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Cafechurch, Portlandia, and the Quest for Authenticity

If Cafechurch had a theme TV show, it would be Portlandia. The hipster culture it parodies so beautifully, and rather fondly I like to think, feels like an exact match for the culture that Cafechurch is part of.  Possibly my favourite skit (at the moment) is “Over”

A big part of why Portlandia is amusing is the way it so accurately skewers the desire for authenticity by showing the way in which it is ersatz. It’s ersatz because it takes up a cultural reference without having somehow earned it: the sense of playing with, say, beards, pickling, fixed gear bikes, whatever, without really being part of the community which it flows from.  It’s just one more affectation which we use to demonstrate our exceptional levels of cultural capital, and when the uncool hordes join in, it no longer seems authentic. It becomes mainstream, well on the way to being mass-produced consumerist tat.

I’m as much a sucker for that as anyone: I do my shopping at Preston Market in search of some sort of sense of authenticity – my morning is always improved by the sight of a coterie of old Greek men gesticulating and moustache waggling over their coffees. Much of my travel has been spent in an ironic search for authenticity – ironic because as a western tourist, were I to find anywhere truly “authentic” and “unspoiled”, I would immediately have spoiled it, just by being there.

So when, a few years ago at a Cafechurch a woman rolled her eyes at the very word “authenticity” and accused me of trading cliches, I had to agree that she had a point. It is a cliche. But just as truisms are only truisms because they are true, cliches are only such common currency because they speak to something deep and real – something authentic, as it were. We are looking for something real.

David Brooks explores this idea in Bobos in Paradise. Bobos are the “resolution between the culture and the counterculture… bourgeois bohemians.” The best way of summing up the bobo idea is, I think, this:

“It’s decadent to spend $ 10,000 on an outdoor Jacuzzi, but if you’re not spending twice that on an oversized slate shower stall, it’s a sign that you probably haven’t learned to appreciate the simple rhythms of life.”

Bobos, who I tend to identify with, are searching for authenticity.

So progressive in many of their attitudes, the Bobos are spiritual reactionaries. They spend much of their time pining for simpler ways of living, looking backward for the wisdom that people with settled lives seem to possess but which the peripatetic, opportunity-grasping Bobos seem to lack.

The final part of the puzzle is that churches often do authenticity very badly indeed. This works at two levels, one public, the other very deep.

The more public part of this is to do with the way in which EPC (Evangelical, Pentecostal, Charismatic) churches do worship.  It’s summed up in the moment in the service where the lights are dimmed, the drum goes into heartbeat mode, someone sings mystically… it’s trying to create a spiritual ambience, and perhaps not that different to lighting a candle, entering a special building, saying ritual words of welcome. But it can very easily stray over the line into highly manipulative behaviour where people are expected to have a certain set of emotional experiences; and if you don’t have them, then there is something wrong with you.

Perhaps I’m overly cynical – certainly I personally enjoy a good old sing, and it’s a great pleasure to me that we are starting to sing regularly at Cafechurch Caravan – but it is something I very regularly hear from people who have been involved in EPC churches, especially in the “worship team” (i.e. the band.) It can very easily all become about production qualities, professionalism, getting the ambience right to try to force people to have the correct experiences. And, in the meantime, I suspect God wanders out the back door, because church is not, in fact, a show.

There is a deeper level as well, where people feel like they have to have certain experiences, and pretend to believe certain things, that they do not.  This is worth a post in itself, but I think that the cognitive dissonance caused by pretending to myself to believe that, say, God answers prayers when I have a list of urgent unanswered prayers as long as my arm, is something damaging in itself, and a reason a lot of people leave EPC churches. It’s because it is hard to wrestle honestly in a community which doesn’t make space for it. Again, I might be jaundiced – I speak to a lot of people who come from that world, perhaps it’s the exception rather than the rule. Anyway, that’s my experience, and that is what contributes to our practice at Cafechurch.

But what does this all have to do with Cafechurch? Authenticity is one of our core values, because it speaks of our desire to connect with something real. Worship has a central part, but how do we do it authentically – in a way which reflects our culture, engages us, and doesn’t seem like empty formalism or manipulation? I believe in a generously orthodox Christianity, but there are still beliefs and ways of living which are not Christian at all. How do we have a community which has Jesus at its centre, which identifies “as a church”, but welcomes and respects those who do not want to fully identify as Christian? Where we actually listen to each other? Is it even possible to do this in a way which doesn’t mean that everything is up for grabs?

This is the tension within which any church attempting to live in post-modernity needs to operate. I don’t think there is any set way of doing this – in fact, that would inevitably turn into the mass-produced, standardized Christianity that is so inadequate.  But any church who wants to live authentically (there’s that word again) needs, I think, to wrestle with it. And perhaps God will show up.

By Alister Pate

I'm a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, with two congregations: one in Northcote / Chalice, which now includes Cafechurch Melbourne, and one up the road in Reservoir, confusingly known as Preston High Street. I am

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