Identity and Mission. Article 2 of 6: Understanding Identity.
Posted on: 28th February 2019
David Williams is Director of Training and Development for CMS. In this, the second of six articles on ‘Identity and Mission’, he introduces his topic with some reflections on ‘Identity Crisis’. Keep watching Checkpoint Online for more in this series. The first of the articles, ‘Identity Crisis’, is here.
Article Two: Understanding Identity
In the first article in this series, I suggested that a key task in translating the gospel into a person’s life is to enable them to find their identity in Christ. I said that this is a lifelong process for everyone. However, it has special complications for those who come to Jesus from a religious or cultural background that has no ties to Christianity. In this article I want to explore the theme of identity in greater detail.
What is identity? If you look up dictionary definitions of identity you immediately see the inherent tension within this question, with a focus both on sameness and difference. The Merriam-Webster definitions of identity include “the distinguishing character or personality of an individual” and “sameness of essential or generic character in different instances”. Some of my identity is about what makes me human and the same as every other person. Another part of my identity is about what makes me a unique human, different to every other person. Identity is about my personhood, which is a complex concept. Christian Smith defines a person as:
a conscious, reflexive, embodied, self-transcending center of subjective experience, durable identity, moral commitment, and social communication who, as the efficient cause of his or her own responsible actions and interactions, exercises complex capacities for agency and intersubjectivity in order to sustain his or her own incommunicable self in loving relationships with other personal selves and with the nonpersonal world.
If you have the energy, Christian Smith is well worth drilling in to. If you don’t, let me suggest that there are different components to our personhood, to the things that make up my identity. Part of my identity is ontological, to do with my very being. This means that part of my identity is about being human, being in a body, being biologically the same as everyone else who is human. Every human has a genetic code that is structured the same way. Every human has a finger print and a retinal identity. And yet every person’s genetic code, finger print and retinal identity is unique.
But my personhood is more than biology. If you ask me who I am, I will quickly start talking about other people. I am a son, a husband, a father, a grandfather, a colleague and co-worker. A large part of my identity is social and is constructed out of a network of ‘loving relationships’.  This social aspect of my identity embeds me in a culture, or a number of cultures, so that I also have a cultural identity. My cultural identity is multi-faceted and informs the language I speak, the way I think and the values I hold. I grew up in England, so I was steeped in British culture and its embedded class system. I learned a lot about myself by reading an ethnography of the English.
In addition to all this, I have a theological identity. My theological identity as a Christian is radically different to the theological identity that I would construct if I were a Muslim, a Hindu or a Buddhist. As a Christian I believe that every human shares a theological identity. We are all made in the image of God, we are all sinners yet all are loved. But I also have a theological identity that I share only with disciples of Jesus Christ – I am adopted, redeemed, justified, a saint. On top of this, I have a unique theological identity – I am known, created and gifted as David Williams in a way that nobody else is.
The different components of my personhood that I’ve listed are not exhaustive and many other themes could be added; and each of these aspects of my personhood overlaps and informs the other. My identity is both given and constructed out of all these factors. My identity in Christ is also both given and constructed. I am given an identity in Christ through the gospel; but appropriating and understanding this gospel-given identity is a life-long journey. A key aspect of my discipleship is to construct my identity in Christ. Since my identity and personhood are both given and constructed, I must address two key questions: not only “who am I?” but also “who am I becoming?” Answering these questions is a journey that I am not supposed to travel alone, but in the company of other disciples, a theme we will look at in more detail in the next article.
When a person comes to faith in Jesus Christ, every part of the identity they have constructed for themselves faces potential disruption. They thought they knew who they were, but now they are not sure who they are or who they are becoming. Christian mission has handled this potential disruption in a number of different ways. One approach in the heyday of colonial mission was to encourage the new disciple to abandon their community and move into the mission station – with the message “stop being an Eastern Oriental Muslim/Buddhist and start being a Western Christian.” This extractionist strategy was not particularly effective and was sharply critiqued by people like Roland Allen and Donald McGavran. McGavran’s non-extractionist strategy aimed to leave new disciples within their community by focusing mission initiatives on homogenous units. In the 21st century, non-extractionist mission has developed new approaches aimed at minimising the social disruption that a new disciple faces. These approaches explore ways of leaving a disciple within their existing cultural and social networks – and sometimes within their religion: insider movements. We will come back to insider movements in more detail in a later article.
For now, my central point is that identity is, to a large extent, constructed out of social relationships. Faith in Jesus Christ will disrupt these relationships and thus a person’s identity. Discipleship must enable the new believer to work through this disruption in a way that is faithful to Scripture, that strengthens them to persevere in faith and that supports them through the challenges that they face, so that they know who they are and who they are becoming.
Allen, Roland. The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church and the Causes Which Hinder It. London: World Dominion Press, 1927.
Fox, Kate. Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2014.
McGavran, Donald A. The Bridges of God: A Study in the Strategy of Missions. London: World Dominion Press, 1955.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary. “Identity.” https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/identity.
Smith, Christian. What Is a Person? Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2010.
 Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “Identity,” https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/identity.
 Christian Smith, What Is a Person? (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 197-8.
 Ibid., 197.
 Kate Fox, Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2014).
 Roland Allen, The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church and the Causes Which Hinder It (London: World Dominion Press, 1927); Donald A. McGavran, The Bridges of God: A Study in the Strategy of Missions (London: World Dominion Press, 1955).