Church communication and constructions of the self: exploring identity & identification in church communication

Nairn, Angelique Margarita
Nelson, Frances
Johnson, Rosser
Item type
Degree name
Doctor of Philosophy
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
Auckland University of Technology

The purpose of this research was to examine the everyday communications of Christian religious organisations for evidence of intentional and unintentional construction of member identity (Cheney, 1983a). My interest in this research emerged when I observed what appeared to be a proliferation of church communications in New Zealand society. On the one hand, these everyday communications seemed designed to promote the church to its constituents. On the other hand, however, they were also embedded with messages that could deliberately and deliberatively limit the possible range of members’ self identities if they identified with the church. My research investigated the practices that churches adopted in connection with developing prototypical identities for members (Hogg & Terry, 2000). To that end, I established two overarching research questions: how do religious organisations use rhetorical tools to construct identities for current and potential members and produce identification and disidentification? And for what purpose(s) are such member identities constructed, mobilised and perpetuated?

Rhetorical analysis proved particularly useful in answering these questions because of its capacity to reveal attempts to influence peoples’ attitudes and behaviours. I found Cheney’s (1983a) rhetorical identification typology, with its textual focus and wide application fit my needs for detecting both overt and subtle attempts at encouraging members to identify with their church. At its core, the typology is comprised of four strategies: the common ground technique, identification through antithesis, the ‘transcendent we’ and unifying symbols. In my analysis, I found that, although the strategies presented across the texts some more than others their incorporation could, in fact, produce both identification and disidentification, depending on how the members decoded the messages. If identification inducement was successful, it could lead members to adopt the preferred decisional premises of the organisation into their self concepts (Tompkins & Cheney, 1985), ultimately subordinating members to the control of the church.

Another of my research findings was that the churches had one prevailing motivation for encouraging identification: altruism. Such a motivation was not entirely unexpected, given that, central to Christianity, is the need for members to go forth and do good (Chaves & Tsitsos, 2001), which will not only earn them an eventual place in heaven (Irons, 1996), but in the interim, will meet members’ needs for self worth and self esteem (Pffefer & Fong, 2005). Yet underneath this motivation, was a much more ‘church centric’ reason for binding members to the church: survival. In a secular society, such as New Zealand (Koilg, 2000), where religion is declining and denominations compete among themselves for memberships (Lambert, 1999; Melton, 1998), the need to establish a societal presence to survive was likely unavoidable. The need to survive perhaps accounts for the growing shift of churches to adopt secular communication channels in order to target their messages at current and potential members.

In conclusion, my research found that churches would establish prototypical characteristics (Hogg & Terry, 2000) for members by incorporating rhetorical practices, which could be beneficial to members, but which were certainly worthwhile to the church.

Identity , Identification , Religion , Everyday communication , Identity construction , Rhetorical analysis
Publisher's version
Rights statement