Who am I? This is one of humanity’s primary questions. From the dawn of time to the present mankind has asked this pivotal question. This question has spread itself into different elements of life including theology, philosophy, biology, culture, sexuality and others. It is a question that can have many answers from these various spheres. It is also a question we ask when planting churches. A church plant's identity is crucial. There are many avenues we could wind down in pursuit of our plant’s identity. I just want to highlight key areas that I believe may help you create and then establish your identity.
Creating Your Identity:
What is in a Name?
In our day and age parents do not tend to place much weight on the meaning of names or take as careful consideration on naming their children as those in the past. A mother and father may name their child not realising what it actually means but just because it sounds nice. There is nothing wrong with calling a child a name because it is pretty or popular. It just seems from general observation it is more widely accepted in the West that the meanings of names do not matter as much as the soundings of names.
Back in Biblical times, as well as history in general, the naming of a person was incredibly important. It was a revered ritual and of great tribal importance. It is not children who receive names alone. Adults would also change their names for various reasons. Names bore weight. Names gave influence. Names created purpose. A person was named according to situations they were born into or experiences their parents had. Remember Abraham and Sarah who conceived Isaac? Isaac is Hebrew for ‘he laughs’. Isaac was called this because Sarah disbelieved the Angels prophecy regarding her conception. She laughed at the thought of it but also over her joy at his birth (Genesis 18:9-15, 21:1-7).
Other times a person receives a name because of circumstances that occur in their lives. Think of Naomi. She endured a famine that caused her to leave the promised land, the death of her husband, followed by the deaths of her two sons and then the abandonment of one of her daughters-in-law. She was widowed, childless, homeless and impoverished. Who can blame her for renaming herself ‘mara’ which means bitter (Ruth 1:19-21).
Other times someone takes a name is when they have changed so drastically that everything has to change, even their old name. Jacob is a good example of this. He became known as Israel. He was met by the Lord, wrestled with Him, did not let Him go and was subsequently blessed (Genesis 32:22:32). He was named as one who wrestled or strived with God. He was drastically changed and his identity was re-established to reflect someone who was committed to God and would strive with Him.
Your name will help create your identity as a church plant.
Do not be hasty in naming your church. Do not think that it is one of the last and least important things to consider. The name you choose for your church will say a lot more than you think. The name you decide on will be the name that your village, town or city will know you by. It will be spoken on the lips of unbelievers in your area. It will be advertised on Google when people search for you. It will pop up when folks check out your website. The flyers you hand out, the posters you stick up, the videos you upload and share will all bear your name. Your name will be the first impression people get when they hear or see it.
Ask yourself. If your church was to only reach people in a whisper who couldn’t and wouldn’t come, what word would you want them to know it by? Grace? Hope? Life? Community? New Life? Victory? These are great examples and there are many more! Consider getting together as a plant team and discuss, share, pray into and run with whatever name you want to be known by. The name of your church may be the only thing they know of church, the Gospel or God Himself. Make it count.
Names can express a church’s experiences, circumstances and transformation. Names bear weight. Names give influence. Names create purpose. Let your church’s name bear weight in your community. Let it give influence to those partnering with you. Let it create purpose for people within and without. The name you give your church will be the name that helps solidifies your identity.
Home-Grown Family Values
The Church is like a person. We have eyes (vision), a mind (beliefs), hands (deeds), feet (direction) and, as we have seen earlier, a name. We also have a heart which are a church’s values. Everybody values something. As humans we learn to appreciate a multitude of things. Those things we value we pour our time and energy into. We live by what we appreciate. They envision our world-view and make us distinct as a person.
A church plant must have values. Different churches call them different things such as DNA or distinctives. I prefer the term values. It says what it is. The DNA in a human is unique and specific to that person. Each human will live according to the DNA it has. A church’s values will be unique and specific to that plant. A church will be birthed, grown, matured and will live according to what it values. What your plant values will be the direction it takes. What your church values will be what it sweats its energy and time over. What you value will be seen, heard and felt by how you do church. Values express identity.
What do you value? There is no limit to how many you could have, although people may not remember them all and you do not want to keep on top of lots. Perhaps several key values that can be the four wheels on your car driving the plant forwards will help. It is helpful when determining the values of your plant to keep them short, clear and limited. Your values will be the pillars that will hold up your proverbial house. They will be the banners draped down shouting this is who we are. A plant’s values will be those you choose to fight over. What is worth throwing down over? What will you have fisticuffs about? What will you go to war over? What you value will be what you get violent over, metaphorically of course. As a country, Great Britain has ideals that we value and will defend. We hold tightly to freedom of speech and religious liberty among many others. What you value you will defend.
