Identity Crisis

Last Sunday’s sermon was on unity, focusing on the lectionary passage from the beginning of First Corinthians. The title of my sermon was “Give Me a U.” The plan was to talk about Paul’s encouragement regarding unity, to remind us all to reflect on how we seek unity in our own local church, but also to offer a confession regarding unity on a larger level. Most of the world’s Christians gather in churches that belong to denominations that do not ordain people like me:  a woman. I’m not exactly all that eager to pursue unity in that regard, I’ll admit.

In the time before the service started, as people began arriving and the choir got settled in, I noticed a few people perusing the bulletin and then I heard a few comments regarding the sermon title. “U?” someone asked, “is that for Unitarian?”

My heart sank. Over the course of the last six months or so, several people who are part of the Old South community have admitted to me that they don’t really feel tied to Christianity. Instead, they feel more Unitarian.

This isn’t exactly new to my experience at Old South. I remember a couple who had started attending the church about ten years ago. They openly identified as Unitarian-Universalist, but they didn’t really like the local UU church. They knew a few people who belonged to Old South, so they started to come to worship and to get involved in the church. Occasionally, they would make a comment regarding my “too Christian” approach, suggesting that perhaps I could try talking about Jesus not quite so often. It was hard to know how to respond to them, except to find ways of saying that the church was a Christian church, and was when they started attending.

I am a Christian and I was called to serve a Christian church. Yet, I’m aware that the church that I serve is not universally connected to the One who is supposed to serve as our center, our focus, our “Head.” And, it feels like this is more and more of an issue as the church gets smaller.

I remember when I was in Divinity School that there was a common joking thread that UCC stood for “Unitarians Considering Christ” rather than “United Church of Christ.” The churches that I’ve served and the church I grew up in have all, until Old South, unabashedly identified as Christian. During my first months at Old South, almost fifteen years ago, one of my predecessors warned me that the church was not strongly connected to “the Gospel.”

Over the years, I’ve experienced small reminders of that warning. But, it’s only recently that it has started to feel like an issue. I particularly worry about the church’s sense of identity.  Perhaps among a larger group of people, a few stragglers may not be all that big of a deal.  But, as the church shrinks, it feels more troublesome for the community to be only partially connected to a common sense of purpose, a reason for being.

At Old South, we are blessed with a group of people who do not spend considerable time quarreling with each other.  It’s a fairly unified group.  As it shrinks, though, things are likely to become a more complicated, especially around important decisions that we’ll need to make.  Will our unity hold?  And, how will it hold if we are not all connected to the same sense of purpose, if we cannot agree on who we are and to whom we belong?

I pray, then, that we’ll find our way to a higher sense of unity, and of purpose, that we’ll find our way, together, to embrace and renew our link to our Head.  I’ll take a U, please, for unity:  unity in Christ.


About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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