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Labeling the Church


Ever notice how hyphenated Americans (African-, Asian-, Latino-, Republican-) seem to have been assigned a sub-American status among us? Likewise, I sometimes wonder about the terms we use to describe people in the church: missional Christians, emerging Christians, neo-monastic Christians, fundamentalist Christians, universalist Christians (some would omit the word “Christian”), crazy-rabid-apocalyptic Christians (ditto). You may use some of these terms more than others, but the problem remains – why can’t we all just be Christian? Isn’t it enough to be a follower of Christ? Can’t we admit that we (and others) aren’t perfect, that it’s some kind of miracle that so many people with so many different ideas of what it means to be church are still trying every day to live into the image and character of Jesus?

Here’s the problem: we lose sight of what’s important when we take on or assign identifiers. What matters is the person and presence of Jesus among us. What matters is our struggle – sometimes successful, sometimes superficial, sometimes selfish, sometimes stupid, sometimes surreal – to know Christ, to grow in relationship, to become the people we were created to be. There is something to be said about risking a label, working to define who we are in community with other believers. And maybe it’s important to admit that there are real differences between us. But many of those differences are on the non-essentials. They’re not deal-breakers.

On the other hand, to ignore our differences is to lack integrity. We are not the same. God doesn’t require or expect us to be Jesus robots, mechanical contraptions that have no choice but to march and march and march. Labels, used responsibly, can help us to understand who we are (and maybe even to understand others).

Here’s the danger. Labels tend to communicate “I am actually a Christian,” or worse, “I am more of a Christian.”

I am a pacifist. I identify with many of the church’s emergent voices. I want to be missional. I’m an evangelical Quaker, but I love the Catholic mystics and have been challenged by an as-yet-unsuccessful call to reconciliation from Episcopalians (among others). I love the full-sensory experience of an Orthodox service. I’m intrigued by the seeming ease with which Mennonites sling off institutions that channel their efforts at social justice.

These labels help me to understand the nature of the Christian faith I’m pursuing. These labels help me to find my place in the life and community of the church. But I’m discovering that I must hold these labels loosely, that I have to be able to let go (or let loose), that these ideas aren’t necessarily “better” expressions of Christianity than others, that the rule for finding my place in Christian community is humility.

I guess I’ve come full circle.

Labels can be helpful, allowing us to understand and relate. But they are also weapons used to divide, to distance, to accuse.

We must be careful.

we lose sight of what’s important when we take on or assign identifiers

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