‘Just be yourself’
‘Follow your heart’
‘Learn to love yourself’
‘I am strong, I am beautiful, I am me.’
Slogans such as these – which can be found in countless magazines, pop songs, movies and web sites – reflect a certain kind of individualism that has become today’s dominant creed.
One of the most blatant examples is found in this article from the BBC web site, entitled, ‘How to make 2019 the year you learn to love yourself.’ The trick, apparently, is to ‘treat yourself like a friend’, ‘don’t compare yourself to other people’, ‘try to have a social media detox’, realise that there’s more to you than your body, ‘write down compliments’ (to yourself, of course), and ‘be kind to yourself’.
It’s all about ‘me’. I wonder: if someone wrote an article entitled, ‘Learning to love Jesus’, would the BBC publish it?
Sometimes, this creed is expressed in terms of a particular kind of ‘authenticity’. This is not so much the authenticity of personal integrity, and of freedom from hypocrisy, but rather an authenticity that is to be contrasted with conformity. The other side of the coin, for the ‘me’ creed says: ‘don’t let others tell you who you are, or what you should do.’ It is an individualism that spurns authority, whether it be the authority of family, state or church.
Trevin Wax (on whose series of posts the following is based) cites Australian church leader Mark Sayers in outlining out the main tenets of what some call ‘expressive individualism’:-
- The highest good is individual freedom, happiness, self-definition, and self-expression.
- Traditions, religions, received wisdom, regulations, and social ties that restrict individual freedom, happiness, self-definition, and self-expression must be reshaped, deconstructed, or destroyed.
- The world will inevitably improve as the scope of individual freedom grows. Technology —in particular the internet—will motor this progression toward utopia.
- The primary social ethic is tolerance of everyone’s self-defined quest for individual freedom and self-expression. Any deviation from this ethic of tolerance is dangerous and must not be tolerated. Therefore social justice is less about economic or class inequality, and more about issues of equality relating to individual identity, self-expression, and personal autonomy.
- Humans are inherently good.
- Large-scale structures and institutions are suspicious at best and evil at worst.
- Forms of external authority are rejected and personal authenticity is lauded.
Why is this a problem?
Firstly, it is a problem because it pits ‘me’ against God. The ‘me’ creed represents a stark challenge to the Christian gospel. That gospel urges us to look up, to God, for salvation, the creed of expressive individualism invites to look within, to our inner selves. The gospel tells us that, without God, our hearts are wicked. The ‘me’ creed informs us that, deep inside, we are good.
It’s an attractive, soothing, reassuring message. It feels right, but it is false. To oppose it will seem negative and counter-cultural.
The ‘me’ creed will not empty churches. Not immediately, anyway. But churches that embrace it will become places where you can ‘find yourself’, but not find God. They will offer therapy, not salvation. They will use God as servant, but refuse to bow to him as master.
Secondly, it is a problem because it pits ‘me’ against ‘us’. The hero is the individual. The villains are the institutions. And this includes the ‘institution’ of the church. So far as the church baptises your personal journey, your personal choice, your personal creed, there is no conflict. But whenever it attempts to impose rules, either of belief or behaviour, then it is to be resisted and shunned. Mighty Me is to be on the throne, whether in the pew or out of it.
How can the church remain faithful in a age of radical individualism?
Firstly, it can cultivate community for the isolated. Radical individualism is isolating. Authentic Christianity, in contrast, points us towards God and others, thus building community and enabling God’s people to fulfill their shared mission.
Secondly, it can counter the strangely conformist impulse in radical individualism. It can remind people that we are made in God’s image, that we find affirmation not in looking inwards, but outwards, to him, and that our deepest personal needs are met, paradoxically enough, when we devote ourselves to a cause outside of ourselves.
Thirdly, it can offer rest to the exhausted. Asserting yourself in the face of an unfriendly world is tiring work. The promised ‘freedom’ becomes slavery. The grace of God gives are rest at the precisely the point where we don’t deserve it, and can’t earn it. Salvation is no more a gritting of the teeth and a mustering of will-power, but trusting and resting in the achievements of his Son, our Saviour.
What kind of church do we want to be?
In an individualistic, consumer-oriented society, congregations will tend to see their churches as dispensers of religious goods and services. According to J.D. Greear, any of three metaphors may apply:-
Firstly, the church as cruise liner offers Christian luxuries for the whole family. Is there an excellent children’s ministry. What is the quality of the music? Does the minister preach short, snappy, humorous messages that appeal to my felt needs?
Secondly, the church as battleship is made for mission, and its success is measured by the success of that mission. The congregation pays the minister, and attend each week in order to see him load and fire the guns.
Thirdly, the church as aircraft carrier also engages in battle, but in a different way. The aircraft carrier equips the planes to take the battle elsewhere. Churches must learn to see themselves like this. To change the metaphor – ‘Churches must become discipleship factories, “sending” agencies that equip their members to take the battle to the enemy.’
