How does your faith community answer these questions: Who are we? Who are we becoming? Who does God say we are?
These questions can serve to guide a process to uncover and/or challenge a congregation’s primary identity. This is vital work as we journey through uncharted territory. As I conducted research among Mennonite Church Eastern Canada (MCEC) pastors for my PhD, I found that different congregations face this in different ways.
One 70-year-old MCEC congregation is facing a “gap in terms of identity” after a formally structured relationship with a community ministry ended. As they await a new calling and potential new partnership, they are asking, “who are we now in the community?”
In another MCEC faith community, a painful historical experience which emerged out of the #metoo movement has led to an identity crisis. “We thought we knew who we were . . . gracious, forgiving . . . Who are we now?” they ask.
First-generation congregational identity is often deeply rooted in the refugee and immigrant experience. One congregation, which began as Lao-speaking, has evolved to now include many languages, as people from diverse backgrounds have joined the congregation. New Canadian congregations experience a shift from common cultural identity as they become more diverse and second and third generations incorporate Western culture. Identity is challenging to name when one foot is in the Global South and the other in Western culture.
An urban pastor said unconventional and flexible worship times can be communal identity markers. Meeting on Friday evenings or Sunday afternoons can be an expression of how a group lives out faith. This pastor’s church expresses their foundational belief uniquely: “There is no us and them . . . it’s always us!”
This congregation’s identity in radical welcome stands in contrast to that of another pastor. This pastor talked about pressures to conform at a previous church he worked at. There, his colleague said that when new people moved to town, the stance of the congregational leadership was to say: “if they want to be like us, we’d love them to come.” While most churches would not state this as directly, the pastor noted that sometimes a congregation’s “actions push in that direction.” He said, “we don’t realize the demand we are making on others to fit into our space.”
When I met with MCEC pastors for focus group discussions, “identity” emerged as a common theme. It is talked about in terms of stories of congregations’ origins or their mission or community engagement. It can be linked to values of hospitality, risk-taking, flexibility, shame (“what will people think”), traditional Mennonite DNA, etc. For newcomer congregations, culture, ethnicity and language also shape identity. Naming primary identity markers as well as potential limitations of holding onto an old identity is vital congregational work.
In times of change, like the present, identities shift and evolve. Anabaptist scholar Safwat Marzouk describes identity as “porous and mutually negotiated . . . never a finished product.” When a congregation’s identity is incongruent with its current context, the congregation experiences an identity crisis. Resilient and intuitive leaders recognize when the congregation is living out an old identity and on the cusp of needing to claim a new identity.
Identity is both challenged and transformed during wilderness seasons, such as in the wake of a global pandemic. As God led the Israelites to the Promised Land, the law was given, leadership structures created and communal identity transformed from enslaved to free, and eventually from wilderness wanderers to settlers. The Exodus story concludes as a “to be continued” storyline.
As we lead and live beyond the boundaries of what is known, can we be open to the Spirit of God, whose transforming power shapes our identity?
To clarify identity can ground a community amidst chaos, reminding God’s people who we are as God’s beloved. Attentiveness to the stories that make meaning of our experience can bring burning-bush moments that reveal God’s presence. They also bring to light the barriers that can keep a missional church stuck.
Who are we now? Who are we becoming? Who does God say we are?
Kara Carter is pastor of Wellesley Mennonite Church.