We live in an age of expressive individualism. This is a bad thing.
The form of individualism we currently have, which places my desires squarely at the top of the value hierarchy, 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. We mustn’t fall into the easy trap of assuming that noticing means that we aren’t still subject to the same cultural winds. Awareness isn’t enough.
So, what can we do about it? As individuals, we can’t do much alone about individualism – but there are things we can do as churches. Here are five things we can do to start with:
1. Teach the community 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, 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.
One aspect of the Gospel we should emphasise is that the our transference into the kingdom means we are entering into a new community.
2. Use “we” language
We have an innate yearning to belong to groups, but then we are tempted to reject them when they inevitably require something of us. But any good relationship requires the sanctifying strength of commitment. Only when parties see themselves as a partnership are they able to act in ways that are mutually beneficial.
Speak of ‘us’ and ‘we’ — address the church in corporate terms so that it becomes natural to us.
3. Teach and model community
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 sticky community life that demonstrates what these teachings look like. The leaders will have to go first in changing their lives where needed and talk about that too.
4. Establish behaviours that build up community…
…and that build up our appreciation of community. Use these questions for a self-diagnostic:
· Who is in your home without purpose beyond eating?
· What activities make community easier for you?
· Who do you have lunch on Sunday 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 shape individualism
Find ways to stop the habits, stories and cultural modes of being that 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 that 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 each Communion Sunday.
Eat together more.
Get around a table in someone’s home (and maybe eat together).
Practice “doing life together” and stop simply 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.
Finally, we have to know that none of the solutions above are silver bullets.
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. It won’t work quickly; it is a long road of walking together in obedience in the same direction. But if we see ourselves as part of a multigenerational project called the Church, about building the kingdom, then by God’s grace and power within us, we can be confident of progressing together.
Adapted from an article by T. M. Suffield, (2021, Aug 2). 5 Antidotes to individualism. Nuakh. https://nuakh.uk/2021/08/02/5-antidotes-to-individualism/