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The Church of Me

There is a disease eating away at the church in North America called individualism. It is pervasive in our society and easily caught. It is insidious because when it infects us, we will probably not even know it. Once we have contracted it, we naturally bring this disease into our churches. This is happening regularly and with tragic results.

There is a cure for this condition. The solution (paradoxical, given the nature of the disease) is you.

The problem of individualism
It is important, in discussing individualism, that we be clear what we are talking about. Individualism is not individuality. Individuality is a gift of God. God has made us individuals and, as such, we are each sacred and self-interested, and this latter quality is not a bad thing. None of us would practice even the most basic hygiene if we did not have a modicum of self-interest, and Jesus’ command, “love your neighbour as yourself,” assumes this natural self-regard. Individualism, on the other hand, is an exaggerated version of this proper self-interest. Individualism is entirely driven by self-interest.  “What is in it for me?” is the motivating question behind all the individualist’s actions.

Know your (individualistic) culture
I think it is safe to say that no society in history has been more individualistic in its outlook than North America is today, and precisely because this outlook pervades the environment in which we live, we can be oblivious to its presence. As a fish is unaware of the water it swims in, and we are generally unaware of the air we breathe, we can be unconscious of how individualism is affecting us all the time.

One way this trend has expressed itself in our society is through insularity. Following World War II, there was a mass movement away from cities into the comparative isolation of the suburbs. Over time, with increasing wealth and a reduced need to depend on one another, we tended to isolate ourselves even further by opting for separate rooms, separate televisions, separate computers, separate phones, separate cars and more.

As a culture we have tended to cocoon ourselves in our homes, reducing the amount of face to face contact we have with our neighbours. Maclean’s magazine, in a recent cover article, lamented that the loss of neighbourliness in Canada is eroding the social glue and contributing to polarization between people groups (August 18, 2014).

Individualism goes beyond physical walls of separation, though, to include emotional and spiritual walls. Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell contend that the societal trend toward narcissism (with its corresponding decrease in other-centeredness) has literally reached epidemic proportions. A study of over 37,000 college students, for example, demonstrated that the occurrence of narcissistic personality traits rose as fast as obesity from 1980 to today.

Have the mind of Christ
The path Jesus envisioned for the church diverges radically from the individualistic one our society has taken. He declared that as his followers we would be distinguished, not by our pursuit of self-interest but by our love (John 13:35). He modeled the type of bond he wanted for us by steeping himself in a core community of 12 close disciples throughout his earthly ministry.

Following in the steps of Jesus, the early Christians stunned the ancient world by breaking down walls of separation between classes of people. Men and women, Jews and Gentiles, masters and slaves, and people of varying political persuasions met together in small home gatherings throughout the Roman Empire. They used the terms “brother” and “sister” to describe their radical family loyalty – a loyalty forged not as a result of blood relationships but through the blood of the cross.

Jesus’ intention for his church has never changed. He wants us to live out deep, loving Christian community today. However, our individualistic assumptions are undermining our ability to experience it. As the cartoon character Pogo famously said, “We have found the enemy, and he is us.”

For some Christians, individualism expresses itself in not going to church. A large demographic in our country is made up of people who are “spiritual but not religious.” They love God, but not the institutional church. Popular Christian authors Anne Rice and Don Miller gained widespread notice for their choices not to participate in organized Christianity.

Many other Christians attend church but look at their involvement through a consumeristic lens. They may assess whether to join a church by asking, first of all, what the church has to offer them, rather than asking if this is the family they’ve been called to love, and a place they and their family can optimally serve and grow.

Once committed, individualist attitudes can show up in how members approach church life. Some limit their involvement by isolating themselves in their private worlds and not engaging with the church community beyond Sunday church attendance or narrow ministry obligations. Others don’t follow through on their responsibilities to the church with the same vigour they do in other areas of their lives. Members’ failure to simply show up for things they have committed to is a constant source of frustration for church staff and ministry leaders.

Ironically, small groups, which are designed to create community in churches, often fail because the many members are asking, “What’s in it for me?” At the first sign that the study topic, or a particular group member, is not to their liking, these members leave.

Decide to make a difference
If we want to solve the problem individualism poses for the church, we must start by looking at ourselves. That is where the biggest part of the problem lies. We must each identify and address these individualistic attitudes. To become the change we want to see in the church is the greatest contribution any of us can make toward helping the church to a better community life.

Jesus commanded that we join ourselves as flawed people to other flawed people and demonstrate to the world a unity that only the cross could make possible. That means we must choose to deal with one another’s rough edges as we are each undergoing the slow process of sanctification. Life in the church can be wonderful, but it is often a hard road to travel. Paul’s instruction, “bear with one another,” (Eph. 4:2), means what it says: sometimes we must simply choose to put up with one another.

We are all stuck with our blood relations quite apart from any choice of our own. You will sit with your eccentric uncle George and your overly-talkative aunt Milly for Thanksgiving supper just because they are family. It should be no different in the church. Jesus chose your brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers for you.  Your job is to love them.

Our hopes for the church can be as high as the effort we are personally willing to put into making it better. To the extent we each adopt this attitude, the church will become the community Jesus designed it to be.

Author

  • Tom Baird is pastor of Bethel Community (Christian Reformed) Church in Edmonton, Alberta. Tom previously pastored churches in Kincardine and St. Thomas, Ontario before moving to Edmonton with his wife Janet in 2012.

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