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Identity Crisis
People long for security and belonging that can be deeply disturbed in times of change. Here are some principles to keep in mind when a church goes through change.

My name is David Ralph Wells. I am:

There is a certain security in having a clear identity, to be able to say this is who I am and whom I relate to.

David—"beloved"—husband, father, friend, brother, son of Ruth and Ralph

Ralph—my father—integrity, consistent, loyal, son of Homer Wells

Wells—an extended family of everything from rogues to scholars with roots in the British Isles.

It matters to most of us what our identity is. It communicates roots and a sense of belonging. Recently I went with my wife to visit Ireland, where her father's family, the McQuinn's is from. By a unique set of circumstances we tracked their origins down to the western town of Tralee. Throughout those days I watched with amazement the almost indescribable emotional bonding my wife felt as she talked on the phone with a previously unknown relative and visited the tombs of ancestors from previous centuries. She was from here and she belonged. Susan, a McQuinn from Ardfert, Tralee in County Kerry.

There is a certain security in having a clear identity—to be able to say this is who I am and whom I relate to. For those involved in the life of a church over an extended period of time there is often a bonding with the identity of that congregation. The values of the leadership of a church shape the decisions that are reached in that community of believers. The identity of that church is created (or recreated) as decisions, rooted in these values, are consistently made. The church takes on the spirit in which these decisions are made.

In the life of an effective, healthy church the pattern of governance is clearly understood. The values of leadership are shaped by a character and spirituality developed by the Holy Spirit. The resulting decisions regarding ministry and relationships are a product of a consistent God-shaped vision and mission. The church's identity is clear and understood. Those who affiliate over the course of time with the church's direction and atmosphere sense a deep connectedness. They are that church. It reflects who they are as a person.

Thus it is deeply troubling and personal when the identity of their church begins to shift. It is in a very real way an identity crisis. Who they are and what they have associated with is changing. These changes may be initiated by a multitude of circumstances:

  • Transition of key leadership through relocation or death: "It will never be the same as when Pastor … "

  • Influx of newcomers through conversions, transfers or immigration—The "Strange Face Syndrome": "Who are these people and where did they all come from?"

  • Impact of an external ministry person or model on leadership and/or a significant number of members: "We need to change right away in order to do what God is telling us to do"

  • A shifting of values or philosophy by existing leadership: "From this time on there will no longer be … "

  • A shifting of values or philosophy by new leadership: "God has called me to this church to change the way … "

  • A transition in the individual's spirituality: "It doesn't seem as important to me as before to be … "

  • Societal or generational shifts: "Why do we suddenly need to be using that type of … ?"

  • Relocation to a new or different church building: "It just doesn't feel like the old … "

In fact a lot of what goes on in an identity crisis involving a church has to do with emotions. It does not feel the same anymore. There is a sense of insecurity, loss and at times even betrayal and anger.

There are a number of ways people react in the midst of an identity crisis:

  • Emotional and spiritual withdrawal. This is often evidenced in their level of participation in ministry, attendance and giving.

  • Go on slow boil. There is a simmering anger about what is happening to "their" church.

  • Relocate. "I'm out of here." "I don't belong here anymore."

  • Get aggressive. "Someone has to do something about what is happening around here."

  • Mourn. Some people go through a grieving process with a very real sense of loss.

  • Search their hearts. "Lord is there something you are doing that I need to respond to."

  • Prayerfully rely on God's sovereignty. "This will all work together for God's purposes."

The reality is that most people react in a combination of ways. It is more than one person who in the midst of a changing church has prayerfully searched their heart while vacillating between withdrawal and anger-filled aggressiveness!

What then are the principles to keep in mind in the midst of an identity crisis?

… Spirit-led leadership will maintain the core identity of a healthy church …

1. Recognize change is inevitable: We start here because the reality is that multiple transitions are inevitable in the life of today's church family. Broader exposure to other branches of the Church, technology, Spiritual in-breakings, a transient culture, a greater embracing of mission and many other factors will result in a changing local church.

2. Dysfunctional church families must have an identity crisis: The letter to the churches in The Revelation is pointed on this matter.

Sardis—"I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up!" (Revelation 3: 1b-2a). When the public identity (name) of a church does not match the actual reality as seen by the Spirit that group of believers has to be awakened to the truth about them.

God uses multiple ways to accomplish this:

  • Recognition, brokenness and repentance by leadership.

  • Pointed, prophetic ministry that genuinely convicts.

  • Wise pastoral ministry with a shepherd's heart that leads a congregation through a process of incremental change to a new reality.

  • Renewal after a time of confusion, frustration and even division.

  • The near death of the church.

  • Truthful, loving confrontation.

  • The impact of God's work in new Christians or in the children and youth of the church.

It is usually a combination of these and other means that the Lord uses to get the attention of His people who need a new identity.

3.Do not needlessly disrupt the identity of the family: In the midst of relentless global change

people still have a longing for community, security and belonging.

Leaders are foolish if they do not recognize and respect the biblical values and practices that have built the identity of the people of God they are called to. Yes, change is inevitable and certainly the aspects of the family that are dysfunctional need to be dealt with but Spirit-led leadership will maintain the core identity of a healthy church even as they shepherd the congregation through the changes necessary to be authentic representatives of Jesus.

In doing so an ever evolving identity process will take place which emphasizes the sameness of the church's values (love for God and others, care for the needy, Spirit-dependency etc.) all the while allowing the church to express those values in a timely manner appropriate to the current context.

What does this look like?

  • In most incidences new pastoral leadership will take time to get to know the families true identity and values before initiating change. One exception is in churches near death or needing resuscitation. Commence CPR immediately!

  • Individuals will be encouraged to place their identity in Christ.

  • The church will be taught to value their place in God's Kingdom.

  • People will be encouraged to identify with the church in a positive, servant-hearted manner.

  • The good of the past will be celebrated and new initiatives will be linked to past faithfulness in an area of ministry.

  • Someone in leadership will know how to apply the church's history in a non-paralyzing manner.

  • Leadership will avoid imposing "cookie cutter", "one size fits all" ministry upon the church. Effective methods in church "A" may need to be forgotten in church "B".

  • The steps taken towards future direction will honour and include the input of the currently faithful.

  • When change brings emotional responses within people they will be allowed to process those emotions within an understanding, supportive environment.

I travel from home quite a bit. My responsibilities keep me immersed in an ever-changing world. When I get home inevitably a few things will have been "altered" there also. You see I married a "change agent" so the colour of the stove or bedroom may be different, a new exchange student may be living with us or I may have a re-designed garage. Almost always something has been thrown out!

What doesn't change is that I am still a valued presence in the life of the Wells family. I have a place at the table (often re-finished), I have a pillow to lay my head on (not always the same one), I have jobs to do but most importantly I have a sense of acceptance and belonging.

Somehow I'm convinced that God wants His people to have the same type of feeling about life in His Church. It is a good thing for people to identify with their church in a committed, non-controlling manner. Change will happen and things around will keep looking a little different. In the midst must be the voices of good shepherds who clearly communicate, "we are His people, you do belong and your presence is valued here".

David Wells has served as district superintendent of the BC/Yukon district of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, head of the PAOC, and chair of the board at The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.

Originally published in Resource, Summer, 2001.




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