Planters, you are parents. As parents you are responsible for cultivating the values of your children, the church plant. Wise and godly parents know the ways in which they wish to bring up their children. They establish values from birth, influence them in childhood and then release their children into the World hoping the values they have imparted will guide them. Planters, it is no different with you. Establish, influence and impart your values. Begin though by coming together as a team and figure out what values you will fight for, defend and impart. Grow your values as a family in a home, round the dinner table.
Seeing is Believing
The final element of creating your identity I wish to highlight is vision. Proverbs 29:18 reads like this, ‘Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law.’ (ESVUK). If you have no vision you have no future. Ouch! Harsh but true. Do not misunderstand me, I am not saying every plant needs to have a prophet come along and prophesy over them a vision unique to their planting situation. If that happens, excellent! The likelihood is it will not. There is a greater prophetic vision you must receive…
Not every church has a vision statement but every church has a vision. There does not need to be a tagline on your website or publicity. I would strongly recommend it though. People are visual. We take in that which we see. We process what we hear regularly. Therefore, slap your vision anywhere you can and refer to it as much as possible. You know how when you play a sport involving a ball you’re told in P.E. to keep your eyes on the ball. That is because we have a natural inclination to look at what we’re doing instead of what we are aiming for. It is actually when we maintain our aim and keep our eyes on where we want the ball to go that it goes there! It is the same with vision. There is a time and place to observe and review what you are doing but ultimately you need to keep your eyes on where you want to go if you ever want to get there. Keep your vision in sight and sound and it is more likely you will hit it!
What is your vision? Get together with each other and create an opportunity for you all to dream. What are the burdens upon your heart? What are the convictions you have? Where is the destination you wish the church to go in? Share your passions, hopes and desires with one another. Think, discuss, pray, read, test, discern and receive from the Lord the vision you believe he is imparting to you. Will the culture of your community influence your vision? Will the citizens of your immediate society determine your vision? Will the possibilities for change and transformation influence you? Study, observe, ask questions and experience the location and inhabitants of your plant. Let this help guide the vision you are cultivating.
I mentioned above that there is a greater prophetic vision you need. You need to keep the Great Commission as your primary vision. The Gospel of Christ, His eternal kingdom, the Faith delivered by Him, the Apostolic and Prophetic foundations, these will always remain the central vision for every church. You probably will not stick these terms on your social media pictures or published advertisements but they will be the underlying vision of all involved.
Vision will promote ownership. People will get on board with you when your vision is front and centre. Want to grow and produce fruit? One way is to speak, express and live out your vision. When others see this, they will want to connect and be part of the big picture. Although we live in an individualistic and autonomous culture, everyone still wants to be part of something greater than themselves. Seeing the vision will cause people to believe the vision, to get, own and run with it.
Establishing Your Identity:
So, we have looked at creating your identity with a name, values and a vision. Let us briefly move onto the next step which is establishing your identity. I would like to submit to you three key areas in which you will have to establish your identity to help plant and grow your church. These areas are independently, relationally and communally.
By independently I mean you as a church plant. How will you cast your identity and therefore help establish it with those who are connecting with you? The first place you need to establish your identity is with those who presently make up your plant. That small amount of people who are faithfully volunteering, are part of the wider team or just coming along as you publicise your church, are the ones you need build confidence in. These folks are the ones who will hopefully drive the church, but they are not going to drive something they do not understand or know. That is where you and your core team will have to establish your identity with them. Like a husband and father who works to get his house in order, a team needs to get their church in order too. As you gather people remember to advertise, promote, speak, and live out your identity. This way people will know straight away what you are about, where you’re going, why you are going there and develop a sense of belonging and ownership.
How do you establish identity independently? Practically speaking, this can be done in several ways. I’ll bullet point them for brevity’s sake.
- Preach your identity. The “pulpit” is the helm that steers the church in the direction they are going in. Perhaps do a series on your identity, looking at your vision and values. Maybe a Bible study with your core team to draw out, discuss and get them rooted in your identity.
- Pray your identity. Without going into overkill, be intentional about praying into and from your identity. Ask God the Holy Spirit to cultivate and develop your identity when you come together as a plant team and if you have wider prayer meetings where others are attending. Pray about it privately also. What we pray alone becomes what we live publicly.
- Practice your identity. It would be all well and good to preach and pray your identity but it needs to be manifested in your behaviour. Do you practice what you preach? Are you who you say you are? Do your hands and feet confirm your mouth and mind? Do you live out your name? Do you express your vision? Do you breathe your values? Can you walk the walk and not just talk the talk? This will communicate authenticity which will build trust in your plant.
