When I ask people what church they go to and to tell to me in one phrase what distinguishes their church from others, I get a wide range of answers. People mention location, history, denomination, size, architecture, cultural stance, ethos, program, public presence, internal and external demographics, and theological stance. These are just a few of the ways we commonly identify our churches.

Each of these ways of identifying a church contains a wealth of important information. Size or history or internal demographics each provide us with a lens through which we can look at a congregation. Each lens helps us to focus clearly on part of the congregation’s reality. The resulting analysis can be compared to similar profiles in other congregations, so we can get a sense of what is likely to happen next and what programs and strategies might be effective. Each lens gives us a set of questions to ask and a number of useful hypotheses to try out. The different lenses help us to understand our congregation, so we can better evaluate programs and plan new strategies for mission.

Through each of these lenses, however, we see only one aspect of that complex thing we call congregational identity. We would have to use all the available lenses to get a comprehensive picture of a congregation. In the end, we would have a huge volume of information—probably many volumes—containing the history, finances, governance, the individual stories as they affected the congregation, and many more topics. All of these studies together would capture the identity of the congregation, in theory at least. However, there are major problems with trying to do such a thorough description of a congregation. It is too big a project for the vast majority of congregations, and if they did do it, the resulting volume of information would be too big to be used by more than a few people.

Instead of producing the enormous volume of information such an exhaustive description requires, churches generally describe themselves using a few common lenses. For example, when congregations are looking for a new pastor, they usually write a profile of their church, which includes a mission statement, a brief history, a description of activities and programs, the number of members, and a financial statement. Clergy who apply for ministry positions soon learn that these descriptions do not reveal very much. They read between the lines, apply large grains of salt, and phone friends and colleagues in nearby churches to ask, “But what’s this church really like?”

Identity Matters

When we ask, “What is this church really like?” we are asking the kind of question we often ask about an individual. “I know Dan is an engineer, 45 years old, a father, an avid Lakers fan—but what’s he really like?” We are talking about the deepest and most basic kind of identity, and I have to confess right off that I do not know how to define congregational identity, except in some circular way. Identity is what makes a congregation unique, distinct from all others. I know of no formula or particular set of criteria that can adequately define identity. In theory, you could add up all the partial descriptions gained from all the lenses above (and any others anyone has thought of) and say that the sum is the identity of the congregation.

But I am not sure the congregation would recognize it as such, and it is obviously necessary that the group being identified recognize itself in the proposed identity statement. For me, the closest analogy to congregational identity is personal identity: what makes you you and what makes me me is like what makes a church that church and not some other church. This is the most basic and profound meaning of identity.

But does identity in this very basic sense matter? Granted that congregations have an identity, why do we need to know it so thoroughly? Isn’t the usual handful of studies enough for the purposes of finding a new minister or planning next year’s programs? After all, congregational profiles consisting of a few brief descriptions are the time-honored way most denominations describe churches. In my opinion, this type of profile is probably adequate in stable times, when change is happening incrementally and fundamental issues of identity are not challenged. But few mainline churches can count on such stability these days. Many of our congregations seem fated to go through wrenching changes like mergers, closures, redevelopments, and re-missioning processes that cause severe stress and distress at the deepest levels of congregational identity.

The most important skill for change is self-knowledge: that is as true for a congregation as it is for an individual. Congregational leaders now work at increasing the number of lenses they use to look at their church and are especially interested in tools that will help focus on foundational identity. The search for a comprehensive statement of identity that the whole congregation can understand and buy into continues because a congregation that knows its identity, like a person who knows himself or herself, can be flexible, open to considering change, and open to responding to the promptings of the Holy Spirit with new initiatives.

The difficulties remain. How can we sort through the piles of information we gather in order to arrive at a profile that all can understand and use? A great pile of studies does not easily translate into a common vision. However, we understand that when we agree on who we really are, we will make better decisions about what to do. Clergy and lay leaders who know their congregation’s deep identity are able to help the people let go of false identity and face their reality with courage. A clear and clearly articulated sense of identity does not prevent change as one might think. A strong sense of identity empowers the congregation to change. They are liberated by the sense of knowing who they are as they move into the future.

