admit wrongdoing, receive bad press, appear weak, and will do almost anything to escape damaging their reputation (or the reputation of the God they represent).
The church sex abuse scandals, racism, corruption, and decades of horrific misdeeds are the result of such behavior. Avoidance was preferred over facing the truth, and the consequences were devastating.
I’ve been attending churches my entire life, and the sobering fact is that it’s insanely difficult to admit to reality. When we pray for one another, or when platforms are given to share what’s going on in our lives, I rarely hear things like:
I’m addicted to porn.
I hate my boss.
I’m being sexually abused.
I’m feeling depressed.
I want to kill myself.
I’m an alcoholic.
I want to divorce my spouse.
I’m having an affair.
I have an eating disorder.
I’m spiraling into debt.
I’m feeling lost, scared, and extremely anxious.
I’m mad at YOU! I hate you. I hate them.
I have anger issues.
I’m struggling to believe in God. I doubt God. I hate God.
But these things are reality. They’re happening within the lives of our loved ones, our closest friends, the people we sit next to in church, and maybe even ourselves.
But instead of acknowledging these deep and significant problems, we routinely hear things like: pray for my job, my cold, or my sore back. These aren’t necessarily bad things to pray for, but we often use superficial requests to mask the real issues of our lives.
Witnessing and experiencing this type of behavior causes people to associate Christianity with a sense of skepticism and cynicism—why are so many Christians hypocrites?
Pessimism ensues. People abandon their faith. They get burned out. They become tired of putting on a charade—and are sick of witnessing others do the same.
This is why many people stop attending church and give up on Christianity—it’s too fake. Churches that pretend and avoid the messiness of life aren’t authentic or real.
American culture can cause us to compartmentalize ourselves: we become the student, the worker, the parent, the sibling, the child, the comedian, the customer, the traveler, the sports fan…and the Christian.
Our faith shouldn’t be separate from all the other areas of our life. Instead, it should inform, direct, guide, and influence everything else. To do this, we must be honest.
Christianity isn’t a short-term personality trait that’s revealed only in certain religious situations. It’s an identity—a Divine association and connection with God.
Is it just me, or are church greeters and ushers always happy? They’re irritatingly bubbly and overly friendly. Why? Because there’s often the mistaken perception that this is what the ideal church environments are supposed to be like: Perfect. Gilded. A place where nothing bad ever happens.
As Christians, we need to start promoting openness and making room for people to be candid.
Churches need to allow for the turmoil, chaos, and debris of life. People should feel allowed to weep, cry, and be themselves within Christian environments. It should be expected to use full disclosure, to tell the world that you’re falling apart, in shambles, and feel like giving up.
A church without any visible wreckage, without a hint of conflict, pain, suffering, or strife most likely isn't a holy place favored by God—it’s most likely one big fabricated lie. God help us.
Stephen Mattson blogs at stephenjmattson.com. He's contributed for Relevant Magazine, Redletterchristians.org, and studied Youth Ministry at the Moody Bible Institute. He is now on staff at the University of Northwestern – St. Paul, Minn. Follow him on Twitter @mikta.