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Identity and Mission. Article 1 of 6: Identity Crisis

David Williams is Director of Training and Development for CMS. In this the first of six articles on ‘Identity and Mission’, he introduces his topic with some reflections on ‘Identity Crisis’. Article 2, ‘Identity and Mission’, is here. Article 3, ‘Identity and Scripture’, is here. Article 4, ‘Identity and Contextualisation’, is here. Article 5, ‘Identity and Hybridity, is here. The sixth and final article is here.

Article One: Identity Crisis

Over the last year, I have been reading the Bible with a friend who has become a Christian from a devout Buddhist background. I have no doubt that he is a committed follower of Jesus Christ – he trusts the gospel and clearly displays the fruit of the Spirit in his life. A while back we were talking about the Australian census. He was telling me how conflicted he would be if a census form came through his mailbox. “It would be so difficult” he said “there would be boxes saying Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, and I’d have to choose, I’d have to tick one box. Obviously, I’d tick ….”

How would you end that sentence? Which box is it obvious for him to tick? I expected him to say that he would tick the ‘Christian’ box. But he didn’t. He was very clear that he would tick the ‘Buddhist’ box, although he’d feel conflicted about it. For my friend, being a Buddhist is a fundamental part of his identity. In his view, ‘Buddhist’ is a category that helps him define his race, his culture, ethnicity, nuclear family, extended family, land, home, traditions, his feasts and celebrations, his sense of belonging. It also described, in the past, his religion. He knows that ‘Buddhist’ no longer describes his religion, but he is reluctant to let go of the label because it explains so many other parts of him. If he abandons ‘Buddhist’ as a way of identifying himself, he thinks he will lose connection to the things that have made him who he is.

This article is the first in a series of six that we will be publishing in Checkpoint Online during 2019, focusing on the theme of identity. Addressing identity is a core task in the work of translating the gospel into a person’s life. In this article I will set the scene by asking why identity is a big issue in mission. In subsequent articles we will think about:

Article 2 – Understanding identity

Article 3 – Identity and Scripture

Article 4 – Identity and contextualisation

Article 5 – Identity and hybridity

Article 6 – Identity and discipleship

So, to get us started, why is identity a big issue in mission? One way to answer this question is to suggest that a core process in evangelism and discipleship is to enable people to find their identity in Christ. When a person becomes a follower of Jesus, they enter a relationship that changes their identity. To begin with, they learn that their identity before they came to Christ was more complicated than they realised. Even before they came to Christ, they now learn that they were made in God’s image, that they were created, loved, chosen. They also learn that they were in rebellion against God, that they were objects of His wrath and deserved His just judgement. Now that they have come to Christ, they learn that they are justified, redeemed, forgiven, a new creation. They are adopted, filled with God’s Spirit and guaranteed a secure future. They also learn that their new relationship with Jesus Christ changes their human relationships. Jesus tells them that they have new brothers and sisters who might once have been enemies. He also tells them that their biological brothers and sisters might now become enemies.

Brian Rosner suggests that the markers that traditionally define our identity are made up of factors such as race, ethnicity, nationality, culture, gender, family, relationships, role and religion.[1] These traditional identity markers are treated differently and in different ways by faith in Jesus Christ. For example, becoming a follower of Jesus does not change my ethnicity, nationality or gender, although it might radically change the significance of these factors and my interpretation of their meaning. However, becoming a follower of Jesus will more quickly challenge my religious identity and is very likely to change my relationships both within my family and more widely.

Understanding and discovering an identity in Christ is a lifelong journey. I came to Christ at the end of high school, having grown up in a context that was defined by nominal Christianity. I grew up in a family that was church-going but not converted. I went to boarding school for 10 years where I attended over 2,500 chapel services – scripture was read, prayers were prayed, liturgy was recited. The message that I heard was “be good and you will go to heaven.” When I finally understood the gospel of grace, when the cross of Christ was explained to me, it was as if someone had turned on the lights in a dark room. Suddenly everything made sense. So much changed for me, my life was transformed. And yet, becoming a Christian from this background was the smoothest of transitions, when compared with hundreds of millions of disciples around the world.

For my Buddhist-background friend, coming to know Jesus is causing him to unpick and recreate many aspects of his identity. He is determined to find an identity in Christ while remaining as committed as possible to his family and his cultural heritage. He has the privilege of living in a city where he has significant freedom to pursue this task. The next census will be in 2021 – I wonder what box he will decide to tick?

[The second article in this series, ‘Identity and Mission’, is here.  The third article in this series, ‘Identity and Scripture’, is here. The fourth article in this series, ‘Identity and Contextualisation’, is here. The fifth article in this series, ‘Identity and Hybridity’, is here. The final article will appear in June.]

References Cited:

Rosner, Brian. Known by God: A Biblical Theology of Personal Identity. Biblical Theology for Life. Edited by Jonathan Lunde. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017.

[1] Brian Rosner, Known by God: A Biblical Theology of Personal Identity, ed. Jonathan Lunde, Biblical Theology for Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 41ff.