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Identity theft is something that most of us associate with credit cards and the Internet. We call it “identity theft” because a person’s most valuable and private information is stolen or exploited in a destructive way. No one likes the idea of having his or her security breached.

But “identity theft” can also refer to a more social or spiritual phenomenon. I recently had a conversation with my wife about the thing Generations X, Y, and Z fear even more than financial insecurity: losing their ability to define themselves.

Raised by televisions, always on the phone, my fellow 20-to-30-somethings and I often define ourselves by the products we buy, the groups we join, and, most important, by the statement “You can be whatever you want to be.” As individuals, we’ve absorbed that advertisement as gospel and made self-expression the highest human virtue.

However, when confronted by the church’s message of corporate identity and self-sacrifice, many of us have been scared away and have never looked back. Why would I want to let someone else define who I am?

The way this perceived identity theft has played itself out in the church is also connected with our conversations about denomination. Reformed Christians have struggled with the tension between tradition and transformation for centuries, and frequently the proposed resolutions come back to identity. Who are we as the Christian Reformed Church in North America? Where have we come from, and where do we want to go?

The identity crisis every new generation faces doesn’t seem to go away. Yet this same crisis provides an opportunity for a new way of thinking about our identity.

This new way of thinking starts with recognizing that our identity is in Christ. Because of the way Jesus offers people a new identity, the church will always be at odds with cultures that fear conformity. As long as confusing equality with sameness obscures the gospel message of “new creation,” there will be those who feel that their identities will be stolen instead of transformed.

Our problem, then, is how to speak to a generation of people who fear that joining the church will force them to lose themselves.

Maybe the problem of youths leaving our pews is not that we’re asking the wrong questions or that we haven’t found the right “formula.” Maybe the problem is that we spend more time trying to project an image of what we think a certain generation might want instead of finding joy in who we are.

Too often we identify ourselves by what we don’t like, who we don’t want to be, and where we don’t want to go. At other times we compromise too much just to appeal to current trends. Jesus says in John 10:10, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

Even though Jesus compels us to lose our lives to gain them, he is not a thief. He is the source of true identity. Jesus’ representative body, the church, proclaims: “Come, all you who thirst for real security and to be known and understood. Christ is our joy. Taste and see that he is good!”

So where do we go from here? I have a few suggestions: Don’t hesitate to talk to others about how we can better communicate this timeless truth. Don’t be afraid to say there is a solution, but that it involves a new way of thinking about identity and a very old message about life in Christ.

And, finally, if we proclaim this gospel this way, don’t be surprised if we begin to see a church filled with new seekers and returning prodigals. 

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