A Hidden Hindrance to the Holy Spirit’s work in Community

by Mar 9, 2024Uncategorized0 comments

Swimming in the problem 

I live in the southern United States; if the south is a pond then pretentiousness is like water. People swim around in it and don’t even realize it’s what they live in. This is particularly evident in churches; all churches, cessationist, continuationist, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist or Episcopal, it doesn’t matter. The expression varies but the vice is the same. It makes many secretly competitive and leads to a tribalism of all varieties. 

What is Christian Pretentiousness?

The concept is not easily defined but better described. In one sense, it is a moral flaw and social practice rolled into one. More particularly, pretentiousness is a form of image management to the point of presenting a false front. Where one often plays a game of social misdirection with one’s persona, presenting a friendly warm demeanor without actually operating in any level of openness. It involves hiding all flaws behind a particular mask in an attempt to look like you have it all together (evangelical) or look like you’re the most spiritual (continuationist) or look like you’re the most theologically robust (reformed). Such a covert con game is common in churches and extremely detrimental to the growth of any real community. Although the gospel frees you to be yourself, most people don’t know how to be themselves, because the social systems in most churches condition them to hide who they are and play a role of what they think everyone else wants them to be. In the past it’s been called the evangelical mold, I like to call it by its moral category, Christian Pretentiousness. 

Before you begin to think that I am making a bigger deal than is necessary, let me remind you of the O.G. example of Christian Pretentiousness. In Acts 5:1-10 we have the cautionary tale of Ananias and Sapphira. Contrary to some interpreters, the passage is not about money but community. The two seem to care more about their social reputation than their moral and spiritual condition. In light of this, God saw it fitting to take them to glory (ie. kill them) rather than have them corrupt the community. The point of the passage is a stern warning that God does not take such behavior lightly. 

So to recap, Christian Pretentiousness grows out of an awareness of the social self, the version of oneself that exists in the eyes of others. The social self is what you think people want you to be. It can develop from a genuine belief that one is better than someone else, or from hiding a deep sense of insecurity. This particular form of pretentiousness has an element of a social-moral contagion, it persists because pretentious people take satisfaction in pulling genuine-minded people into their pattern. In this way, it is a systemic issue that perpetuates itself through social pressure and the personal satisfaction that is gained by getting people to continue the practice. 

I could have titled this post “How To Get Rid of a Religious Spirit” and I do believe some demons are assigned to make Christians into Pharisees and unbelievers into religious pagans. But, I wanted this post to focus on the ‘flesh’ of it all. Often it is more our own human corruption in seeking conformity to avoid discipleship and self-denial. In many ways the systemic aspect is just fleshly behavior that has gone corporate, as in, the whole social group has operated in the fleshly behavior till it is so common no one sees it anymore. To use modern lingo: it is “structural pretentiousness”. Unlike the modern antidote for all things structural, it is only reversed from the ground up, one heart at a time. Next we will look at ways to combat this spiritual pretending. 

How to destroy pretentiousness (in 11 easy steps) 

Destroying pretentiousness in a group can be a delicate and dangerous task. Dangerous because it involves addressing often unconscious social dynamics and potentially confronting individuals who may be exhibiting overly pretentious behavior. It is delicate because when people are exposed, they are vulnerable to being hurt. The leader’s goal is not to hurt but to help people grow in such a way they live from the gospel, not a religious culture. Two assumptions undergirding all of these points are consistent prayer and submission to the Spirit. All that is said, below is assumed to be bathed in prayer and done in dependence on the Spirit. Operating in the flesh will only lead to burn out and beating up on your people. The proper order of growth is inside out. Heart change brought by the Holy Spirit can lead to fruitful implementation of the skills and practices listed below. Here are some steps to help you address pretentiousness within a home group or church: 

  • Personal self-awareness: Start by examining your own attitude and behavior. Ensure that you are not inadvertently contributing to the pretentiousness within the group. It’s essential to approach this issue with a non-judgmental and empathetic mindset by knowing you do it too. 
  • Be the change you want to see: Model the behavior you want to see in the group. Be humble, genuine, vulnerable, and transparent in your interactions. Living from the gospel’s definition of ‘who you are’ without seeking to manage your identity. When others see you practicing openness, they may be inspired to do the same. 
  • Open communication: Encourage open and honest communication within the group. Create an environment where people feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and concerns without fear of judgment. Consistently encouraging a curiosity for learning will reorient any needed correction to be seen more as an opportunity to learn and grow. 
  • Address the behavior, not the person: When you observe pretentious behavior, focus on addressing the specific actions or statements rather than attacking the individual. Use “I” statements to express your feelings and concerns, such as “I feel uncomfortable when people make exaggerated claims,” rather than saying, “You’re always so pretentious.”
  • Normalize imperfections without normalizing sin: Emphasize that it’s okay to be imperfect and make mistakes. Create an atmosphere where people are not afraid to show their flaws and learn from them. Normalizing imperfections is a horizontal Family of God thing. It begins with consistently reminding every one of our universal “condition” (sinners) and the extravagant grace we can show each other given the grace shown to us. The vertical dimension of relationship with God still remains of first importance. So make clear in your messaging to the group that there is a world of difference between ‘we are all sinners’ and ‘it’s ok that you sinned. God understands.’  The truth is God is never ok with sin but He has graciously made provision for the repentant and is patient to show you how to live without sin. 
  • Foster humility: Encourage the cultivation of humility within the group. Emphasize the value of being genuine and authentic. Share stories or experiences that highlight the benefits of being humble and down-to-earth. Seek to promote a theological root to humility by anchoring in the Gospel. As Tim Keller is known for saying, “The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted than we ever dared hope.” In ourselves we are sinful and flawed, in Jesus Christ we are loved and accepted, this sinner-saint existence is at the heart of Christian humility. 
  • Emphasize empathy: Teach the importance of empathy within the group by the simple reminder that Christ empathizes with us in our weakness. Help members understand that everyone has their unique experiences, challenges, and perspectives, and that empathizing with others can lead to more authentic connections. If needed, remind them that Paul also exhorts the church to, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15).
  • Encourage self-reflection: Suggest that group members reflect on their behavior and consider whether they are presenting themselves honestly or if they are trying to impress others. Self-awareness can be a powerful tool for personal growth.
  • Redirect the conversation: If someone consistently steers conversations toward pretentious or self-aggrandizing topics, gently redirect the conversation to more meaningful and inclusive subjects. This does not mean downplaying testimony of operating in a spiritual gift or stories of God’s miraculous power on display. Such stories are just powerful and encouraging as stories of weakness and joy in suffering. Ask questions that encourage group members to share their authentic thoughts and experiences. 
  • Encourage active listening: Promote active listening within the group. Encourage members to genuinely listen to others and show interest in their perspectives. This can help shift the focus from self-promotion to meaningful dialogue. 
  • Set and reinforce group norms and aims: Norms are what are expected and aims are where we hope to be in the future. Make sure to distinguish between the two. Aims will give hope and vision for the group and will give the why for obeying the norms. Establish group norms or guidelines that discourage pretentious behavior and promote authenticity. These norms can be collectively agreed upon and serve as a framework for positive interactions. 

This issue is a problem throughout the body of Christ, regardless of theological positions or denomination. As Christians we are called to love the hell out of people, even the pretentious know-it-all cessationist and pretentious seen-it-all continuationist. Remember that addressing pretentiousness in a group may take time and patience. It’s important to approach the situation with empathy and a genuine desire to improve the group’s dynamics rather than alienating or criticizing individuals.