After Hurricane Katrina passed through my state in 2005, I was selected to be a research subject for a study conducted by Harvard Medical School. At regular intervals following the storm, researchers called to ask me a set of questions about my mental and emotional health, as well as my social support system. Each time, the caller asked: “How many people in your community would you be comfortable asking to borrow a cup of sugar?” I would answer: “Let’s see, about 100?” That question was always followed by: “How many people in your community would you be comfortable sharing your thoughts and feelings with?” I would answer: “The same.”
My answer to those two questions is an important clue to my identity. The reason I have such a sizable collection of sugar-lending, accessible friends is because I belong to a local church. The truth is, never once—in storm or sunshine—have I been alone in the world, and no Christian ever has, at least not in the deepest sense. Our identities hinge on the precious truth that belonging to Christ means we also belong to everyone else who belongs to him. In Christ, we are not simply individuals; we are joined to what Peter calls a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Pet. 2:9).
In our individualistic culture, to say that my identity is necessarily connected to the people in my church is hardly popular. Our unbelieving friends and neighbors often reject the significance of membership in a local church and minimize it as a “personal choice.” Although those of who profess faith might distance ourselves from this secular, postmodern perspective, nonetheless we, too, sometimes find ourselves vulnerable to four pervasive untruths:
My relationship to God is strictly personal.
Like most seductive untruths, this one has a kernel of truth in it. Each one of us must repent of sins and trust in Christ (Mark 1:15). Each of us ought to study God’s Word and pray in private (Ps. 119:11; Matt. 6:6), and each one should rejoice in the precious fact that her name is written in heaven (Luke 10:20). Yes, our relationship to God is personal. But we lose our identity when we believe our relationship to God is only personal.
Sociologist Christian Smith studied the religious lives of American young adults and found that many of them think “each individual is uniquely distinct from all others and deserves a faith that fits his or her singular self . . . [and] that religion need not be practiced in and by a community.” To these millennials and many others, faith is strictly personal, and any type of “organized religion” runs contrary to authentic spiritual experience.
Others of us fall prey to the idea that we feel closer to God when we’re alone on the beach or hiking in the woods than we do in church. Although we can certainly experience his presence in other places, anytime we believe our spiritual condition is qualitatively better—more real, more fruitful, more profound—apart from the church, we’ve lost our true identity.
My personality isn’t suited to church.
You don’t have to spend much time on social media before someone will invite you to take a personality test. These assessments—whether well-regarded scientific tools or silly quizzes based on movie characters—purport to reveal truths about who you really are. For example, a personality indicator may tell you that you’re an extrovert (someone who thrives in the company of others) or an introvert (someone who works best alone).
But whether your personality tends to be introverted or extroverted, sensory or intuitive, only God can authoritatively declare who you are, and we know from Scripture that he considers community—especially church community—key to human identity. We are called to the body, not because it obviously suits us or serves our idiosyncratic needs, but because as God’s people living in community, we are equipped together to participate in his kingdom purposes.
I’m already part of a community of people with whom I have a lot in common.
In the age of rising secularism, there are plenty of communities that can serve as church substitutes. We have communities online: Facebook groups for working women and discussion boards for special-needs moms. We have communities at work and school: people with whom we play softball or eat lunch or write poetry. We even belong to communities with spiritual purposes: Bible studies, accountability groups, and support groups for women in ministry.
In these communities, we can be encouraged and helped by others who share our same interests and circumstances. But we get into trouble if we believe our most important relationships are with the people we’ve selected for ourselves. Unlike our self-chosen communities, the local church is a community of people God has chosen for us—for his glory and our good. These other communities might be naturally comfortable and even purposeful, but they’re not where our ultimate identity lies.
I’m focusing on my family.
Each of us has another community—in addition to the church—that’s clearly given to us by God: our biological family. Whether your family consists of parents, siblings, husband, or kids, you have certain people whose lives are permanently linked to yours. It’s good to be a part of a natural family and to diligently care for them as God has commanded, but even these important roles do not eclipse our identity in the eternal family of God.
If ever you say to yourself, “I’m the mom of three young kids. I’ll get back to church in a few years,” you’re missing out. As Christians, we are the children of God (Gal. 4:6), mothers and sisters and brothers and fathers to the fellow members of our local church, and part of Christ’s beloved bride (Rev. 21:9). More than anything else, your biological family needs the family of God.
Scripture testifies to the fact that each of us is a member of this eternal family. The glorious purpose of Christ’s incarnation, obedience, death, and resurrection was so that he might “present [the church] to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Eph. 5:27). In other words, Christ came to make us part of his church.
Though the world would tell us that church is an option, an irrelevance, or a human invention—a group of people who thought it would be a good idea to get together since they share the same beliefs and spiritual practices—we know better. The body is established by Christ, protected and nourished by him, and governed by him.
There’s no better place to live out your true identity. And you’ll never lack for a cup of sugar.
This excerpt was adapted from Identity Theft: Reclaiming the Truth of Our Identity in Christ, edited by Melissa Kruger and published by The Gospel Coalition. Available in print and ebook at Amazon.com