the shape of leadership

Christian Identity in Action

How to combat complacency in your congregation

Kayla Pierce on February 22, 2019

We all know nominal Christians — people who say they are Christians but do virtually nothing to support this claim. We also know people on the other end of the spectrum. These are the people who invite friends to services, serve tirelessly, give sacrificially, and keep the lockup team waiting after church every Sunday morning. What is driving the differences between these two groups? According to research in social psychology, one answer is identity.

Every person has a constellation of identities — friend, spouse, parent, student, Christian, Starbucks patron, dog lover. People have meanings attached to each of their identities, and these meanings prompt behavior.

For example, if I asked you what it means to be a student, you would rattle off a list of behaviors. Students go to class, learn, take notes, and interact with teachers. If I asked several hundred people this same question, they would generate a similar list. That’s because the meaning of the student identity is specific, and there is a cultural consensus on expectations for students.

In contrast, the meaning of the Christian identity is vague and varies considerably. Being a Christian can mean something different to each believer, depending on that person’s background, traditions, discipleship and spiritual maturity.

If we asked people what it means to be a Christian, they would most likely first respond with a set of beliefs, not behaviors. Even if they came up with a list of behaviors, such as praying, reading the Bible and attending church, there would be little consensus on how often Christians should engage in these disciplines.

Within every church, people vary spiritually, culturally and intellectually. In order to communicate to such diverse crowds, we often speak abstractly, so that people can take what we say and apply it meaningfully to their own lives. The danger of this approach is that too much abstraction can leave room for inaction.

The problem is that vague identities are less likely to prompt action. How can we, as leaders, bridge this gap? Here are three ways to help:

Vague identities are less likely to prompt action.

1. Let them see you in action. Role models are among the most important sources of identity development. Unfortunately, unless people live with us, they may not see our spiritual disciplines in action. So, we should be explicit and tell them the specifics. For example, saying that you spend time with God is vague. Saying that you read three chapters in your Bible every morning is specific.

If you are concerned about overwhelming a new believer with the rigor of your habits, share what you did as a new believer. You might say, “When I first came to Jesus, my goal was to read one chapter of the Bible every day.” Providing new believers with a concrete goal gives them tangible ways to follow through with their commitment to Jesus.

2. Sign them up. Jesus’ disciples saw Him in action, and they rolled up their sleeves and got to work. As they worked alongside Jesus, the crowds jostled them, the sun beat down on them, and their muscles ached due to the taxing trips from town to town. The disciples experienced the mental and emotional exhaustion of ministry, and they watched as Jesus took it in stride.

Not only did the disciples see Jesus perform hundreds of miracles, but they also saw how He responded under pressure. By the time Jesus ascended, the disciples had a concrete sense of how to carry His ministry forward through the help of the Holy Spirit.

The best time to recruit people to serve is right after they have committed their lives to Jesus, when their identity as a Christian is most malleable. If we wait too long, they will settle into a vague Christian identity, devoid of action and servanthood.

3. Check in and affirm their progress. When an identity is vague, people are unsure whether they are doing things the right way, which can make them susceptible to discouragement and disengagement. The good news is that people respond to feedback, and they are particularly sensitive to affirmation from leaders.

When we receive confirmation of our identity, we experience positive emotions and a boost in self-esteem, which makes us want to continue the positive behavior. Don’t underestimate your words of encouragement.

Did you see that someone was especially engaged in worship? Let that person know. Did one of your introverted friends work up the courage to share some thoughts with your small group? Brag on that person’s insight. People are looking for confirmation that they’re on track. And if they get off track? Don’t be afraid to approach people privately and give them specific ways to cultivate their growth.

If we are strategic, we can help people develop more specific identities. This will encourage action and ultimately give them a more fulfilling and productive Christian experience, allowing them to flourish in Jesus.

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