Trevin Wax adds a fourth picture of the church. When the church is seen as a restaurant then I may attend any of several (depending on my ‘appetite’ at the time). In this case, I haven’t committed myself to any cruise or voyage at all. This is consumerist, and not missional at all.
We are not timeless or placeless
One characteristic of radical individualism is that it relinquishes ties both with time and with place. A new self-image is sought, which resists conformity to outside forces, including previous generations, and feels little responsibility towards future generations. As a push-back on this, many are exploring their family roots, and many more show an interest in TV programmes in which celebrities research their past.
No wonder if the church today shows little interested in the historic creeds, church history, traditional liturgical practices, or denominational distinctives. But the net effect is of disorientation and rootlessness.
With endless possibilities for travel, people have also become untethered from place, that is, a place where we belong. So many spaces (including motorways, hotels, and airports) are not places in this sense, for they speak of transience, not of belonging. They are not concerned with history, relationships, or identity.
Christian churches have a calling to help re-build a sense of time and place. They can do this, in part, by drawing on their rich heritage of song, liturgy, and creed. A due sense of the past helps equip us for the journey ahead.
Radical individualism and sin
If the first commandment is ‘be true to yourself’, then the greatest sin is to bow to some external benchmark. What is needed is not repentance, but reassertion. I must have the courage to resist the pressure to conform, and instead claim sovereignty over my life.
This approach can lead to bitter loneliness, because intimate, lasting relationships bring obligations that may threaten self-determination. Marriage is OK, so long as it provides a ‘soul mate’ who can help me really be ‘me’. Friendships are fine too, providing they too become avenues for self-fulfilment. Churches are expected to buy into this me-centred, consumerist mentality also.
According to Barna research, 66% of churchgoing Christians believe that ‘enjoying yourself is the highest goal of life’. Within this frame of reference, church takes on either a moralistic role (making me a better person), or a therapeutic one (helping me feel good about myself).
The biblical doctrine of sin issues a challenge. It challenges some of the ‘personal life choices’ that individuals may have made, and calls them to repentance. This conflicts profoundly with the idea that arises from the ‘me’ creed, where the ‘first commandment’ is to be true to yourself, and the second (which is like unto it) is to avoid judging anyone else.
How today’s church feeds radical individualism
It is possible to reframe (‘re-imagine’) Christianity itself so that it feeds, rather than challenges, this radical individualism.
‘Inspire me’, we say to the church, and the church dutifully responds by massaging my ego and making me feel good. Even the very words used may be drawn from Scripture, but these are redirected towards unscriptural ends. Songs and books may be theologically ‘safe’, and yet still feed the quest for self-fulfilment. In preaching, too, all kinds of biblical words and concepts about abundant life, peace, and assurance may be spoken, and these may be theological unobjectionable; and yet, in today’s Western culture they may well be heard as having a merely therapeutic force.
Encouraging people to feel good isn’t the worst sin in the world. but it becomes dangerous when it is used as a substitute for the ‘turning-the-world-upside-down news of the gospel. In fact, it can keep whole the gospel itself safely at arms length from us. It may offer the world, but in exchange demand our souls.
One risk for Christian ministers is to present Christianity as a means to either moralistic (‘be a good person’) or therapeutic ( ‘feel better about yourself’) ends. These goals can co-exist with a theology which is non-heretical. The problem is that certain truths are simply not given their due weight. Our ministry is man-centred, rather than God-centered.
A second risk is the converse one: taking every opportunity to be critical of moralistic and therapeutic approaches. But this ‘confront and expose’ approach can itself lead to a distortion of the Christian faith. While rightly emphasising self-denial, it can too easily give the impression of joylessness. While rightly teaching that the old self is crucified with Christ, it can neglect to say that in Christ our selves are being renewed and restored. In him, ‘we are remade, not destroyed.’
Effective ministry in an age of radical individualism will require treading a narrow line. On the one hand, we will need to acknowledge the longing for happiness, purpose, and personal goodness. On the other hand, we must confront individualism’s failure to satisfy these longings.
Let’s contrast, not condemn. “You have heard it said (in this film, book, slogan)…but Jesus says…” We can set worldly wisdom against Scriptural teaching and show the contrast.
Let’s celebrate work that critiques radical individualism. ‘Be on the lookout for artistic examples of redemption through sacrifice, or heroic examples of self-denial for the good of others, or examples of individualism that lead to negative consequences.’
Let’s show our church to be a contrast community. Tell our own stories of courage and self-sacrifice. These could be told live or by video during church services, or in fellowship times, special mission events, during pastoral visitation, or through social media.
Let’s recommend spiritual practices that subvert radical individualism. Remember, even pray and Bible reading can get caught up in the riptide of radical individualism. So we need to practice the spiritual disciplines (including fasting) that will intentionally subvert the prevailing worldview. Many simple but habits come to mind, such as reading Scripture each day before we turn to our phones.
All this is best developed within, and with the support of, the church community. This may mean, among other things, opening our church doors more frequently.