Kill the Self!- Further Ranting on the Sad State of Individualism in Our Churches

Indulge me for a minute, but I think I just want to take a day to stand on my soapbox once more.  Yesterday I spoke on the idea of corporate repentance and how it is what we should be seeking when we realize that we’ve been engaged in a corporate lifestyle of sin as the people of God.  I also spoke earlier this week about community and how God gave us the church as a collection of people so that we would not be forced to suffer alone.  I think these two things are interrelated in a very pertinent way.  We have elevated the role and the responsibility of the individual so high that it is the ultimate end of our gathering.  We don’t even have any conceptual frame for the covenant community of the church as it was meant to be all along, and so when we engage God’s Word on Sunday morning– which, let’s face it, is the only time when most people are really engaging God’s Word– we approach it with a fully self-centered mindset.  ”What can I get out of this?”  ”What must I do now?”  ”What do the Scriptures have to say to me?”

This is wrong.  And here’s what it does.  It makes us, as Christians, when we evangelize, to say things like, “You need to get things right with the Lord!”  Like we’ve got it all together and were just waiting for you to catch on.  I heard a speaker Friday night and he was talking about Christians and he said that people can tell who Christians are because they have “Peace, purpose, and direction.”  Now, I don’t know about you, but I know a lot of Christians, and very few of them embody all of these characteristics.  As a matter of fact, I know several Christians who I would say don’t possess any of these.  Yet when we present the gospel as “you getting your crap together with God”  (that’s essential what this is saying, right?), then how else should it come off but as a calm, collected, mentally stable individual.  That’s what God wants, isn’t it?

Of course not!  And what could be more isolating than telling someone that being a Christian means you have it all lined up, all figured out?  If this is the case, when exactly was the apostle Peter saved?  He doesn’t seem to have much peace in Galatians 2 when he is too concerned about his image with the Jewish Christians to do what is right in regards to the Gentile Christians.  None of us would say that a Christian has to be sinless, but practically that is the standard we are setting.  No room for doubt.  No room for confusion about our purpose in some circumstance.  Christians are individuals who have it all together.  

So, if that is the case, why bother with the church?  A few chapters after we see a rather confused Peter, we receive this instruction from Paul: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. For each will have to bear his own load” (Galatians 6.1-5).  In the church, we are to correct those who step out of line (like Peter), but we’re also to bear with the burden’s of each other.  Does that picture a collection of people who are individually good-to-go, who individually have everything worked out, peaceful and right where it’s supposed to be?  Certainly not.  It pictures a hot mess of imperfect people struggling to keep their heads above water as they try to understand the purpose of their new heart and survive the battle between it and the sinful flesh which they still reside in!  This is what the church is composed of.  Not individuals who are “right with God,” but a body of people who all have the shared the experience of “the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3.5) and now are constantly at the foot of the cross trying to figure out what the heck happens next.

We have to find some way to bite this rampant individualism in the bud before it kills off anymore of our people.  When the question of assurance is always framed in the individual context, of if you have peace with God, if you understand your purpose, if you know the direction of your life, then it is a scary, lonely road– one which we feel like we are unable to invite others to walk along with us.  Too many people sit clammed up on Sunday morning because they buy the facades that everyone else has put up;  facades that declare our “Christianity” because they demonstrate how put together we are.  Unless we can blast through that crap and see that all of us are just a bunch of broken vessels that God has had mercy on though we in no way deserve it, we are only going to continue alienating people and building a church which is no church at all but just a smattering of people sitting alone in the pews, carefully avoiding being exposed.

4 Responses to “Kill the Self!- Further Ranting on the Sad State of Individualism in Our Churches”

  1. Jonathon Says:

    Todd,

    Individualism is a sickness. We are not saved into isolation but into a body. Good word.

    I would say, however, on a level, Christians should have “peace” because we know what the future looks like. We seek to be “mentally stable” because of who we are in Christ. I, as a believer, do not have to try and figure my “purpose” for existence out, as opposed to an existential. Why? Because my purpose for existing is clearly stated in the Word of God…glorify Him.

    So, I think, even though I will never possess “peace, purpose, direction” perfectly, we need to be pursuing these things. Pursue “peace” that is found in the knowledge of Christ and His sovreign rule. Don’t search for “purpose” outside of the Bible. See your purpose clearly defined there and seek to fulfill it.

    I agree that these things must be kept in perspective. They will always be imperfect in our lives, so we don’t “have it together” at all times. But we should be longing to put off this body of flesh and put on that glorified body when all things will be put together.

    • Todd Burus Says:

      Jonathon,
      I agree with your comments about balance. I was talking with a friend about this statement earlier today and I told him what I would have preferred for the guy to say is that “(only) Christians have the hope of true peace, purpose, and direction.” I think this would assuage my fears about the statements negative effect on those struggling with mental or spiritual health issues. When we present the Christian life as if it is immediately victorious and immediately all put together, not just eschatologically as you pointed out, then we belie the fact that very many of us, and very many of the greatest Christians ever (i.e. Spurgeon for one), have had to deal with severe bouts of physical and spiritual depression after regeneration.

  2. jonathonwoodyard Says:

    Agreed.

  3. Keith Walters Says:

    “We have to find some way to bite this rampant individualism in the bud before it kills off anymore of our people.” I know few people who take individualism this seriously. I know too few who see interdependence as essential to the church’s mission and individualism and collectivism as bitterly opposed to the mission of the church. I know too many churches that approach problem people as islands that can be cut off and ignored rather than recognizing their vital importance to the corporate witness of the church. I agree that this is a problem with our congregations. I also think it is a problem with our pastors. We have adopted a business model of the pastorate and ministry which has cultivated the pride of pastors who are so self-absorbed and engaged in self-worship that they fail to give even the remotest consideration to their connection to the church as a whole. These are men who exist and operate outside of the church and in the name of integrity are relationally distanced from the people whom they shepherd. These are men who are far more concerned with self-promotion and climbing the corporate ladder than the congregations they have to step over in their quest for success. Individualism is dangerous and it is killing the church at more levels than we realize.

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