Shaping missional church life
The way we picture God will direct church identity and our missional effectiveness, writes Andrew Hardy
There is power in identity. People gather around shared identities in order to bring meaning and purpose to their lives – and this is no less true of the church.
We gather in the Christian groups to which we belong based on a common social identity, coming together to fulfil similar goals, share common values and find support for life’s challenges. How we picture God will help to frame the way we think about our church and the part it has to play in God’s mission to the world around us.
How can a group’s picture of what they believe God is like directly impact the identity of the people who belong to that group? Our public social identities are based just as much on how we picture ourselves as part of a group as they are on what we build our private personal identities upon.
Our lives, comprising myriad small actions, tell the story of the God we love without needing to rely on words to communicate the presence of God. The best way of sharing the gospel is to live it. God’s presence through the Spirit of Christ in our lives will shine through our faces and our deeds without our having to try to convert people to faith by words alone.
The sociologists Tajfel and Turner developed social identity theory  which, according to the pastoral psychologist Collicutt, holds that people form group affiliations because these provide them with a source of both personal identity and self-esteem. The groups we belong to tell us something about who we are, and we may feel that we have some kudos from being part of the group. 
Christians (including those exploring the Christian faith) will embrace the norms and values of the church to which they belong and draw their identity from it. This is a powerful force which keeps people together and motivates Christians to fulfil God’s mission in their particular context. A group’s identity is formed by its members’ beliefs about God and the practices in which they engage, which inform their behaviours among the people with whom they associate in their daily lives.
What we say about ourselves to people from other groups can lead to the formation of friendships, which can enable us to identify shared common ground. Missiologists say that intentional friendships form out of ‘incarnational behaviour’. Such friendships are based on issues in which both parties have passion to engage – for example, because of a common desire to provide food for needy families in the local community. The rapid rise of foodbanks is a good example of Christian groups and secular businesses gathering around a common theme true of Christ’s ministry. Christ sought to address the immediate needs of people, which in turn formed a bridge for Him to help them consider their eternal destinies.
Christ is portrayed in the gospels as the answer to humanity’s deepest need, which is the restoration of the image of God. Our ultimate sense of identity is found in modelling our lives on the life of the God-man Jesus Christ.
Christians and non-Christians can gather around shared values, either based on their shared identity as those who are being transformed into the likeness of Christ, or based on shared secular interests. Positive conversations can take place about life challenges and about identity and the way a person’s outlook on life shapes how they deal with challenges. These are moments of opportunity to bring our own identities into conversation as people who model our lives on Christ. The Son of God formed alliances with people and used objects and stories from everyday life to communicate the things of the living God.
For Christians to communicate their identities as sons and daughters of God, we too need to incarnate alongside people in the ordinary rounds of their lives. Our Christian identities are better communicated to others through who we are than by what we say about ourselves. As we participate in projects or activities with people, we can bring Christ into our conversations as a natural part of evolving friendship.
Christians also need to be incarnational with each other so that communally we may provide a picture of Christ based on mutual love and service. In our dynamic postmodern, pluralistic and multicultural society we need to be change agents, both individually and as a body, peacemakers and community builders of the coming kingdom in our neighbourhoods.
The universal body of Christ transcends national, racial, gender and culture-related barriers. We need to form partnerships in our communities with people of different ethnicities and faith persuasions. These natural barriers can be difficult to cross, but if we incarnate the active love of the Spirit of Christ through all that we do with people, it may be possible for the love of God to transcend the walls as we offer friendship and support where it is needed.
We are faced with a secular society where there is no longer a clear social consciousness of who human beings were made to become. I will leave you with two questions, in the hope that they will spark your interest in how we can more fully become the mobile body of Christ, following Him into our neighbourhoods and sharing in the ordinary rounds of life with people. It is in these neighbourhoods where Christ is already at work ahead of us:
How can we help our Christian community to shape and form pictures of God that lead to incarnational mission?
How can we shape our neighbours’ picture of God as they see God illustrated through our everyday lives?
Dr Andrew R. Hardy is the Undergraduate Programme Director, ForMission College, and author of Pictures of God: Shaping Missional Church Life, which is published by Instant Apostle and is available from Christian bookshops and online sellers.
 H. Tajfel and J. C. Turner, ‘An integrative theory of intergroup conflict’, in W. G. Austin and S. Worchel (eds.), The Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations, Monterey: Brooks Cole (1979), pp. 33-40.
 Joanna Collicutt, The Psychology of Christian Character Formation, Norwich: SCM Press (2015), p. 163.