Tonight, we are beginning a series of outreach and evangelism training sessions at our church. As I've worked on creating the lessons for these training sessions, one of the things that I have thought about a lot is how often a church's sense of mission can be disconnected and disjointed from its sense of identity. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that many churches have a vague sense of mission (what they should be doing as a church) while having basically no sense of identity (who they are as a church). As a result, many churches undergo a kind of indentity crisis as they go from program to program trying to figure out what "works" instead of doing the hard work of trying to understand who they are in Christ Jesus and then allowing their sense of mission to flow from that.
For example, it seems to me that nearly every church knows that its mission has something to do with reaching people for Jesus. This idea then quickly becomes equated with how many people attend your church service and is translated into the latest church growth program. Unfortunately, when getting as many people as we can into our church (especially people who look like us and have at least as much money as we do) becomes our goal, our whole reason for existence, then we start to look very unlike Jesus. If this is our goal, then service to the poor, helping the helpless, touching the outcast, caring for the sick, eating with those who are looked down on, and basically all of those things that Jesus did, are thrown aside because they certainly will not help our church grow in number.
What is more, when we do attract a certain group of people to our church by means of entertainment, nice buildings, and all the comforts and services a successful business would offer then we make it very difficult for those very people to know what the difference is between the Church and the services offered by the business world. If we attract people to our churches with the big, beautiful, and bountiful how then can they become Christ-like servants who will minister to the small, the ugly, and the destitute? Why would they ever even think they needed to? The way we carry out our mission says a lot about who we believe we are.
In contrast to such an approach, I believe a healthy church must begin by considering it's identity. Who are we? This question will also mean asking "Who is God?" since our own identity is rooted in the identity of the God who calls us to be the Church. Of course, these are not easy questions. They are not questions that are ever completely answered. They are questions that a church must continue to wrestle with Sunday after Sunday. But it is essential that the Church wrestle with it. And as the Church wrestles with these questions, it will have found that it has been wrestling with God himself and found its own identity in the process. It is then out of that identity that we proceed to act, fulfilling the mission that God has given us.