25 January 2012

Individualism and Community

In our culture individualism is a high priority.  The value to apprehend independence is part of the fabric of our society.   My personal goals, the things that satisfy me and my right to pursue them are supposed to take priority when I’m making decisions. In many ways we worship our freedom to express independence without constraints.  We think self-reliance is the strongest form of being human.  The primary reality is me; the person. In America we are conditioned and shaped by this hidden or maybe not so hidden worldview of individualism.

I can’t help but see this controlling value of individualism soaked into the Evangelical imagination.  Individualism has tainted and distorted almost every aspect of the modern expression of Christianity. The “personal” emphasis has been the bread-and-butter for the evangelical church for quite awhile.

1. Most worship songs are written based on this premise.
2. God’s will is something He reveals to me personally. I call this Subjective Personal Experience – “God  told me, God’s calling me”
3. Holiness is personal pursuit – more personal Bible study, a more intense private prayer life, conviction and rooting out sin is a personal endeavor.
4. God’s blessing is a personal thing – if I live an obedient or God glorifying life, He will reciprocate with personal blessing or favor.
5. Intimacy with God – I am supposed to feel close to God independently of anyone else ”I’m on fire for God or I feel his embrace”
6. Salvation is talked about almost exclusively in individual benefit terms.

You might read that list and think this is what the Christian life is about.  The sober reality is that the Bible never uses the word “personal” to speak of God’s interaction with us.  There are no phrases throughout the entire New Testament like “a personal walk with God” or “a personal relationship with God.”  We assume this is the motif of scripture because we are so affected by our worldview.  Individualism is so natural to us that we don’t question its presence in our understanding of being authentically Christian. We read scriptures like 1 Cor 3 as personal promises ”Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”  When we come across the pronoun “you” in our Bibles, we assume it means each of us individually.  But more often than not, it’s plural, not singular.  Paul’s not describing each believer as their own little temple here.  He’s saying you the community are God’s temple. God’s Spirit dwells in you as a community.  That is not a minor difference or small nuance.  The implications for reorienting our spiritual life around community changes everything versus the subtle narcissism of focusing on the self.

The glaring difference between the western modern church and the 1st Century church is; we are individualist and they were collectivist.  I do believe this simple difference is part of the reason the Good News of Jesus spread like wild fire throughout the Roman Empire without any marketing, blogs, celebrity preachers, buildings or websites. Their counter-cultural, love-filled, King Jesus communities stuck out like a sore thumb in the midst of a society were Jews separated from Gentiles, men thought of woman as dogs and masters owned slaves.

Ongoing preaching and discipleship that makes the "Personal God” primary instead of secondary might give us warm fuzzies and easier converts but I believe it is a regrettable example of importing western individualism into the biblical text and world. There is another way that is truer to the New Testament motif.

What do you think?

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