The Personal Identity Exercise

The personal identity exercise uses the congregation’s knowledge of itself to construct a metaphor, a dynamic model of the congregation as a person. This metaphor is then used to generate options, priorities, and strategies for future action. Of course, all the lenses—or at least some of them—are still necessary, but this more intuitive and imaginative approach is highly accurate and immediately useful (and lots of fun, too!). I have found that using the personal identity exercise will help congregations and their leaders come to a realistic sense of their identity and to build a new vision and new strategies based on who they really are.

The following story tells what happens when a congregation that is beginning to get confused about its ministry in the world explores what it means to be the body of Christ in its own particular way.

Identity with Pride

South Valley Church is in a new suburb and is quite new itself. It was started about 10 years ago when the houses were going up like mushrooms and the streets weren’t even paved. The church has grown rapidly, and the new sanctuary is filled every Sunday. The congregation is made up almost exclusively of young couples with one or two young children. In a typical family, both parents work long hours and have their children in day care. Families have very limited time and money, but they really love their church and contribute generously. Things have settled down a bit from the first years of rapid growth, although the congregation is still growing. Money is always a problem, but so far the congregation is making the budget and chipping away at the mortgage.

Yet there is a kind of uneasiness in the congregation, a sort of “what now?” feeling. The first few years were such a mad scramble, with all the new people and the building project and getting a basic organizational structure going, that no one had much time to
think. But now there is a lot of discussion about getting better organized and finding a focus. Some people have been pushing for a more evangelical style of worship, and some want to take on a major mission project in the community. People have such different ideas. Where does South Valley go from here?

And so the board and as many others who could come gathered to talk about all this one Saturday morning at a nearby church. The muffins were tasty, the singing was hearty, and the consultant invited to work with them for the day seemed promising, so they settled down with goodwill. First, they worshiped, focused on 1 Corinthians 12. This was familiar territory for most of the group because the board had been doing a Bible study on 1 Corinthians since the fall, and the minister had recently preached several sermons on the Corinthian church. They all responded to the prayer petitions firmly and with real conviction, “South Valley Church is the body of Christ.”

Then the consultant asked them to try to imagine what kind of body South Valley was. After all, bodies come in all shapes and sizes, all races and social conditions and states of health. So, if they had to imagine South Valley as a particular body, what would that person be like? Which gender, about how old, what occupation, what state of health and fitness? What would be the life challenges and dilemmas of such a person?

They broke into their table groups and began to discuss this interesting question. There was lots of laughter and energy and when the consultant called them back, it seemed too soon. Surprisingly, they had all come up with basically the same image. They all agreed that South Valley was sort of like a teenaged boy, about 13 years old. Some of the qualities and characteristics that came up included the following:

  • Boundless energy, but could fall asleep for long periods
  • Great enthusiasm, but not such great organization
  • Terrific at short-term projects, but easily bored if anything went on too long
  • Growing out of his pants every few months
  • Voice wobbling up and down
  • Wide-eyed and open-hearted

Everyone laughed in recognition. How amazing that they had all come up with the same image! Maybe they were onto something! They decided to call this wonderful person Eddie.

So what challenges and opportunities faced Eddie, the consultant asked, and what did he need to flourish—and what should he do with his life? What does a healthy, middle-class, 13-year-old boy need? “Room to grow,” someone said, “and lots of interesting opportunities to explore.” “He needs to go to school, to learn more. He needs structure and protection—he’s still just a kid!” “He needs food,” the mother of one of the few teenagers in the congregation said. “He needs someone to get him up on time, to organize him,” a teacher said. “He needs lots of love and care and attention, so he will grow up into a fine man.” “Into the fullness of the stature of Christ,” someone quoted.

Then the consultant asked, if South Valley is like Eddie, what does that suggest to you about the future? There was lots of discussion. One person said, “If we really are like Eddie, it’s too soon to take responsibility for that major mission project. We’re not ready for it.” The chair of the administration committee said, “This confirms our impression that we need to increase the secretary’s hours. We really need strong administrative backup for our busy people.” The chair of the board said, “I really like Eddie—I think he’s great! It seems to me that we’re on the right track with our present and rather chaotic style. I get impatient with it sometimes, but Eddie needs lots of freedom to try different things.” When the chair of the board finished, everyone applauded.

The discussion continued in the parking lot and into the months ahead as South Valley came to a whole new sense of pride in its identity as the body of Christ, otherwise known as Eddie.

Adapted from Who Is Our Church? Imagining Congregational Identity copyright © 2006 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce go toour permissions form.


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