Over the past 29 years my wife, Janice, and I have been part of several churches. We've noticed each church has its own way of looking at things, at expressing its people's feelings about God, and even of understanding God.
We've also observed each congregation, as some young Christian leaders say, "struggling to find their identity". When struggling to find their identity people often turn to labels. For example, currently churches commonly hang one of two labels on themselves: contemporary and traditional. (Other labels are in current use, but these two labels will suffice to illustrate.) These labels help a congregation identify itself to others and define a congregation to itself. But, these labels hinder and often hurt, both the labeler and the labeled.
There are many problems with labels.
- A single adjective or moniker seldom means exactly the same thing to two different people, let alone hundreds or thousands of people. Immediately, meaningful, objective discourse is made impossible.
- Many traditional congregations don't seem traditional and how many contemporary congregations don't seem very contemporary to me. A single label - or even a few - seldom denotes enough to form a sensible, sound understanding of any group of people, let alone a congregation.
- People use labels in relative terms rather than in association with some objective definition. Consequently, what you may infer from a label is likely to be different from what the speaker intended to imply when the label was used, rendering your conclusion useless.
- When one congregation refers to another congregation with the label other than the one they use to describe themselves, they often imply pejorative connotations whether they are conscious of doing so or not. (If you thought that was difficult to follow, you should have tried to write it!) Of course, when this occurs it tells others more about the person or congregation who used the label than the parishioner(s) being labeled.
- Labels typically point people to people, not to God. Labels misdirect.
- I have noticed on numerous occasions (including in my own speech) a willingness to apply a label rather than doing the harder work of engaging in objective, rigorous, and truthful examination of a subject.
Although a label may serve as something around which people can rally in order to feel common in some way(s), a label never really takes people to higher ground. Whenever we seek sameness - often facilitated by a label - whether to give identity, increase confidence or comfort, hide the truth, or avoid hard thinking, we submit ourselves to disappointment, increase the likelihood of hurting others, impede the mission of the Church, tarnish our Christian witness, and demonstrate in our conduct something less than that to which we have been called.
I acknowledge that I sink to labeling, using labels which contribute to a manufactured homogeneity - a faux sameness feeling... not the authentic, reasoned, compelling life to which I've been called.
How about you?