- Is our gender crucial to our identity? Can we choose our gender? What determines our gender?
- Is our identity defined by our sexual desires? Are “homosexual” and “heterosexual” identities or behaviors?
- Are human beings highly evolved animals? If so, what does this tell us about our identity?
- Is the identity of women and girls wrapped up in the shape of their bodies or the symmetry of their faces?
- What is the identity of a real man? How do physique, power and success shape a man’s identity?
Hopefully, as Christians, we can agree that each human being is — as the Bible tells us — created in the image of God. Our identity is not determined by feelings, preferences, desires or ever-changing social fads. Our identity is determined by God. Our part is not to determine or choose our identity. Our part is to embrace God’s design — the identity He has given us. This is the path to peace and wholeness and joy.
This issue — as everyone in America surely knows — is hotly debated in our time. Often, in a way our grandparents could not have imagined. But it is actually the fruit of a larger issue. One of the key reasons Western Civilization is so divided and confused about identity is because the Church has become tragically confused about her identity.
Who are we?
All this social upheaval is accomplishing something very good: The Church is asking more than just, “What do we do?” Many are asking, “Who are we? What is our identity as the Church of Jesus Christ?”
- Is the Church a business and its members consumers? Even if all would deny this, our practice reveals this to be the dominant view. Success is defined by numbers and buildings rather than love and unity. When you speak to another Christian about your church, what is the first thing they want to know? How big it is. Since this is so, evangelism is marketing. Megachurches are filled by direct mail campaigns and the finest websites. The most spectacular buildings and the most entertaining services. “Members” are consumers who come if they enjoy themselves, but take their business elsewhere if not.
- Is the Church optional and of secondary importance? Our individualistic society has led many to believe Christianity is individualistic as well — “Jesus and me. The Church exists to serve me. I’ll participate if it is beneficial to me.” Evangelism (if it exists at all in this environment) is individualistic as well — something I’m supposed to do on my own.
- Is the Church compartmentalized? Many Christians are schizophrenic. They know “church” is important, but they’re not clear how it relates to everything else. This is part of what is known as the sacred-secular divide. Sacred stuff happens on Sunday morning. Everything else is disconnected. The secular world is often more influential on us than our Christian faith, but we don’t notice because we’re not sure how our faith is supposed to relate to our work, money, marriage, time, sexuality, etc. Our identity as the church is separate from “real life.”
The Way of Christ…
To discover our true identity, we must go back to the beginning. Start in Acts 1:8 and 2:37-47. What does this say about our identity? At least one thing is clear: The Church is missional, evangelistic. That may seem obvious to some, but it’s not obvious to many Christians. Our identity is “witnesses” of Jesus Christ (Acts 1:8). Peter preached the gospel and “that day there were added about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:37-41). “The Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42-47).
Look closely: What did it look like for the First Christian Church of Jerusalem to be “witnesses”? How did they embrace this identity? Notice two things: First, the Apostle Peter proclaimed the gospel. An individual did evangelism. That one is obvious. But, how did the rest of the Church participate? The second way the Church embraced its identity was in being an attractive community — “with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people.”
We are very familiar with the first method: Individuals are supposed to proclaim the gospel. Early on it was just Apostles, but soon other leaders like Philip and Stephan proclaimed, then it was everybody! Read Acts 8:1-4. Who was “scattered”? “All”! Who “went about preaching the word”? “All”! We know we’re supposed to be doing this. We’ve all felt guilty about not doing it. We can always do better. Consider yourself reminded: Go out and preach the word!
But, this second piece of the puzzle is the point of this article. This second piece is neglected — if not completely ignored — by the modern Church. The Church as an attractive community is crucial to understanding not only the way of Christ and His Apostles, but also why the Church in America is losing ground. Some churches out there get this right and they thrive because of it. But one of the main reasons the US Church is dying is because we’ve mostly neglected this core aspect of our identity in favor of other things — marketing evangelism, building evangelism, program evangelism, loner evangelism, etc.
