The eleventh shift in thinking from the pre-modern to the modern era is from an emphasis on the group to an emphasis on the individual. Last week we saw some of the negative implications of this in our work lives. Has this shift from community to individual fared any better for the church?
Pre-Modern Community in Worship
For pre-moderns, worship was essentially communal. One’s relationship with Christ could be understood only in the broader context of one’s faith community. Of course, individual faith in Christ was important. However, it was assumed that the community was essential in the process of coming to faith. By being around other believers, one came to understand the gospel by seeing it lived out, making it more tangible and more clearly understood.
Community was also essential to growing in Christ. In continuity with the New Testament pattern, new believers were baptized publicly as a way to identify not only with Christ, but also with his people. New believers grew spiritually in a local community of believers, first through a catechism (instruction in the core biblical truths), and then by full participation in the life of the local church.
Modern Individualism in Worship
Today, however, connection to a community of believers is far down on the list of important aspects of walking with Christ. When asked, “What is Christian faith?” most people will immediately respond, “It is a personal relationship with Jesus.” This is certainly true. However, the fact that this is our immediate response, and often our only response, highlights the centrality of the individualism of our age.
This shift has certainly had some positive results for the Church. The overemphasis on the faith community’s role in salvation and sanctification often led to false beliefs and practices. Prior to the Reformation, it was widely accepted that salvation came simply through being a member of a church. Many also came to assume that growing in Christ involved nothing more than participating in the life of their local church.
Obviously, this is false. Scripture indicates clearly that each of us is guilty before God and must individually choose to stop running from God (the essence of “sin”), turn (the meaning of “repent”) toward God, and receive his free gift of forgiveness and life with him, as provided through Christ’s death in our place. When we do this, Christ’s “substitutionary atonement”–his death as a substitute for us, literally in our place, which pays the penalty of sin we owe God–atones for our sin. But all this entails each of us, individually, deciding to accept this free gift offered by God. (See my Definitions page for more on this point, as well as my series on free will and predestination for more of the nuances of how I and others see this personal decision being made.)
By God’s grace, the Reformation moved the pendulum back toward the middle. Reformation leaders such as Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli reaffirmed the centrality of personal repentance and faith in Christ for salvation and spiritual growth.
So in this sense, the shift toward individualistic thinking was positive, drawing us back to a more biblical understanding of salvation.
The Songs We Sing
However, beyond this the individualistic turn in worship seems to be mostly negative. All aspects of our spiritual life have been increasingly understood as exclusively individualistic. Fanny Crosby (1820-1915), the great hymn writer of the turn of the last century, summed it up well. In her hymn “In The Garden” she identified the essence of one’s spiritual life:
And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.
I don’t mean to imply that this is not true. Jesus is a friend, closer than a brother. He does walk with us and talk with us, personally and intimately. My point is simply that this hymn was written after the individualistic shift had swept across Protestant churches in our country, and it summarizes the individualistic sentiment well.
We see this even more today in modern hymnology (songs of worship sung corporately). Whereas the majority of songs prior to this shift focused on God (i.e., worship songs were theocentric), today the majority of worship songs today focus on us (our love of God, our experience of God, our desire for God, etc.) These songs are anthropocentric. In fact, these days it is not uncommon to sing eight or ten worship songs during a service, with not one of them being theocentric!
The Local Church as a Commodity
Another sign of this shift is the tendency to think of our church community as a commodity, similar to the type of shoes we buy. We “shop” for churches, finding ones that check all the boxes. Granted, we should find a spiritual community that shares our core values and theological commitments. However, it is easy to swing the pendulum too far in this regard, by having so many boxes that no local community of believers is ever a “good fit.” As a result, we simply do not join a local body, and our faith becomes even more privatized.
And this individualistic tendency does not disappear after people join a local body of believers. If something doesn’t “go our way” or we don’t like something a pastor, elder, or member of the congregation did or said, we’re out the door. Again, at times such an action is justified. If the leadership of the church adopts beliefs that are contrary to the core doctrines of the faith, or if unhealthy practices are expected of members, or if the local body is repeatedly choosing not to be the church as it should be (in the lives of its members or the broader community or world) there is certainly cause for concern. In such cases, after much conversation with those in leadership in a local body, and much prayer, leaving a church may be in order.
But often the reasons for leaving are not of this magnitude, nor is a humble and honest process followed before one’s departure. People leave churches abruptly, and in ways that do not honor Christ or other brothers and sisters, especially those with whom we disagree. This is a sign of our rampant individualism in our understanding of the Christian life, and the role of the local church in this.
The Books We Read
A third indication of this individualism is the books we read these days. What an individual, small group of people, subculture, or entire culture is reading speaks volumes about what is believed and valued. Publishers are in the business of making money, so we can learn much by seeing what they are putting on our local or online shelves.
Even a cursory glance at the books being published today tells a sad story. We see a demand for (and thus increasing publication of) Christian “self-help” books–how to be a better business person, spouse, parent, and so on.
Of course, these issues are important, and books should be published on these topics! But books about us as individuals are the runaway best sellers, over books that engage broader topics (such as those written by C. S. Lewis, the basis for this series). This is another indication of the rampant individualism of the modern era (and why Lewis was such a dinosaur).
Modern individualism has a fourth implication that is widely seen in our churches today. But I’ve written enough for one post. Next week I’ll address this fourth problem we face in our local communities and what we can do to change it.
Until then, grace and peace.