We knew who we had been. In the late 1800’s the Second Baptist Church of Germantown became a community institution--an emblem of the growing prosperity of northwest Philadelphia. Through the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s, we had been one of the leading churches in the city and the denomination. One former pastor had national and even international name-recognition among Baptists. Powerful people of national prominence were numbered among the congregation. Our large Romanesque sanctuary on the corner of Germantown Avenue and Upsal Street was a landmark used in giving directions.
In the 60’s, the neighborhood became more ethnically and economically diverse, and the church intentionally mirrored those changes. In 1971, the large sanctuary burned; only the stone arches from the entryway were preserved as evidence of the former grandeur of the structure. In recognition of changing circumstances, the congregation chose to renovate their original smaller sanctuary and build for themselves a less financially burdened future. About the same time a new sign was erected that read: “An Integrated Church for an Integrated Community.” That made us distinctive in those days. The congregation knew who they were and where God was leading them.
Fast forward to 1994; I am sitting in a gathering of the Committee on Church Renewal. The question we were struggling with that day was: Who are we now? We knew who we used to be. We discovered that we had been at least three different churches in the past 127 years. We knew we were no longer a “department store” church that could provide everything for everybody. A perceptive woman, who had been with the church through several transitions, observed that we were like a “boutique church.” Her comment resonated with me like thunder from on high. Indeed, we were like a boutique. We did not have something for everyone, but we did bring together a distinctive set of characteristics that could not be found elsewhere among our sister churches in the community. We were 85% African-American, yet our services lasted only a bit over an hour. We were a thinking church where there was the freedom to ask any question that occurred to us; nonetheless, a warm, pious, experiential faith permeated the place. We would talk about the meaning of divine providence and never reach any consensus about how that works and then spend 40 minutes in intercessory prayer about our lives, the lives of those whom we loved, and our world. Women were accepted as full partners in ministry. We had a white pastor (me), yet we observed a robust celebration of Black History Month. We periodically read the Apostles Creed, and most of us could also name the seven principles of Kwanzaa. We brought together a distinctive set of qualities that made us unique in our community. If you wanted what we had, you had to join with us.
We took this realization about who we were and used it as the pole around which we developed a fresh sense of identity and, consequently, a renewed vision for ministry. Israel Galindo writes: “Having a clear sense of identity allows a congregation to act with integrity. With a strong sense of identity, members will have the capacity to make decisions consistent with who they are and based on shared values. They will be able to make difficult decisions based on principles and beliefs rather than expediency or anxiety” (The Hidden Lives of Congregations, p. 131).
What is an identity? It is the persistent set of beliefs, values, patterns, symbols, stories, and style that makes a congregation distinctive (Carol, Dudley, McKinney, Handbook for Congregational Studies, p. 12). Our church identity is that collection of things that make us who we are and unlike anyone else. It is good, now and then, to stop and think about who we are—who we have become since we last took stock of ourselves.
Once we have discovered who we are, then a coherent, contemporary vision for ministry is much easier to forge. We get this backwards sometimes. We want to talk about vision before we have constructed a clear sense of identity. Once Second Baptist realized that we were a “boutique church,” we moved fairly easily to a vision of what God was calling us to do and to whom God was leading us to minister. I encourage you think a bit about who you are; it will make what you are being called to do a bit clearer. As always, I am glad to facilitate such a conversation among your church family.