*This post is one of several entitled “Launching” which present the American world that the United Methodist Church specifically, and the church in America in general, lives in and must respond to.*
Individualism is a big thing and without writing a book, I don’t think I can fulfill my inner historian and social scientist desires. Considering that, I’m going off my experience and understanding of individualism in the late 20th century (I grimaced at the fact that I just typed that). But the late 20th century is notable, because American society shows a large shift to individualism from the civicism of 60 years ago.
What I call individualism is a desire to attain, protect and fulfill one’s own desires, which can be expanded beyond one person to a kind of communal tribalism, a “looking after me and mine”. Because of this, individualism has left a scorched path behind it. Investment is not in the health of systems and structures, but in how to harness them to benefit one’s self or group. The current state of American politics reflects this practice, especially the Tea Party’s scorched earth tactics and other political procedural maneuvers and changes.
Frankly, I think the church, in general, reflects American politics in this regard. Our response to individualism has been an unwitting adoption and assimilation of it into our theology and practices to sometimes great effect of baptisms and church growth – but not always.
- There’s been an embrace of individualistic salvation theology, where all one needs is “me and Jesus” in order to ensure their salvation from a hellish afterlife spent with detestables. I’d also point out that this leads to an individualistic, insider religiosity – legalism or, essentially, rigid tribalism.
- An embrace of individualistic ecclesiology where the community becomes meaningless and involvement is on-demand and communion can happen over fiber optics.
- An embrace of individualistic, experience driven worship (contemporary or traditional), where the concern is that the sermon or music offer the worshiper a take-away experience. I should also note that this has led to an age-based segregation of congregations by ensuring an age-tailored experience.
- An embrace of individualistic mission and sustainability, where the primary holder of meaningful and sustainable mission in the community is the local church.
I don’t want to spend time spelling out details here (maybe elsewhere), but Moralistic Therapeutic Theism/Deism and America’s fasting growing religion, the spiritual but not religious, have their roots or fruition in these assimilations of individualism. As both are essentially individualistic ethics as both are meant to protect and perpetuate a positive, salvific way to think about one’s self outside the confines of organized community and religion.
In spite of our unwitting perpetuation of it, I’m convinced that the community of church is best positioned to engage individualism. I can think of no other body or institution that has at it’s core a practice and belief in the necessity of community – not politics, not school, anything. The message of Jesus is about our deep need for community across lines of belief, tribe and nation.
The more difficult question, though, are the nuts and bolts. How ought we launch toward individualism? How ought the church community best utilize it’s deep well of thought and practices that are orient to community?
I’m quite certain that Sunday is both the worst and best time to meet people in their individualism. By and large, the best thing about Sunday is that it’s understood to be the day you can go to church. That also means our Sunday practices can meaningfully engage people in their individualism or it can convince them to never return – and I’m not talking about hospitality. I’m talking about whether we do worship or outreach, which practice is better or worse depends on how I feel that day. No one will convince me that both can be done. Worship can be made hospitable to outsiders, but that doesn’t mean it will be outreach. Outreach can occur in a liturgical format, but that doesn’t mean it will be worship.
Honestly, I’m beginning to think that maybe the better practice is to have outreach on Sunday morning. When it comes to individualism, the communal act of worship doesn’t meet individualism, it counters it. My thought here is heavily influenced by North Point Ministries, for them Sunday morning is not about worship, it’s about engagement. The Sunday morning concert and TED Talk is their meeting place, the “foyer of the house” and it’s aimed to get people in the door so that they can move further into the house. Worship happens at other times and, whether or not they would admit it, I think that’s primarily home groups, which they consider the “kitchen table” and what they want people to move toward.
When we worship on Sunday morning, we can lose out on a huge outreach opportunity. In the Southeast, Sunday morning is probably the easiest time to get a large group of people together, many of them potential guests or tacit Christians, and meet them where there are and in the culture they live in. Yet, thinking about Sunday morning this way, demands that we have worship at other times – which is where the challenge comes in and where many contemporary churches fail in my opinion, they get the outreach half of the equation.
A fair critique would be that countering individualism vs. engaging it is exactly what is needed and if worship is done honestly and holy, people will respond. I don’t disagree. Yet, at this point in time, I think my preference for one over the other, is due to context – which probably rules the day for how anyone goes about Sunday morning. In my context, I think individualism can best be met on Sunday morning, with worship happening on other times. Though, I’m willing to be convinced otherwise.