Purpose and Identity

Periodically I am asked to review a book and write an endorsement for Abingdon Press.  I just finished my latest – John Flowers’ and Karen Vannoy’s new book, Adapt to Thrive: How Your Church Must Identify Itself as a Unique Species, Modify Its Dysfunctional Behaviors, and Multiply Its Transformational Influence In Your Community.  (It is due to come out in April and I will be writing a blog on the book in April.)  I was struck by the authors insistence on the importance of purpose and identity. At one point they quote Dr. Doug Anderson (Executive Director of the Bishop Rueben Job Center for Leadership Development).  “We need to move from a preference-driven church to a purpose-driven church.  We need to move from a church that does what I want to a church that does what God wants.  We need to move from a church that follows my dreams to a church that follows God’s dream.”  Amen!  If that sounds familiar, it is because it is familiar.  We have heard such phrasing again and again from people as different (and alike) as Gil Rendle (Texas Methodist Foundation, Senior Consultant for Church Leadership and author of Journey in the Wilderness: New Life for Mainline Churches), Rick Warren (Saddleback Church & author of both The Purpose Driven Church and The Purpose Driven Life), and Rudy Ramus (our Conference teacher in CTC for this year’s Annual Conference and author of Touch: The Power of Touch in Transforming Lives and The Jesus Insurgency: The Church Revolution from the Edge)  I could easily add others to the list. Whoever we are; whatever our denominational affiliation or lack thereof; at the heart of the matter for any local church is the question of whose we are.  Do we belong soul and body to the Lord Jesus Christ?  This is a tough question because it is easy to say yes.  We belong to the Lord Jesus.  Biblically understood, the Church is the “body of Christ.”  The “toughness” lies in the hard reality that it is difficult to live out our yes.  I find it easy to confuse my preferences with God’s desires.  I’d like to believe the two are the same.  So would most churches.  The truth is that our preferences are not always (dare we say, often not) God’s desires.  We live in an age of entitlement.  The church is here to serve me and other longtime members/pastors.  The painful reality is that the church is not here to serve us but rather to be a mission post of the advancing kingdom of God.  It is an old line from a hymn that rings in my mind and heart.  “From ease of plenty save us; from pride of place absolve; purge us from low desire; lift us to high resolve; take us and make us holy; teach us your will and way.  Speak, and behold! We answer; command, and we obey!” (“The Voice of God is Calling,” Hymn No. 436, verse 4, The United Methodist Hymnal). This issue of purpose perforce delivers us to the question of identity.  In adaptation #7 (“From Marginal Members to Deep Disciples”) Flowers and Vannoy note:  “The movement from marginal membership to deep disciples will be necessary but not necessarily easy.”  This is a polite understatement!  The key I think resides in the identity issue.  They (Flowers and Vannoy) get at identity in adaptation #10 – “From a Generic Culture to a Self-Defined Culture.”  With deep integrity and theological courage they write:  “Many new expressions of community-based churches are in fact trying to appeal to all faiths.  They regard all faith teachings as equally true and do not prioritize one over another.  However, when a Christian church adopts this generic culture, they have lost their own self-definition.”  They go on to add, “The generic church is a slippery slope in another way as well.  Once we buy into the idea that we must welcome and accept all belief systems, then it is a short ride to accepting any and all kinds of behavior as well.” The original creedal affirmation of faith was amazingly short.  It was not the full blown Apostle’s Creed we have today.  That came later.  The original affirmation was three words.  “Jesus is Lord!”  It rings out over the desolation of modern living.  It is a clarion call to new future in a church that self acknowledges that it belongs to Christ and Christ alone!  It is courageously, daringly counter cultural.  It is our future, if we are to have one.