Conspicuous Authenticity

I listened to an interview with Andrew Potter, author of The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves. We are all familiar with the phenomenon. It’s about achieving a certain self-image, one in which the tawdry, consumerist aspects of modern life are thrown over for the sake of a simpler, truer, more “authentic” self.  

Mr. Potter notes that the search for authenticity often ends up as a status-seeking game. (Think Prius) Authenticity, Mr. Potter writes, is “a positional good, which is valuable precisely because not everyone can have it.” By competing against one another to see who is more authentic, he says, we just become bigger phonies than we were before.

Churches are in the “authenticity game.” Who isn’t for authenticity? But then there is that kind of authenticity that we can market. It’s the “we care more than your average church” angle. Churches find a new cause (environmentalism, saving Africa, Haiti, whatever) and then make that carry the weight of how authentic their religion is. You can’t prove that this is being done, but you can feel it. This isn’t the old “do your good works so that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.” It’s the new conspicuous authenticity. We market how much more superior we are than the average selfish slob who drives his big SUV, buys his huge plasma TV, couldn’t care less than he now does about recycling, etc.

Go to church websites and see the pictures of who goes to their church on the home page. They are, as Howie Carr says, the beautiful people. Of course, none of the people pictured on the home page go to that church. They might not go to any church. They might not even care about church. Their picture came along with the purchased website. It’s like buying a picture frame with a family photograph already there. That family looks so much better than yours you are tempted to keep it. In fact, I had a friend who did just that. He kept it on his desk and when people saw it and asked about his family, he told them this was the only way he could find to have that perfect family everyone wants.

The game today in church marketing is authenticity. But not just any kind of authenticity. It’s the kind that can be sold.

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