PHOTOSHOPPED FAITH

Christians: Stop Photoshopping Your Faith
Miracles, Witness, and Church Conferences

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I’m not a conference person. In large part, I feel about church conferences the way I feel about getting travel vaccines: I avoid them at all costs, unless their going to get me somewhere exotic. If a conference is in Vancouver or Barbados, sign me up! If it’s in a suburban mega-church an hour down the highway, well, I’m probably a little busy those days.

Don’t get me wrong, everything AROUND a conference is great. Making new friends from across the country, connecting over coffee/lunch/beer with people you know from Twitter: It’s great stuff!

But the content is often… frustrating. Presentations are usually bloated, filled with the biggest successes, including larger than life stories, usually presented by American preachers who seem largely disconnected from our local context or lived experience. 

I found myself reflecting on this a lot last week while I was at a conference. I was sitting in the main sessions, listening to presenters tell stories of their church success, and feeling like my body was physically responding to something. 

Here’s my thesis, and don’t judge me if it seems overly skeptical: I just don’t know if I can believe them. I don’t know if the storyteller is trustworthy.

I want to be really clear it wasn’t a “this conference” thing (I actually really enjoyed the conference) but something I’ve noticed again and again, across multiple fields and disciplines: The stories we hear, especially “up front,” tend to feel a little fudged. Since I’m a pastor, I’m going to focus on church world, but you could apply it to any other field.

I get that our experiences are raw clay, which needs to be crafted and shaped into a good story. But there is a fine line between exaggerating stories for dramatic effect, and accidentally (or intentionally) deceiving the listener. ESPECIALLY when we are talking about God.

This is the testimony of how “100 people made a decision to follow Jesus,” without the caveat that they were all already professing Christians who were “recommitting” to the faith. Or it's the miracle story about how someones leg was healed after prayer, but failing to mention that the next day the injury was back and worse than ever. Or it’s the “church growth success story” that fails to mention the new church has a really great band, and a bunch of other churches across town have suddenly shrunk.

They are photoshopped. Not LIES, but exaggerations; some details airbrushed out, skin tones smoothed, pimples erased so that the whole thing is easy on the eyes and tickling to the ears.

But I think people are starting to notice.

Remember the first time you saw a photo that was OBVIOUSLY photoshopped? The model was missing a thumb, or the person appears to be floating over the rest of the image? You instinctually get a feeling that something is “off” in the picture; but once you see the photoshop it’s impossible to un-see it. 

You might start seeing bad photoshops everywhere. 

I think people in the church are starting to notice photoshopped faith stories. Their gut has told them something is wrong for a long time, but now they’re noticing the missing thumb in the story, and it’s ruining the trustworthiness of the presenter, preacher, or storyteller. If they don’t find the story honest, they’ll begin to distrust the church, the faith, or even God. 

Jesus’ followers are called to be “witnesses” to what they have experienced, and when a witnesses testimony is called into question, their credibility goes out the window. 

Ignorance is no excuse. I think that a lot of well-meaning Christians ignore or push away information in order to preserve the magic. This is the faith healing that receives no follow up (because what if they feel bad again tomorrow?), the new member at church that is welcomed in without questions (because what if they come from another church down the road?), and the street evangelist that praises how someone has “changed their mind” (when really the person was just sick of being harassed and bothered by the annoying preacher).

It’s photoshopped. The stories are kept in the shadows so that the full light of truth can’t shine on them; exposing what has been hidden. Willful ignorance is no excuse. Someday God will bring to light all that has been hiding in darkness, so why not bring it into the sun willingly?

Here’s my call to faith-leaders everywhere: Stop the photoshop. 

Stop making the stories slightly better then they were, stop fudging details, stop speaking vaguely, stop being willfully ignorant, and stop lying to yourself and others.

It’s ruining our witness.

A photoshopped picture presents what our culture assumes is “beautiful,” but I think most of us actually prefer an unedited photo.

To quote theologian Kendrick Lamar: 

“I'm so ****** sick and tired of the Photoshop
Show me somethin' natural like afro on Richard Pryor
Show me somethin' natural like ass with some stretchmarks"

… or something like that.

Show me something real! Tell me the story of what actually happened! It’s beautiful and worth celebrating for what it is.

I believe in miracles. I believe in revival, I believe in resurrection, I believe that God works in millions of massive ways.

But I also praise God for the small signs and wonders:

Praise God for churches that are fifteen people in a living room. Praise God for prayers that “only” offer inner peace. Praise God for people who recommit to their faith. Praise God for healing that lasts just an afternoon. Praise God for divine coincidence. Praise God for the mystery of unanswered prayer. Praise God for grace in the good fight.

It may not be flashy, and may not get you up front at the conference; but it will allow you to follow Jesus, keep your soul, and keep your witness.

Praise God for unedited faith: Messy, painful, honest, humble, and real.

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What do you think? Is this photoshopping of faith stopping us from being honest? Have you attended any events or conferences that you felt were pushing against this culture? Do you spend time in a different culture that also struggles with this editing? 

Leave a comment below and let's have a good conversation!