Panelists to Provide Biblical Perspectives on Identity at Regionals
By Carl Stagner
One perhaps unintended consequence of the every-other-year Regional format of Church of God convocation has been the informal and innovative approach to session structure and delivery. Traditional systems of song and sermon remain tremendously effective, but interviews, speaker-audience exchange, and breakout groups enhance message retention and promote practical application. In 2022, the Regional Conferences of the Church of God in Fremont, California; Anderson, Indiana; and Orlando, Florida will feature panel discussion to creatively further this year’s theme, “Identity: Because of the I Am, We Are.”
Though the panelists at each location will vary, the heartbeat of each participant is the same—a deep love for Jesus and a warm embrace of the past, present, and future of the Church of God movement. Recognizing identity found in Christ first, including blessed membership in the family of God and affiliation with the Church of God movement, each one has something to contribute on the subject. From individual standpoints, Justin Brown, Abbie Craig, Kyle Hayes, Ra’Lynn Kelley, Richard Smith, Jason Varner, and Nathan Willowby are poised to provide insights intended to sharpen listeners’ understanding and biblical grounding of whose we are, and therefore who we are.
Longtime pastor to students Abbie Craig served eight years as the youth pastor at Church at the Crossing in Indianapolis and director of the 365 Indiana State Youth Convention. Over the years of interaction with young people and their leaders, she’s surely come to recognize the identity crisis facing the next generation. But it’s not only youth and children struggling with the question of identity today; neither is such a weighty issue limited to the world outside the church. In fact, that’s where the Church of God movement finds itself today—wrestling with the question of identity.
Nathan Willowby, dean of Anderson University School of Theology and Christian Ministry, immediately answers the question of why identity matters. “Identity is vital to our understanding of ourselves,” he points out. “If we don’t know who we are, then we are prone to both chase after the wrong things and measure our success and failure by the wrong things.”
Certainly, we don’t want to do that! Richard Smith offers the desired contrast, asserting, “There’s tremendous power and amazing beauty in embracing and understanding our identity. When we know who God is and who he created us to be, we know who we are and what we’ve been created to do.”
The question of Church of God identity is deeply personal to the panelists. One such panelist, who serves Children of Promise as director of development, says it’s rooted in his own experience. “The Church of God has always been a family to me,” Kyle Hayes explains. “It was the family I was born into and the people who empowered me and spoke life into me as I grew. Like any family, we are not perfect and share opportunities for growth, but as a part of the movement I have seen beauty created in the name of Jesus.”
Family is one word most would use to identify who we are, in part. Sometimes the privileges of the family members can be abused, though, leading to separation and scattered direction. Justin Brown, pastor of Monroe City First Church of God in Indiana, acknowledges that autonomy is a good thing—and a bad thing. “A local church body out West can look different than in the East or Central. They’ll do some things differently. Music style, preaching style, serving area emphasis, all different. And all good things. But what unifies all these local bodies? It’s the central identity they all rest within. Without it, disunity. Without it, my way becomes more holy than your way. Without it, autonomy really becomes nothing more than a rallying cry to ‘leave me alone.’ I love the individuality with which we were created. Our local congregations reflect the creative God we worship, and I love seeing the differences in how we express commitment to him. But it’s exciting to be part of the conversation regarding what brings us together to be identified, collectively, the bride of Christ.”
Through the generations since the Church of God movement was born, autonomy has been one of many factors of collective identity. Jason Varner, whose studies have given him a uniquely historical perspective on the subject of identity, is excited to weigh in on the topic as a panelist. The Anderson University professor says, “I actually just completed some writing work that had me spending considerable time down in the Church of God archives. My goal was to see what exactly the Church of God thought of its identity in the early twentieth century and how exactly the establishment of our educational institutions served as an extension of that identity. I’m very much looking forward to taking what I’ve learned from this research, along with my current experience in my local Church of God context, and bringing it to what I’m sure will be a rich and thought-provoking conversation.”
An article like this can only scratch the surface of the meaningful dialogue slated to take place at each of the Regional Conferences this year on the subject of identity. Anticipation is growing for the panel discussions to stimulate further consideration and conversation. Ra’Lynn Kelley, digital media specialist for Church of God Ministries, concludes, “I think the body of Christ is in the midst of truly defining itself not by society’s standards, but by Yahweh’s. We’re in a pivotal moment of stepping into our purpose to further advance the kingdom.” Reflecting upon the invitation to participate as a panelist, she observes, “I naturally would not have taken this leap of faith. It was an ask made by man, but ordered by God, and I look forward to seeing what he does through me on this panel. It’s not about me, it’s about him.”
“Identity—because of the I Am, we are.” That’s the theme of the 2022 Regional Conferences, and that’s precisely what each panelist and an array of speakers will explore with us. Register today at www.chogconvention.org.
Feature (top) photo: Panel discussion during a Church of God Regional in 2016 (file photo).