Cultivating a Core Identity
Next Monday I'll be attending a regional clergy retreat. At that retreat, I've been asked to share the method by which my congregation discerned its set of core values. We did this at a one-day congregational retreat that began with a conversation about our missional identity and our own sense of giftedness. With this conversation as the foundation, we spent the afternoon in small groups and the larger group, discerning which values should define our identity and guide our ministry in the world. In discerning these values, we started from the premise that we had been called to be a missional church. The congregation had accepted (I'll use that term rather than embrace) this self-designation prior to my coming. I would say that we are still discerning what that means for us -- not everyone is on the same page, so it's still a conversation in progress. But, in our values statement we start with that premise, and developed the list of values from that assumption.
The benefit in discerning core values is that it helps a congregation understand its own identity -- it's DNA. Central Woodward Christian Church is a long-standing mainline Protestant congregation that once had mega-church status, or maybe better, it was a tall steeple church. It's identity was formed, at least in part, by its prominent place on Detroit's Piety Row (Woodward Avenue). That identity helped create the DNA of the current congregation. We're still called Central Woodward Christian Church, even though we sit on Big Beaver Road (at Adams). We're in the suburbs, not in the center of the city. But, we have furniture in the sanctuary that came from downtown that reminds us of who we once were. Thus part of our identity is formed by what we once were, even though today we are a small congregation (though denominationally -- both at the general and the regional levels we have a fairly large footprint for a church our size).
I write all of this as preface to a conversation about cultivating a core identity. I was struck by Alan Roxburgh's contention that our planning and our visioning must emerge out of a sense of who we are as a congregation. He speaks of this in his book Missional Map-Making (Jossey Bass, 2010). He suggests that in our response to our communities, we must first "assess how the environment has changed in your context." We don't live in the same world we once did -- and so we must ask how this changing environment is affecting our sense of who we are and what we should be doing? After we make this assessment, we can begin "redeveloping a core identity." Here is where I want to stop and focus.
The reason it is difficult to plan is that the cultural environments are constantly shifting, requiring us to make and remake our maps on a very regular basis. Roxburgh notes that "congregations no longer can imagine themselves as closed or bounded-set communities. An often unspoken assumption we make is that our churches, with their tradition is and commitments to the biblical story, are more like bounded sets: they have a clear core identity, and most members know the rules and convictions of the church at the boundaries and agree to abide by them" (p. 135). But is this true today? It's unlikely. The boundaries are much more fluid today. People don't know the rules like they once did.
The boundary between congregation and local cultures is not distinct, and so how do we exist in this now very porous environment? It is, Roxburgh believes, the cultivation of a core identity. That is, we are cultivating an environment in which people can re-form the "Christian life around the core identity of the Christian narrative" (p. 136). In yesterday's guest posting, Bruce Epperly gave a list (one not meant to be exhaustive) of progressive Christian identities. In writing the post and calling for a progressive Christian revival, Bruce was doing what Roxburgh is calling for, the cultivation of a core identity that will allow the church to engage the world as it stands.
So, what is our core identity?