By relationally I mean your relationship with a wider network or family of churches. Your identity will be better established when you identify with other like-minded people. For those already well connected into a network of churches, this may be a given. It is probably how you got to this point in your church planting anyway. So I will keep this brief and just reaffirm its importance. Just like no man is an island, so no church is either. Like a local church has different members who offer a variety of gifts to help the church function so does a network. A network can have many member churches with unique gifting and skill to offer the wider family. Men, women, groups, programmes, ideas, creativity, passions and connections all have contributions to share with the extended family. What a brilliant feeling it is to know that although most of the time your doing the hard ground work in your city, there is a wider family praying for you, resourcing you and visiting you. This is Apostolic strategy! So how do you establish your identity relationally?
- Be intentional and devoted to gathering with the wider family. We have such great opportunities to meet up. We have high-speed transportation, video technology, websites, live-streaming, podcasts (such as Broadcast) and more. There is really no excuse not to connect in some way. The best opportunities are those where we see each other face to face. These include festivals, leadership conferences, prayers days and many other things. So schedule them in. Commit to attending. That way you will receive and be fed.
- Invite extended family members to visit and input. As you gather with wider family get-togethers, you’ll inevitably have opportunities to meet and bond with others. As you chat over food, get to talking in between sessions and activities or initiate a conversation on your campsite, friendships can blossom and partnerships can form. When this happens there can be openings for invitations. We are a family that wants to support and give. Consider then those brothers whose input you would value and could edify your plant. Think about who you could schedule a preaching appointment with, or a Bible study for your core team, a strategy meeting, a time of prayer and prophetic input. Your identity can be further established when you invite others to help establish it with you.
- Remind yourself, your team and the church that you are part of something bigger. Finally, establish your identity relationally by reminding yourself that you are all part of something bigger than yourselves. When you connect with a family of churches, regularly gather together and invite others to input it will better establish your identity as a plant partnered with a greater purpose then itself. You will not feel so alone. You will be passionately stirred by hearing stories of churches under greater struggles than yourself, yet humbled by accounts of other churches bearing much more fruit than you. It will develop humility, health and balance in your team and plant. As you remember the part you play in the bigger story of your network, hopefully you will remember the even bigger story you play in the glory of God! You are just one shard of light along with many others that make up God’s glory.
Lastly, by communally I mean your relationship with your community. Your identity must be established within your community setting. Your church plant is on a mission and the mission field is your local village, town or city. If your plant is to be missional in nature it must be communal in intention. You are the light and city upon a hill; shining and founded for those around you. Your plant needs to establish its identity by its relationship with the community. Lost souls are one of the goals of your church’s existence, and your community is full of them. We cannot dismiss rejection entirely but it could be less likely to occur when your church’s identity is expressed and demonstrated in community. The establishing of your identity could build bridges of trust and open doors of opportunities to herald the Gospel with both hands of action and words of truth. Some folk will not like it (their hearts might be hardened to the Good News) but others will accept it. The latter will see your vision, experience your values and know your name; this could lead to a softening of their hearts to Christ. Either way, to have the most effect a church must plant itself in its community. Here are three ways that can happen:
- Contextualize to your unique community. There might be a particular demographic in your area that your church needs to target. Perhaps the locals of your community are made up mostly of educated, upper class atheists or bread-line, working class sceptics. Maybe there is a high rate of broken and dysfunctional families including fatherless children, abandoned wives or deadbeat dads. Could there be a growing ethnic minority group? Is there a club culture of “teenagers” or a high volume of drug related crime? What is the sub-culture of your particular community? These are just examples of people and problems that your plant has an opportunity to break into and speak into. What is the sub-narrative of your location? Do your research and understand something of the sociological culture of your neighbourhood. Then, without watering down your church or its message, enter into that narrative in a way that is comprehensible and contextual. Does your church play worship music that suits the community’s popular genres? Do you use sermon illustrations that speak to the current issues of your demographic? The Apostle Paul said ‘To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.’ (1 Corinthians 9:20-22 ESVUK). Contextualise, contextualise, contextualise!
- Be present in your community. What activities are happening in your community? Are you attending them? How can we serve our local community if we are not being a presence in them? So many events, functions, activities and the like are organised by the local councils and groups that oversee your area. All these social engagements are opportunities to connect and build relationships with those who attend and those who arrange such events. Being present will establish your identity within your community and further develop trust and acceptance. Those you are trying to reach may begin to view you as part of their society. Do not be distant but close. Do not be absent but be present. Keep yourselves aware of what is going on. Check the local news both physically and online. Keep an eye out on bulletin boards. Follow on Twitter and Facebook your location’s councillors, MP, social groups, town halls etc.
- Serve with and for your community. Lastly, as well as contextualizing and being present, serve. Make and take opportunities to serve your community. When opportunities arise to give and serve your area take them and be intentional with them. Be intentional about sharing the Gospel with people, demonstrating the Kingdom in your area, living the Faith in your neighbourhood, school, job and friendships. Volunteer as a church to help with community projects. Give your time, energy and maybe even your money to invest in your community and express Christ’s love and grace to it. Make yourself known. Serving is the outworking of an established identity.