The Heart of the Matter: Identity
In attempting to attract more people to their faith communities, many churches have gradually shifted away from taking their primary cues from the Bible and have moved toward what they can learn from the studies of church growth, leadership, consumer habits and sociology. Knowing the thoughts and trends of potential churchgoers is not bad in itself, of course. Yet how much attention and how quickly churches are apt to change their approaches to living out the gospel in light of such knowledge is tragic.
Considering the theological and missional confusion in many churches today, one would have to conclude that their identities are no longer rooted in the Scriptures. Such a shift is not a minor tremor on the landscape of spiritual leadership. It is a magnitude level earthquake that has exposed the issue that is at the heart of the matter for churches on mission today – a crisis of identity.
Once biblical identity is lost, churches will merge with the thinking and methods of contemporary society. They will think more about how they can be relevant than about revealing God as He has revealed Himself. They will care more about numerical growth than about discipleship. They will be hesitant to proclaim parts of the Christian gospel that might give any hint of offense to listeners. In a word, in their idealizing of what a contemporary church could be, they end up losing true spiritual relevance.
What is the actual relevance of a Christian church to this world? It is to be the place where people find the true and living God. According to the Apostle Paul, the church is the pillar and bulwark of the truth. It is the body of Christ, the bride of Christ and the family of God. When people come across a Christ-centered, Bible-honoring community, they should find something uniquely different. Instead, when they enter a church in an identity crisis, they do not hear, see and experience the truth of God. It often becomes a murky mix of good intentions, worship services, and generic truth about spiritual life.
For instance, how many churches have had this scenario played out? A couple comes into a church that has refocused its priorities to becoming relevant and welcoming in order to grow. The church hoped to attract visitors and make them feel comfortable. The music and messages brought the newcomers some inspiration about God’s love and they did meet friendly people. But neither there nor at the home group Bible study did they encounter any truths that were challenging or convicting. The lifestyles of those they got to know did not seem different from their own, certainly not like disciples of Jesus. Two years later they are left wondering if there really is anything different about following the Christian faith. Why?
The Good News was not made known to them on Sundays or at their home group. They had no sense that they were separated from God, needed to repent of anything in their lives or exactly how Jesus’ death and resurrection paid a price and redeemed them from God’s wrath and judgement. They also never considered the radical nature of Jesus Christ’s claims and got no help at reconciling some of those claims with things that they believed in. In short, their beliefs were never challenged, their minds never convinced, their hearts were never committed – they never experienced a true conversion to Christ.
A Return to the Source of our Identity: The Scriptures
When people come to church we need to give them God as He revealed Himself to us in the Scriptures. There is no need to hold back in teaching who God really is or what the Christian life will really be like. When the Holy Spirit is working, a person will be drawn to the truth – truth as revealed in the Bible. What are the core truths of the Good News that churches need to return to and find their identity in?
God is the creator and giver of all life, but the story does not stop there. The Scriptures reveal both good news about God and bad news about the human race. The bad news is this: we will all stand before the Almighty God and will be judged for what we have done in this life, including what we believed about His Son, Jesus Christ. But the Good News is that Jesus is alive and reigns as Lord and that by admitting our sinfulness to God and confessing our need of Jesus to save us through His death and resurrection, a new life will begin. The Good News is that God did all this because of His love for us and we must simply respond by repenting, believing, and following Jesus. A relationship of love will grow between believers and the Lord. Peace, joy, and purpose will mark their lives as they enter the community of His church.
The church as revealed in the Bible is a community of redeemed people who believe in the gospel and are responding to God’s love and mercy with a life of gratitude, good works and faithful witness in the world.
The primary mission of the church is not to attract potential believers – it is to be a people who know and love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. It is to give honor to Him above all else. We must first ask if we are actually helping people do this.
The secondary mission of the church is to equip believers for service in the church and in the world – to go out and engage people who are far from God according to their need, be it a clear presentation of the Good News, a listening and caring friendship, or an intellectual defense of the Christian faith that answers their doubts. Equipped people will start personal ministries, organizations, clubs, sports teams, websites, or neighborhood outreaches that bring God’s love and light to the world. Therefore, this secondary mission of the church assumes that we will be building new leaders of all types and at all levels.
The resulting effect of doing these two things well is always disciples of Jesus. Their lives will be growing and changing and they will impact their society. A church need not change its core identity or mission priorities in order to attract people. Simply by being the church people will come – by God’s power (Acts 2:42-47).
Following and serving Jesus Christ does not mean He will make life easier or give us all the things we desire. It means we learn to follow Him as Lord and learn to adjust our life priorities and lifestyles to His. The Good News for believers is that we are not left alone in the Christian life. God gives us the Holy Spirit who indwells, empowers, guides, convicts, teaches, and reveals to us more of Jesus Christ.
Being a Christ-follower in this world is hard because it means being willing to suffer for the truth, love, and righteousness in this world. Rejection and trials for one’s faith in Jesus may come, but together the family of God will encourage and build one another up as we face spiritual battles.
Together as a church family we participate in this process of holiness with practices of learning and meditating on Scripture, encouraging and challenging one another to follow Christ, worship, prayer, solitude, witness, and helping one another. As we do, the Good News is then further taken to the world around us in service, love, and witness both locally and globally.
Most believers will remain in their current community as salt and light in their daily work at their office, classroom, business, or at home. Some within the community will be called to take the Good News to cultures far different from their own. Those in God’s family who stay within their existing church and community will partner in Jesus’ world mission by praying and giving to the work of those cross-cultural workers.
Conclusion: Do We Know Who We Are?
The roots of the church are in God’s revelation; our identity is there; our life is there; our mission is there; our promises are there. We travel down our own path to our peril. Many once-full church buildings have become empty, dilapidated, or sold-off. If we could see them all lined up together we would be stunned at the irony of such a graveyard of churches.
Buildings are just brick and mortar, yet they symbolize what can happen to the people of God as spiritual communities. Many have become spiritually empty, void of vibrant truth, weak and unable to withstand the cultural onslaught of secular ideas and lifestyles. One reason for this is that instead of being sold out to God’s Word they have sold out to human ingenuity. Yet buried deep in the roots of the church tree lie the core DNA truths that will determine our actual health and fruit-bearing capacity.
Those roots tell us that we exist to honor Him and to make disciples. Our philosophy of ministry and all our ministry goals and designs need to submit to this clear purpose. If we do not, we will be slaves to the stagnant comfort of tradition or to the shifting sands of contemporary pragmatic ideas and trends.
Jesus drew a clear picture for us – when we remain in Him like branches remaining in the vine He will bring much fruit – and it will be the kind that lasts (John 15).
May we return to our biblical roots where God’s life and health is waiting for us. In doing so we will spread the fame of God to this world that is so in need of Jesus Christ.