Group Identities and Labels


A label is a designation or description that specifies and clarifies a group to which one belongs. We can’t do without labels, but we must be exceedingly careful in how we use labels.

Before I go any further, I’ll tell you where I am headed with this idea. While we have been focusing mainly on your personal, individual identity, groups of people have an identity as well. Groups self-identify with particular labels.

I am gong to talk tomorrow about a particular label that is under a lot of stress these days, and that is the label/word EVANGELICAL. Almost my entire Christian life, I have self-identified as belonging to the group called “evangelicals.” In 2019, I find that term (1) is frequently misunderstood, (2) has been co-opted by the media and infused with some ideas I (and many church historians) don’t think it should have, and (3) is in need of re-clarification. There are a number of very thoughtful Christians who now believe the term has limited usefulness due to the major cultural confusion.

But that label is for tomorrow. Let’s set the stage with a few ideas about identities and the labels we use to refer to groups.

Groups have shared characteristics that define them and set them apart from other groups. Observe the labels used to compare and contrast groups.

A millennial is different from a baby boomer.

A banker is different from a baker.

A dancer is different from a doctor.

A Republican is different from a Democrat.

A Christian and a Buddhist refers to two different religious groups who believe very different things.

While Pentecostals and Baptists both fall under the label Christian, the respective labels refer to two quite different approaches to Christianity.

A label is generally a description that includes a number of assumed ideas so we can use the label instead of having a long sentence of characteristics.

It is easier for me to ask, “Do you have a dog?” than to ask, “Do you have an animal that barks and wags its tail when you come home?” Maybe if your dog doesn’t like you, it doesn’t wag its tail!

If I ask, “Does your dog meow?” you will be confused because I used a label and attached a description to the label that is typically not so.

Labels are useful and we can’t just do away with them; therefore, here are six things to keep in mind about labels if we are to use them well.

ONE: Every label is, by definition, somewhat general and generic. A label really serves to get us into the ballpark of meaning. A label should get us reasonably close to shared meaning about what describes a group. Look at each of the examples above. While there are many nuances that could be added for every label, still the labels get us close enough to continue the conversation.

TWO: Every label should be congenial and acceptable to the person who is included in the label. In fact, I’ll go further. Every label should either originate with the group being described, or be so claimed by the group being described, that the group itself is glad to use the label. When labels do not originate with a group, they are often negative labels put on the group by antagonists.

THREE: Labels should be used respectfully and as means to advance conversation, not end it. Labels should help us understand, connect, and relate . . . not push us apart.

NOTE:  Obviously, in light of two and three, many labels are harmful and need to be eliminated. The Golden Rule is not the final rule, but it is almost always a helpful rule in suggesting appropriate behavior. I don’t want a derogatory label assigned to me by someone who is not in my groups. I won’t assign one to anyone else.

FOUR: Every label is just a large place-holder and every individual who accepts a label will have many nuances and variations that make them a little (or a lot) different from someone else wearing the label. A label should not pigeon-hole any particular person into that group.

FIVE: In a large number of cases, a label has a range of meaning. In other words, there are many differences within the label that people can claim the same general label but be somewhat different from each other. As I continue to study political and presidential leadership, I’ve learned the range of meaning within political party labels is pretty striking.

SIX: No person is exhausted by a single label. Human beings are wonderfully complex. Most of us need several labels to begin to define us. Most of us are something like a Venn diagram where a variety of labels overlap and define who we truly are.

If we keep these things in mind, then we will be better positioned to use labels in healthy ways to describe the group identities we claim and wear.

Tomorrow I’ll talk about the labels CHRISTIAN and EVANGELICAL.

Pastor Brian

When someone asks me – what kind of church do you go to, I hesitate for at least a minute. What label should I use? Will they understand the label I use? It is a matter of shared meaning. I know what I mean when I use specific words, but will they understand the word. And if the person I am talking to is (and most of them are) more unchurched than ever… I just assume there will be misunderstanding.

Brian Rice