Creating Congregational Identity
One of the SIX Dynamics of Congregational Transformation

The Who wrote the music, but CSI has forever tagged the tune to our information-mining culture. Using the latest forensic and computer-assisted technologies, Grisom and his CSI’s let the evidence speak for itself. When applied to congregational identity, the “let the evidence speak for itself” often belies a serious identity crisis in the American church today. Who we are generationally is a helpful beginning (see chart below). Identity is the elusive pursuit of generations like Generation X, earning the Who Are We?

Adapted from Wikipedia article, “Generation-X”

Silent Generation 1925-1945
Baby Boomers 1946-1964
Baby Busters 1958-1968
Generation X 1961-1981
MTV Generation 1975-1985
Generation Y 1982-2003
iGeneration 1986-2000
New Silent Generation 2001-

Wikipedia comment: “In math, ‘X’ stands for 'substitute anything', and Gen X takes some collective pride in their own tolerance, diversity and inability to be labeled.

Who we are positionally is another way to assess identity. Famously, Jesus posed a question concerning his own label to his disciples (Mark 8:29). “Who are you?” is a persistent question in the Bible with as many as 50 occurrences (depending on the question’s actual phrasing). From Jacob’s deception of Israel, to Joshua, Abner, Isaiah, and dozens of inquiring minds in the New Testament, identity begs clarification of our positions.

In the first few hours of life, children are already identifying smells, sounds, and sights. This developmental process continues exponentially. Identity and self-awareness are part of what it means to be human. If you took this one essential trait of humanness, identity development, and applied it to the local congregation, you might conclude that there is a distinct lack of humanness in our churches! Developmentally, redevelopment experts and transformation teams try to help congregations honestly and accurately answer the question for themselves.

Congregational Identity is as an important dynamic of congregational transformation and spans two domains:
1. What is the congregation’s self-identity?
2. What is the congregation’s neighborhood identity?

Self-Identity: What sets your congregation apart from the Scouts or the Rotary? What sets you apart from other churches in your town? Who is the congregation to the membership?, or the leadership?, or to the older or younger people in your church?

Neighborhood Identity: When you ask someone about your church what do they say? Who is your congregation?, What does it look like? to the community at large?

Lots of times respondents will give you a funny look and say, “I haven’t a clue.”

Our church morphed from a closed and isolated fortress into a street-present, hope-bearing, community of faith. Through a vigorous and often painful process of transformation, we reneighbored. (You can learn more about the reneighboring idea and view photos of the transformation by clicking here for Kensington). We re-connected with the neighborhood. We self-identified not as a congregation to the neighborhood, or in the neighborhood, but of the neighborhood. We became a transforming agent, giving a new face and a new voice to people who called our neighborhood home.

Over many decades, Wilkey Memorial Presbyterian Church in north Philadelphia went from a thriving, effective neighborhood-centered ministry to a stranger to the people it once served; a stranger to itself and its identity. Likewise, the neighborhood felt like a stranger, too. The task of transformation required us to reneighbor the ministry to the people.

What did we do? We didn’t have much by way of resources, but what we had we decided to give, namely ourselves. Instead of acquiescing to drive-in, disconnected worshippers, we recruited families to move back into the neighborhood.
To become present for others is really pretty simple. Be there. Be there in the morning. Be there at noon. Be there at night. Be there on weekends. Be there during the week. We needed to be present. We told a neighborhood that God loved it, 24/7. We opened those red church doors to let us out, and the neighborhood in!

Each congregation’s identity has to connect with its assets in order to do mission. For Wilkey, we were a safe place for kids to have fun and hear about Jesus. We met our neighbors. And what’s more, our neighbors became us as much as we became them.

When people outside your fellowship says to the query, “Who are you?” “Oh, that’s the church that... helped when our house burned; is a safe place for kids; or has the great senior lunches; offers a super music program, or pre-school, provides for creative and meaningful worship, etc., you know you are on the right journey.

The real proof of a transformed identity is how your ministry impacts the people around you.

I wonder what Grisom would conclude, based on the evidence?

Dr. Kevin Yoho, (email:
Consultant for Congregational Transformation, Presbytery of West Jersey

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