Please take this next statement to heart: This is the way of Christ! Not a new idea. Not the latest fad. It is the original intent of the Builder of the Church. Read John 13:34-35 and 17:19-21. These quotes from Jesus reveal His original intent. Our identity is a people characterized by our “love for one another.” That’s how people will know our identity. And Jesus prayed (dare we say, “prays”?) that we will be so unified that the world will believe. Evangelism can’t be separated from community — love and unity.
We may “feel” more comfortable being broadcasters — trying to witness from a distance (e.g., websites, radio programs, books and blogs), and this isn’t wrong necessarily. But we can easily convince ourselves that it is enough. It can replace or distract us from the community aspect of our true identity. Also (from a pragmatic perspective) it simply isn’t working. Think about all the radio stations, the Christian music industry, the Christian bookstores, church and para-church ministry websites — not to mention crusades and concerts and conferences. Millions upon millions of dollars are spent on these tools, but we’re still losing ground. We’re still losing our children. We’re still losing our culture.
We may “desire” a less time-consuming and easy, neat and orderly version of Church, but that’s a denial of our core identity: Family! By its very nature, family is time-consuming and messy. But a building full of acquaintances does not make a church anymore than a dress on a man makes a woman. In fact, the exact opposite is true! A man is a man, no matter what he wears. A woman is a woman, no matter what she wears. And a church — disciples who understand their identity in Christ, strive to be a family, intentionally love one another, work hard at being one-minded around God’s purposes — is a church, no matter where it meets.
…and His Apostles
But let’s be clear about something: Jesus merely introduced the idea of “church” in the Gospels. His strategy wasn’t fully revealed until Acts — through His Apostles (lit., “sent ones”). Through those who served as its foundation (Ephesians 2:20). He gave them the Great Commission and “sent” them out to all the nations. How did the Apostles understand Jesus’ Great Commission?
They planted churches.
They brought new believers together into tight-knit, fully committed communities as the broad-based method of evangelism. They reached people with the gospel together! They were called to fully participate in the progress of the gospel as a one-minded family. See Philippians 1:27-2:2. These one-minded, mission-focused, family-like churches were the key to the early church’s rapid expansion into a culture far more hostile than our own.
In other words, they were “kerygma” (Greek for “proclamation”) communities. Kerygmatic communities. Their lives were built around the gospel and the gospel-proclaiming Church. They proclaimed the good news of Jesus by their very nature. And this was powerfully attractive. How?
- The way they met — the design of their meetings, built around the proclamation of the gospel through the Lord’s Supper, discussing the Apostles’ teaching together, praying and sharing their gifts (Acts 2:42-47, 20:1-7).
- The way they lived — they experienced genuine life transformation as they committed themselves to becoming well-established in the faith (1 Thessalonians 1:2-10).
- The way they loved — individuals and families who embraced the church community in a family-like, humble spirit, bearing with one another, praying for one another, building up one another, etc. (Titus 2, 1 Timothy 5:1-2).
- The way they served — they saw themselves as part of a larger network, a world-wide movement for Christ, ready to encourage and support the work wherever it spread, not just in their own local ministries (Colossians 4:12-16).
- The way they spoke — they gave an answer to anyone who asked them about the hope they had in Christ (Colossians 4:5-6; 1 Peter 3:15).
The Second Question
So, the first question is, “Who are we?” What is our true identity? In many ways, Western civilization hangs on the Church’s answer to this question. We are to be an attractive, “glad and sincere,” family-like community.
But a second question is just as crucial: Will we embrace our true identity? This question obviously leads to many others: What will it require of us to become such an attractive community? What attitudes and ideas will we have to put off in order to truly love one another so that the world will know we are disciples of Christ? What will you and your family need to do differently?
Truth and peace and joy are only found in embracing our true identity. And, reaching the lost, confused, hungry world around us will only happen if we are willing to become what Jesus clearly intended us to be. So “church” is not just about what we do. It’s about embracing who we are.