Don’t conform. Stand out. Be an individual. How often have we heard these mantras promoting the virtue of individualism?
I remember hearing an analyst of the Olympics talk about the difference between the U.S. and Chinese teams in various sports. The two countries were neck-in-neck in medal count and the roundtable group was discussing the strengths and weaknesses, similarities and differences between the American and Chinese approaches to Olympic sports.
The analyst noted, “China performs better in team sports that require synchronization and shared effort. The Americans always shine in individual sports that allow for dynamic flare.” [paraphrased]
This should come as no surprise at all. Individualism is the spirit of American life. If you want to make it in this world, you have to forge your own way and chart your own course. We live in a society grounded in the sense of individual rights and liberties. We celebrate one’s ability to stand out from a crowd and be unique. We turn those who are innovators by breaking the assumed rules of our culture into pop culture heroes .
Individualism in the Church
The Church has succumbed to the same love for individualism. So much of our Christian lives are expressed in terms of “my faith” or whether something “feeds me.” I’ve even read a very well-known United Methodist pastor argue for contemporary praise songs over traditional hymns because it’s more experience driven to sing to songs “to God, rather than about God.” (Adam Hamilton, “Leading Beyond the Walls” p. 72)
Not long ago the Barna Group released a study that found while Christianity dominated America (81% self identified as Christian), only 21% of those polled believed that spiritual maturity required a vital connection to a faith community.
What do these two example hold in common? For starters, I think both of these examples show that much of what we call “Christian” is rooted in an individualistic approach to faith.
It’s a fine idea to sing songs to God. The Psalmists regularly wrote psalms addressing God directly. And I’m a big fan of the idea of giving people a more personal glimpse of worship–one that links head and heart and life in real ways. But we must remember that the psalms describe the character of God just as much (if not more) than they personally address God. A steady diet of songs to God will eventually create a world where worship is primarily about me and God and where God is little more than what I make God to be at any given moment.
Likewise, one’s personal relationship with God is very important. That same Barna study showed that 78% of those polled felt strongly that spirituality is very important to them. But if only 1 out of 5 see that spirituality as dependent on one’s connection to a faith community, then spirituality simply becomes a personal affair. Spiritual maturity is not served at a table set for one. And as I’ve argued previously, true discipleship must not be limited to one’s own personal experience.
Spiritual But Not Religious Christians
Much has been said recently about a group labeled, Spiritual But Not Religious. Many consider this to be a growing group (often younger) of folks who want the spirituality of faith without the rigidity of organized religion. But I believe the Church in America has long been creating members who prefered individual spirituality over being accountable to a community. The 20th Century presented a paradox where evangelicals made famous the idea of a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” while liberals spent a great deal of time and energy conflating biblical justice with individual rights and liberties. Either way you slice it, the 20th Century did a great deal to produce a Church marked by individualism. Even now, as we decline in membership we try to be one-stop shops tailored to everyone’s personal needs. So before we get too high on our high horses about the “secular world” and what it’s done over the last 50 years to contribute to the decline of the church, let’s remember that the individualism we bemoan now has been alive and well in our churches for some time.
A Shift in Culture
For all of the talk about reform and realignment in The United Methodist Church, very little has been said as to how we can integrate a culture of discipleship in our churches. Sure, we can all identify the need for more discipleship, commitment, and faithfulness. But we can’t seem to go into much detail as to how we do this and what it will look like. I would like to offer a few suggestions for changes in church culture that could address this need for more discipleship in our local churches. These are in no particular order:
1) Church attendance and giving do not equate discipleship
We have to stop fooling ourselves into thinking that more money and people in the pews automatically creates a culture of discipleship. Addressing budgetary needs and the spiritual needs of discipleship, while not mutually exclusive, are not the one in the same. So if we’re serious about living into a culture of discipleship, our first step towards that reality cannot be the woes of church decline.
2) Discipleship MUST be a culture of accountability
One of the side effects of a culture that celebrates individualism is the notion that we’re only accountable to ourselves. As Christians, we might stretch that to say we’re also accountable to God. Nonetheless, to be an active disciple of Jesus Christ mean we must submit ourselves to one another in mutual love and accountability. John Wesley would say we’re charged to “watch over one another in love.” Discipleship happens when we hold one another accountable to translate our religious belief into religious practice.
3) Discipleship means nothing short than a transformed way of living
Ordinary people need practical guidelines for daily living in the world. And as Christians in America, we must recognize that these practical ways of living are often counter-cultural to the ways society as a whole operates. Too often we present the demands of Christian life in the form of basic doctrinal beliefs (Do you believe in Jesus? Do you believe in the teachings found in Scripture? etc.). But we do a great disservice if we fail to demand people to partake in the process of life transformation according to a unique way of living offered in the Gospel. This is why the General Rule of Discipleship outlines such an in-depth way of living and being in the world:
“To witness to Jesus Christ in the world, and to follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”
Individualism has its place in our world. And personalized faith has its place in the life of the church and how we practice discipleship. But we cannot divorce personal belief from accountable living if we’re to have any hopes of creating a culture of discipleship in our churches. To emphasize conversion, and then to leave faith solely in the realm of personal experience would be to have an abortion of the new life God promises in Jesus Christ. Personalized grace is cheap if it doesn’t come with the cost of submitting ourselves to one another in love.
American individualism might be a praise worthy virtue but it’s not the way of the Church. So if we hope to have any substantive conversations on church renewal, let’s ponder that idea for a while, collectively confess our sins accordingly, and begin anew the complex and rich life of accountable discipleship together.