Asking “Who are we?” helps congregations gain clarity in the midst of an identity crisis. Lewis Center Director F. Douglas Powe Jr. offers three priorities for congregations to move forward.
It seems strange to ask the question, “Who are we?” Yet, this is precisely the question many congregations need to consider since what it means to be a church has so many different connotations today. Some see the church as a bunch of hypocrites telling others how to live, while not doing so well at living faithfully themselves. Some see the church as the place where they can get one hot meal a week. There are all kinds of differing perspectives between these two extremes. The question remains, “Who are we?” Let me highlight a few ways church leadership teams can begin to delve into this question.
Why was this congregation started?
This seems like a simple question, but often when we study the history of a congregation and learn why a church started in a particular place we are surprised (sometimes in a bad way depending on the racial history of the town). Many congregations start with a missional purpose to make a difference in a particular neighborhood. For instance, in the early 20th century a congregation may have started to aid those transitioning from the farm to the city. A congregation in the mid-20th century may have started to aid those migrating from the South to the North. Learning why a congregation started helps give insight into who God calls them to be.
Who do people say we are?
In Matthew 16:13, Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” The disciples gave varying answers to the question: John the Baptist, Elijah, and Jeremiah. A common theme is revealed in their responses: all of the figures were leaders in Israel. If you were to ask those in your community about the identity of your congregation, how would they respond? As with the disciples, it is likely the answers would vary, though a theme may emerge. It may be that your congregation is known for its afterschool program, soup sale, Christmas bazaar, or tag sale. It may be that no one knows of any ministries at the church at all. The responses of community members can be eye opening in terms of how they view your congregation.
There is often a disconnect between how we see ourselves and how others see us. It is hard to find a congregation that does not genuinely think it is the friendliest church around. Though if you ask those who visit, a very different story emerges about a congregation who ignored guests in order to greet one another. Figuring out who we are requires learning how others perceive us and seeing if a pattern emerges — good or bad — that can provide clues to our current identity.
Where is God calling us?
This is the most challenging question to answer because it requires discernment. If you learn why the congregation was started and what others say about you, the good news is the discernment process is underway. It may be that God is calling you to continue the work that you are already doing in the community. The need may be letting more people know about your ministries so that they can support and join your missional effort. The next faithful step may be to develop new partnerships or extend invitations to those who have not been a part of your current efforts.
Moving beyond an identity crisis
Struggling congregations typically have an unclear missional focus and are unknown to many in the community. If your congregation struggles to answer the questions “who are we now?” and “what does that mean?” the truth is you have an identity crisis and it is time to figure out a way forward. I have worked with congregations who keep spinning their wheels trying to develop an identity that makes sense at this juncture. The ones who succeed in moving forward often prioritize these things:
1. They reclaim the spirit of their congregational ancestors and ask “what is our missional purpose for this community?” They do not copy what their congregational ancestors did, but instead figure out what difference they can make given their current gifts. It does not matter if everyone is over 70; it may be they can teach youth critical thinking skills by playing chess and checkers. The point is every congregation has something to offer, if they are willing.
2. They listen to what is needed in the community. Congregations often like the sound of their own voices and can determine what they want others to have rather than listen to learn what their community needs. A need may be as simple as a place to get free internet so children can complete their homework. A faithful response begins by listening first to the community’s needs.
3. They do not operate as lone rangers, but actively partner with others. We live in a society where partnering with others can help multiply your impact. It may be that your local government is willing to give you a grant to expand your internet service so that you can reach more children. Looking for opportunities to partner is critical to maximize your impact.
There is no formula for solving a congregational identity crisis. There are things you can do: learn your history, listen to the community, and partner with others as you prayerfully discern where God is leading.