A unique and contextual identity

April 1st, 2016

This article is based on Tankler's DMin thesis from Asbury Theological Seminary, the research for which also appeared in the journal Nordic Perspectives on Methodism.

The Methodist Church in all three Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) is still a small minority church with a peculiar self-image in each country. Even as the political development is quite similar for all three countries, the context for ministry differs from place to place. The Baltic countries have been part of the European Union since 2004, and as EU members they participated in drafting the first EU constitution. One of the fiercest debates concerning this constitution involved whether the document’s preamble should emphasize or even mention Christianity as one of the main sources of Europe’s distinct civilization. Secularism won the debate, and the constitutional treaty doesn’t mention Christianity’s role or refer to “Christian” values. Thus European leaders have officially declared that their ground rules are free from religious influences.1 As countries recently stepping out of an aggressively atheist sphere of influence, Baltic nations represent this “freedom from religious influences” perhaps even more than some other countries in Europe. People in democracies today choose their worldviews voluntarily, and they may or may not include “willful identification with a particular religious institution.” 2

Robert Wuthnow accurately observes that “denominational identity will in practice mean a local identity.”3 Thus even in the case of a global denomination, the basic principles must always be adapted to the local social and cultural context, taking into account the customary use of language, means of communication, and the expectations about and attitudes toward the church as an institution. Wuthnow points out “three ways in which the church confers a Christian identity”: the church as a community of memory, the church as denomination, and the church as a supportive community.4

The Methodist Church in Estonia as a “community of memory” is actively challenged by trying to translate faith stories in a meaningful way from past generations into the present generation’s reality. In Latvia and Lithuania the role of a “community of memory” is different because the story was interrupted for a long period. Even though the historical continuation of the Methodist tradition is strongly emphasized, the majority of Methodists experience their church as a new beginning, in the process of creating its history from the 1990s onward. Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi admits that “when in most cases the identity label is no more than a passive acceptance of a social convention, the religious community will make it into a central identity structure.”5

In the Methodist Church in Baltic countries, I have observed that the majority of church members define their Christian identity in the framework of Methodist tradition, emphasizing “the importance of and interrelations between worship and social action, evangelism and justice ministries, spiritual formation and political involvement.”6

However, because faith stories actually shape our identity as Christians and give us role models,7 perhaps we have done ourselves a disservice by formalizing our worship services in a way that often dismisses the treasury of church member testimonies and stories about God’s involvement in their lives. In one Estonian congregation, the pastor dedicated time to teach church members about what a testimony is and how to give it in a meaningful and faith-edifying way. This church practices testimonies regularly as part of their Sunday morning worship experience. Listening to each other’s faith stories provides new believers with language and a conceptual framework for interpreting their experiences in the light of God’s providence and grace.

Outreach is the desire to serve the community around the church. For a long period of time, church leaders paid fines or were arrested for attempts to reach out. In spite of the lack of experience in outreach, Baltic churches have strongly shifted to Wuthnow’s third pillar: the church as a supportive community. In a learning mode, starting from the very beginning without much previous tradition or experience, we’ve seen a lot of creativity and bold, innovative approaches. A socially active attitude as a vital part of traditional Methodist identity has encouraged even small churches to step out and become visible on the local community level, offering support and care for those in need.

To be perceived as a supportive community, begin first with making your church trustworthy in the eyes of the local community. That means openness, acceptance, a caring presence, and willingness to listen and learn before acting. My recent research in Baltic Methodist churches shows that the general willingness to develop outreach ministries is present in all churches, but in half of the cases the preparation for outreach did not include studying the immediate ministry context and adapting the ministry accordingly.

Often small churches lack the resources and ability to respond to community needs, but even the smallest signs of good will and understanding can enhance the whole ministry of the church and motivate its members. Openness to the needs of the surrounding community can also lend the church new credibility with those who otherwise might relegate it to history.

The church needs to look back as well as forward, to look inside itself as well as outside, into the community around the church, in order to develop an identity. Each congregation needs to become aware of its unique identity in order to understand our God-given mission more deeply and find methods and tools to fulfill this mission in our local contexts. Identity in this sense can never be a static thing. Identity includes some permanent and unalterable values, but it’s open to embrace new challenges and to change the understanding of ministry priorities or methods according to the context. Our quest for identity should always include the question “Where do you send me today, Lord?”

1. George Weigel, The Cuba and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics without God (New York: Basic Books, 2005), 162.

2. Robert Wuthnow, Christianity in the 21st Century (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 44.

3. Ibid., 50.

4. Ibid., 46.

5. Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, “Religion as Art and Identity” in Psychology of Religion: Personalities, Problems, Possibilities, edited by H. Newton Maloney (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 184.

6. Scott J. Jones, United Methodist Doctrine: The Extreme Center (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 175.

7. Wuthnow, 54.

comments powered by Disqus