At the end of last year, Trevin Wax did an excellent series on expressive individualism on his blog at The Gospel Coalition. He mentions the problem of recasting Christianity according to moralistic and therapeutic purposes which distort Christianity by twisting it into something that will appeal to the longing of personal self-discovery and fulfillment. The reason this happens is our own self-deception. Many falsely believe that personal self-discovery or fulfillment will fill the desires of their hearts. In their search for self-glory, they miss the true joy of our real purpose of “glorifying God and enjoying him forever.”
But many lies come very near the truth. We are unique individuals, but this should not lead to individualism. In fact, our recognition of individuality is important. The Bible affirms both our individuality and the error of an individualistic mindset in 1 Corinthians 12:18-27:
But in fact, God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
If we want to combat expressive individualism in our churches, we need to be actively living the life of a body. While bodies do have separate parts with different functions, these parts do not function apart from each other.
This article “How Loneliness is Tearing America Apart” shows us where the expressive individualism of our society is leading. His conclusion shows us that the teaching of the Bible has answers where the teaching of our culture keeps driving wedges and not fulfilling on its promises: “And there lies the challenge to each of us in a country suffering from loneliness and ripped apart by political opportunists seeking to capitalize on that isolation. Each of us can be happier, and America will start to heal, when we become the kind neighbors and generous friends we wish we had.”
If we stop to think about the analogy of a body, it helps tremendously with understanding how to combat this problem. If a part of our body hurts, we care for it. If it is unhealthy, we nurse it. If it works properly, we use it. Some parts of the body minister to other parts. Our feet in conjunction with our legs can carry us to a doctor. Our hands can apply a band-aid. Our eyes can see obstacles in our path, but also beauty to enjoy. Our mouth can voice words of encouragement, truth, warning, or even sing praises.
If muscles are not used, they atrophy, but through use they grow stronger, and used rightly we can help build up other parts of the body as well.
We need the older parts, the younger parts, the friendlier parts, the quiet and dutiful parts—we need all our body parts, not just one segment of them. We need parts that challenge us and help us to see things we may not have seen otherwise. We need parts that encourage us when we lose heart.
Whatever part we are, we cannot separate ourselves from the rest of the body and function properly. We were made for specific, individual purposes, but we were also made to be connected. And while our body may be able to continue functioning with missing limb, we absolutely cannot function without receiving our command signals from the head.
So, my suggestion on combating expressive individualism is to actively shepherd the individuals in our churches. I have been a part of many congregations in my life, with various strengths and weaknesses. One congregation struck me when I joined, because although it was the largest congregation I had ever been a part of, they still managed to function as a body so well.
Upon joining, the elders met with our family. They talked with us to try to learn more about us and our gifts. They assigned us an elder who lived nearby, making his task of shepherding us easier. And as they got to know us better, they quickly encouraged us to use our gifts in the church.
I think another problem that leads to people withdrawing from this kind of church life is lack of gospel focus. Every one of us is a sinner. The more involved we are with each other, the more this becomes apparent. When you move that idea over to the life of an American congregation that is not infused with the gospel, people tend to shrink from getting too close. If a congregation seems like a group of “good people” not “sinners redeemed and sanctified by God’s grace” then it can keep struggling sinners at arms-length from one another.
Everyone desires community, but community comes at a cost. It comes with the price of possibly being hurt by fellow sinners in our congregations. It comes with the cost of having to die to some of our personal desires to faithfully serve our congregations. If we are not fully aware that every one of us is a sinner who will potentially make a mess of church life at some point, then we will probably fail at showing appropriate grace and accountability to other members of our church when they sin against us, or simply make a mistake as they are growing in maturity. Too often churches get caught up in senseless squabbles or unrealistic expectations of others. We should expect to see growth and fruit in our churches. But we should also expect to plant seeds, water, weed, and prune.
In the middle of these situations that will inevitably occur, a gentle breeze of the gospel blowing through the church reminds us of our true need, and the true need of each member of our congregation. It leads to short accounts with one another. Those most prone to be critical of others are the ones who sit on the sidelines. When you move people off the sidelines and put them in the middle of the game, they quickly see their own need for grace and learn to be more gracious.
The gospel brings us to remember that the focus is not on us and should not be. One of the greatest pitfalls of expressive individualism is that it puts the focus and burden on the individual, and that is a burden we are not created to bear. We cannot be self-fulfilled. But we can find fulfillment and purpose in Christ. We can leave our burdens at the cross and live for a kingdom greater than our own.
Expressive Individualism can seep over into the church body and the way we see our local congregation. Rather than viewing our church as a part of the Universal Church, which encompasses the body of Christ in all locations throughout all time, we might tend toward seeing ourselves only as an individual local body.
Looking at the prior examples I mentioned, they mostly involved how we serve one another within a church. Certainly, this matters very much. Unless our local body is healthy and flourishing, it cannot do much else than care for itself.
However, this is not the goal of a church body. Often churches believe they are healthy because they have knowledge of sound doctrine and the people in the body seem to be doing okay. I cannot help but think of the church of Laodicea who was neither hot nor cold. Revelation 3:17 says, “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked.”
The church exists beyond the walls of your church building, and even your community. If your congregation is doing “okay” then it should be reaching out to serve the community and even the world. I love reading the New Testament and seeing the interconnectedness of the early church as missionaries and letters were sent from one place to another with words of encouragement or exhortation.
While we cannot allow the expressive individualist mindset to keep us from being involved in the local body, we also cannot allow it to keep us from reaching beyond the local body.