I have been doing a lot of thinking lately about the brokenness of the American church. I admit I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the problems we face, and the wildly divergent diagnoses offered by the supposed “experts” only discourage me more. Paraphrasing Winnie the Pooh’s friend Piglet, it feels like a really big and scary world for “such a small animal”—I mean, pastor.
I have, however, come to believe one of our primary problems can be found in how we construct our social identity. When we think of “us,” who comes to mind? Who do we consider to be “our” people, and on the basis of what criteria do we make that determination?
Explaining the Phenomenon
My doctoral research focused on how Paul used his letter to the Galatians to shape the social identity of the churches in southern Asia Minor. What I learned was helpful not only for understanding Paul but also for understanding how churches work.
Identity simply has to do with how a person understands themselves. A lot of people in the United States tend to assume the most important part of our identity is that which distinguishes us from other people. But at least some social psychologists argue this is not the case. People like Henri Tajfel, Michael Hogg, and Dominic Abrams have argued that the groups to which we belong—and how those groups understand themselves—have an out-sized influence over our identity when compared with other factors (like the roles we fulfill or the idiosyncratic aspects of our personality).
Describing the Problem
In other words, it really matters what images, concepts, and emotions are evoked when we think about “our” people. They shape us in ways which are not always apparent to us, and they both facilitate and problematize our relationships with other people and groups.
And then there is the fact that, according to the social psychologists who study this kind of thing, we form our social identities in the crucible of social conflict. So, if a person or group gets labeled “not my people,” they are likely to be the targets of social competition, prejudice, and discrimination.
These social processes do not simply go away when people walk into church—especially since far too many churches are built on ethnic, socio-economic, and political homogeneity. The church growth movement was not wrong when it said “like attracts like.”
But that is precisely what we don’t need in these frustrating and fractured times. It is all too easy for congregations to become preservers and promoters of a particular regional, racial, ideological, or other identity.
Paul’s Solution and Its Challenges
Like so many other things these days, controversy swirls around Paul’s letter to the Galatians. But one thing is beyond doubt. For Paul, our identity as children of God and participants in His family is far and away our most important source of social identity. His perspective is aptly summarized in 3:26-29 (my translation).
26For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27Whoever of you is baptized into Christ has clothed yourself with Christ. 28There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29But if you are of Christ, then you are descendants of Abraham and heirs according to the promise.
Paul was not naïve. He knew the hornet’s nest he was stirring up by making such a provocative argument. But he was absolutely convinced our faith in Christ brought us into a matrix of relationships, animated as they were by the Holy Spirit, that have the power to change everything about our thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and actions (to use a well-worn formula among social identity theorists). And he was convinced that this new social identity had to manifest itself in cruciform love. Otherwise, the fledgling assemblies he had founded would descend into an endless cycle of self-destruction (cf. Galatians 5:13-15).
It seems so simple when Paul talks about it. But when I try to live it, all sorts of problems begin to crop up. The fact is the social identities which compete for my allegiance and my affection are more deeply ingrained in me than I would like to admit. Sometimes, if I’m honest, my heart cries out, “There is more to life than religion!” Sometimes, it just doesn’t matter if they love Jesus if they are wrong about whatever issue happens to be annoying me that day.
And sometimes we really do wonder if someone’s national, political, or other identity impedes their fidelity to Jesus. These fears are not always unreasonable, and they are harder to overcome when (as my wife points out) we don’t have a direct connection to the person or group in question. It is easy to see them as a problem to be solved rather than a relationship to be cultivated.
I don’t have any answers other than the ones Paul provides for us. I just want to get some of the questions on the table so we can look at them and work through them together. But we do need to work on them, or we will tear ourselves apart.