We live in an age of expressive individualism. This is a bad thing.
While any sort of individualism is a product of Christianity, the form of individualism we currently have that places my desires squarely at the top of the hierarchy of goods is deeply destructive to society, to individuals, and to the church.
Once we’ve noticed that though, we’re left with questions about what to do. While doing so we mustn’t fall into the easy trap of assuming that noticing means that we aren’t still subject to the same cultural winds. We are. I am. Noticing isn’t enough.
When we’re all drenched, but I’ve noticed and you haven’t, me declaring you ‘wet’ doesn’t make me dry. Because we’ve never known anything but ‘wet’, and neither had generations before us for now hundreds of years, we cannot simply get dry. We don’t know where the towels are.
So, what can we do about it? We won’t find antidotes—so the title was clickbait—but there are things we can do as churches. Here are five things we can do to start with:
1. Teach the corporate aspects of the Bible.
We so often interpret the Bible as though it were speaking to one person, and therefore apply it to ourselves in the same way. It’s our default position. “But what does it mean for me?” As most of the Bible was written to groups of people (well, firstly and primarily to the Christ by the Christ, but after that), we need to ask what it means for us.
We find it harder to follow and understand the corporate aspects of Biblical teaching, because we’re mired in individualistic thinking and language. We must be aware of that and be more deliberate in finding and emphasising them.
When we apply the Bible we always apply to our contexts, we don’t hammer the things our people find easier, we hammer the things they find harder (or, we should). So, we should teach the gospel as joining a people.
2. Use “we” language
We have an innate yearning to belong to groups, for all we often then reject them when they inevitably require something of us. Speak of ‘us’ and ‘we’, address the church in corporate terms that sound right in your mouth.
I couldn’t pull off Terry Virgo’s ‘beloved’ to address a congregation, and I’d sound very American if I called them ‘church’. Some of my younger friends might say ‘fam’, I’d sound like a complete idiot. I default to ‘friends’, as you’ll have noticed in my writing, but it’s not as corporate an option. Find something that works for you.
3. Teach into individualism
That’s likely to particularly mean teaching on decision-making and the importance of community in making, not just ratifying, decisions; on respecting our elders, in both senses; on seeing the church as the family and household of God, not as a place you attend; and on you as not just an individual but part of a household unit.
Most preachers think preaching is the way to go when they have a problem. It’s not wrong, but it only works in the context of a thick community life which demonstrates what these teachings look like. The leaders will have to go first in changing their lives where needed and talk about that too.
Don’t make the mistakes I have of trying to speak into young people’s lives on these issues without establishing relationship. What might have worked with Millennials here won’t work with Gen Z, you need to win trust.
4. Establish behaviours that build up community
And that build up our appreciation of community. Use these questions for a self-diagnostic:
- Who helps you with jobs around your house, and why are you doing them on your own?
- Who is in your home without purpose beyond eating?
- What activities make community easier for you?
- Who do you have lunch with? Who do you cook with?
- Where do you serve others practically (not just on a Sunday serving team)?
- Where can you be generous within the church (and think outside of your regular giving, and not just about finances)?
5. Stop the habits that make us individuals
Find ways to stop the habits, stories, and cultural artifacts enhance our individualism. Think of social media, your smart phone, shopping, entertainment, and your cars.
We will then have to realise that they can’t be stopped—not without complete retreat from the world, anyway, but they can be broken down, subverted and ‘deliturgised’ by other habits and stories.
So, we have to do two things, critique the habits that elevate the self and develop new stories and habits that train us in the gospel.
How we do that is the hardest part, but it isn’t inherently different from the direction I’ve already outlined. Here are some things are will help:
- The Lord’s Supper is the most corporate aspect of the meeting of the gathered church: one cup, one loaf, one Lord. Emphasise these corporate aspects, we eat God together.
- Eat together.
- Eat together more.
- Get around a table in someone’s home (and maybe eat together).
- Practice “doing life together” and stop saying it.
- See what you have as inherently to be shared. Live the Jubilee. It’s the 7th day, we don’t need to gather what we need, have a party to share what we have.
None of this will work.
There are no silver bullets. Part of the answer is the long work of raising children shaped against the values of the world, and that’s a multi-generational battle. If we’re trying to ‘fix’ the University students in our churches—which is my temptation—we’re on a hiding to nothing. It won’t work that quickly, and they don’t need fixing any more than I do. If we see ourselves as part of a multigenerational project called the Church, about building the kingdom, we might make some headway.
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