Context, Content and Identity: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
I recently wrote a piece on “Contextual Missiology”. The article ended with this statement – “Let’s be ‘missional’. Let’s be ‘contextual’. First, however, let’s know who we are.”
“Let’s know who we are…” That is a question of identity. As we enter into a missionary endeavor within any context – urban, suburban, rural, foreign, millennials, campus ministry, etc. – part of the content which we bring is “who we are”. Much of the time this is interpreted only in terms of the personalities and personality traits and particular gifts of those who are engaging in the work of ministry. It must be said, however, that we are usually pretty pragmatic in our evaluations. We may say that this or that person is “kind” or “patient”, but more usually we will speak of someone in terms of being “a gifted teacher” or a “dynamic worship leader” or a “charismatic preacher”. Often, as we have seen in so many cases, the identity of the individual, in terms of their particular gifts, becomes the identity of the church or ministry in which they have a leadership role.
We may think of this only in terms of mega-churches with “celebrity pastors”, but in reality it happens in a wide variety of settings. I have seen it in a small church plant in which the congregation of 10 or 12 people is largely made up of the pastor’s extended family and, sure enough, the invitation given was “to be a part of this family”. Yes, there was a worship service. Yes, there was confession and absolution offered. Yes, the Eucharist was celebrated. Yet the identity offered was of the the pastor and the pastor’s family. In campus ministry this is endemic. The “pet cause” of the chaplain – LGBTQ issues, the environment, political activism, etc. – becomes the identity of the chaplaincy itself. We can see the same approach taken in Nadia Boltz-Webber and her founding of the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver which was very much shaped in her own image.
The journey of Todd Hunter from Calvary Chapel, to the Vineyard movement, to the Anglican Mission in the Americas (ordained a deacon in 2008, a priest in 2009, and in the same year made a bishop), and finally, after breaking away from AMIA in 2011, to ACNA (Anglican Church in North America) is also instructive. His self-created extra-territorial diocese, CS4O (Churches For the Sake of Others) is, as one might expect, a little bit Calvary Chapel, a little bit Vineyard, and a little bit Anglican. Those ordained, like Hunter himself, are new to the Anglican tradition and make use of church planting techniques common in evangelical circles. There are some good people involved, but lacking an identity and knowledge outside of themselves and their own particular gifts, the churches which are planted will be very much in the image of those doing the planting… similar to Calvary Chapel, the Vineyard, Nadia Boltz-Webber, the “one issue” university chaplaincy, or the evangelical mega-church down the street with a “gifted teacher” and a “dynamic worship leader”.
What is lacking is an identity that goes beyond the personalities and gifts of the individual leaders.
Identity is made up of many elements. It is made up from what is seen, what is taught, what is heard and what is experienced. It is also made up in terms of how you pray, what you sing and how you worship. It is made up of a world of countless things both significant and insignificant. Yet all have an importance and influence. Moreover, it is identity that allows a church or a movement to outlive and go beyond the personalities of individual founders or leaders. Equally as important, the loss of identity is the precursor to insignificance and insularity. In the world of marketing this is what happens when you “lose your brand”. People no longer know who or what you are, what you stand for, or what your value might be. As anyone in marketing will tell you, the first step in rebuilding a failing company is to reestablish your brand.
Once upon a time, Calvary Chapel had a “brand”… as did the Methodist Church… as did the Episcopal Church… as did the Presbyterian Church… as did The Lutheran Church… as did Southern Baptists… as did the Roman Catholic Church… I could go on. Yes, individual churches or parishes might be better or worse, but there was a general understanding as to who they were, what they did and, even, how they worshipped. Now, so many individual churches are so busy trying to reinvent the wheel that they have forgotten (or never learned) what the original wheel looked like.
Recovering identity will be different for each tradition, but until we know who we are, we will lack the content to truly enter into mission, no matter the context.