I’ve been thinking a lot about identity for as I work alongside and as I observe and experience churches in both rural indigenous settings and in North America I’ve come to see that religion is in many ways about identity.
Each faith expression, each tradition woven through the fabric of our experience of God builds into us an identity. In the purest form I suppose that this is neither here nor there, right or wrong, and yet I am concerned for it appears to me that in many ways our churches teach us identity with forms of religion and not necessarily with Christ.
Over the past few months I’ve been reading from many traditions as I try to get a glimpse of religious forms that I am not familiar with. I read, for instance, an article written by an orthodox priest that outlined the priority of keeping their religion untainted and protected and about how to draw people towards the specific traditional habits of their way of church; the main thing was to preserve orthodoxy.
Now I see many good things in orthodoxy which is why I have been researching more of what it is exactly, and yet when I ran across this particular article it seemed so offensive that this one particular form is (believed by the author) to be the only true form of Christianity.
And yet doesn’t each denomination and form of ‘church’ often believe the very same things about themselves? We are all offenders when we dictate that ‘our way is best and true’ and I cannot believe that any of this has anything to really do with Jesus Christ but rather with our self-serving demands that identity remain unchallenged.
In conversation with rural indigenous pastors there are specific and regularized ways of going about church. In observation of western evangelical scraps over theology and the laws of God there are obvious issues of identity being challenged. Many are committed to precise understandings and stances without any room to consider anyone else’s stance and I wonder how much this is about identity.
And I wonder what might happen if our identity was to really be centred in Christ and not in forms of church, precise understandings of theology or regularized habits regarding life as believers.
The thing is that Jesus came to revolutionize our lives. Of course we hear this and we think of ‘the world’ that needs his revolution so very terribly and we yell ‘yeah, go get em’ Jesus!’ and tend to forget that he came to revolutionize OUR lives and the lives of our church bodies.
In Mozambique the churches I visited were already under intense bonds of slavery to law and ought and should. Cowered down by rigid expectations and fearful judgments the revolution there was simple, ‘yes the people can pray’ and ‘yes it is okay to celebrate Christmas’ and ‘no women must not be forced to return to their abusive husband’.
They wanted rules and more law and the Christ I was bringing wanted only to set them free.
In North America the issues are slightly different but our identity is still often about worship styles, sunday morning gatherings, and all that we will not agree with. Rather than an identity that gives life we have a shut down paranoia about the ‘dangers’ and what might touch us. Our identity is in what we will not do and do not believe rather than what we are about and who we are for. There is little of Christ in this.
When I came into real contact with Jesus Christ some fifteen years ago my entire identity was at risk. I remember being so afraid as I entered into transformational healing with my Lord because I didn’t know who I would be without the lies and strongholds; I had no vision of myself free and clear in God. It was scary as heck.
Since that time there have been a number of critical, we call them crisis moments, when again my identity has completely been redefined by the Lord. Each time I come up against long-held paradigms that ultimately prove false and unnecessary I am taken back to incredible vulnerability, raw and naked, unawares of the full newness to come as Jesus addresses the deepest parts of myself.
Jesus Christ creates a revolution in our lives. There is just no way around this.
Except, that there is a way around it. It is called church and being good and not rocking any boats. It is called maintaining the status quo, keeping the peace, and ascribing to the way it’s always been done.
It is safe. It is deadly.
In the midst of my studying I’ve also been looking at the house church movement in India that is revolutionizing people’s lives with some hundred’s of thousands of people are baptized each year, and as I read the original document outlining how to ‘do church’ in this way that mirrors the early church, I can only conclude that I’ve not yet done church yet even though I’ve attended my entire life!
What I am learning is revolutionary. And as I think about taking this, what they call a discipleship and growth model of church, to rural indigenous pastors who are building their churches on western models, it would in fact require radical, brave men and women of God to allow this revolutionary early church model to take over. It would require pastors to put aside their own importance, it would require real teaching and discipleship of their people so that those people can take turns bringing messages to each other. It would require a decentralization of authority and it would require that each and every person learns to hear the voice and the Lord and walk in obedience.
Churches are not growing, by and large. The churches I minister in overseas are often very small and have been so for many many years. Churches in North America are not faring much better. There is something we are not doing right. We’ve missed the boat.
So I’ve been learning and inquiring, reading lots, and noticing what seem to be patterns within our churches and this issue of identity in the forms of religion versus our identity in the person and work of Jesus Christ seems to be central.
I do not by any means have all the answers, but I do know that if we put aside our comfortable identity birthed in years of habit and take on new birth, new identity in Jesus Christ that we would cast aside habits unto building our own kingdoms and come to see the clear marching orders of our King.
In Mozambique I challenged one of the pastors to regard the women in his church. I said, take it as an experiment, for one year really serve your women and see if your church doesn’t grow. Teach them how to study their Bibles. Give them space for preaching and praying. Instead of asking ‘how many times is it okay for a woman to leave their abusive husband’ ask instead, how might we support this woman emotionally, psychologically, tangibly, so that she does not need to be under chronic abuse.
But of course this would require radical love and sacrifice. It would require that the work of kingdom (i.e.denomination) building be put aside and that real Kingdom work take over. It would require this pastor to take on a new identity, no longer a ‘big’ man of God but a servant of people.
May we all take on new identity in Christ.