Cultivating Identity: Americans and the Church

Are we better at making loyal Americans or committed Christians? As a local pastor and a high-school teacher, this is a question that regularly haunts me. The answer seems obvious: we live and contribute to a socio-religious system that is highly effective at churning out people committed to the American nation-state yet much less effective at creating Christians who feel a deep and abiding sense of loyalty to the global and historic Christian community.

I think this task – instilling an instinct of identity and belonging to the Christian community – is one of the most important roles of the church. This is a particularly acute need in a post-Christendom society which is increasingly confused over the relationship between national and religious loyalties. The scriptures are clear: Christians have been adopted into a new family, united into the corporate body of Christ, and have had their citizenship transferred into a new Kingdom. The church is an alternative polis which exists as an outpost of Resurrection amidst a world of Death.

How might we go about fostering this sense of identity among our church members and youth? Here are a few modest suggestions:

#1 – Teach church history, recognizing its importance for our community.
History is extremely important for creating a sense of identity and loyalty, which is why we almost universally teach it to our youth. However, there is an alarming disconnect between many Christians and the basic history of their community. Here is a prediction: an 18 year-old who graduates high school with many years of training in US History and almost none in church history will be a more loyal American than Christian.

#2 – Give more honor towards those called to ministry or missionary work.
This contradicts the Protestant emphasis on the “priesthood of the believers” and call to minister in the workplace (both truths which I support), but I believe we lack a proper respect for those who enter into ministry or the mission field. Those who choose to sacrifice their lives for the nation (entering into military service, etc) are seen as heroes, while those who choose to enter the ministry or mission field are often met with skepticism and caution (“but you won’t make any money” … “I guess he/she couldn’t hold down a real job”). 

#3 –  Shift the emphasis of our language about conversion from the individual to the social.
Our language of conversion is individualistic, focused on beliefs, and future-orientated, when it should be social, focused on a new lifestyle (discipleship), and celebrating the present reality of the Kingdom. Instead of asking people to convert by agreeing to a few propositions or deciding their preferred destination for the afterlife, let’s call people to take their place in God’s story and join His community. (See this recent post from Michelle Mikeska: Evangelicals and the Moment of Conversion)

#4 – Follow and appreciate the liturgical calendar.
Calendars, like history, are also highly effective at creating an integrated society. Churches and families who follow the rhythms of the liturgical calendar (Advent, Lent, etc) and celebrate/remember the feast days of the Saints will find themselves more connected to the historical and global Christian community.

Do you agree or disagree? Are there any other practices which might be helpful in cultivating a sense of identity and belonging to the Christian community?

7 thoughts on “Cultivating Identity: Americans and the Church

  1. It seems that #4 could have unintended consequences in that it might turn off young believers raised in contemporary styles of worship. Perhaps these folks need the education you are referring to in #1 by incorporating it into sermons, Sunday school classes, and special seminars.

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  2. Great suggestions Mike, I often wonder the same thing. #1 and #4 are especially important I think. As for #2, some Protestant circles seem to a) already honor those called to ministry or missions work and b) often do so to excess. At least in certain Protestant churches, it seems as if the only “real” vocation is one where you go to major in ministry of some sort and then go to seminary. Obviously this isn’t true across all forms of Protestantism, but I think there’s room for the cautious application of honoring those in ministry.

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  3. Great post Mike, I often ask myself the same question. I especially appreciate suggestions 1 and 4. Concerning #2, I know from personal experience that certain branches of Protestantism already accord high honor to those entering the ministry/missions, and are even seen as looking down on those who don’t choose ministry as a vocation. A balance view of those in ministry (neither as wholly removed from the priesthood of all believers as elites nor looked down upon) seems in order for much of the American church.

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    1. Thanks for the comment! I agree with you concerning #2 – that is a good point. I wasn’t thinking about the celebrity culture that characterizes certain branches of Protestantism. I was originally thinking just in terms of the polarity between military service and ministry/mission work. Perhaps the key element is just to promote a higher (more important) view of the church.

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