Launching: toward the Individual(ist)

*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.*

In my prior post, I spoke, in brief, about both individualism and how we might shift our Sunday morning structure to engage that individualism. That leaves much to be said about how we might engage the individual in their individualism – the individualist. I would say there’s a nuance to individualism, as it takes on shades of two trajectories: a meritocratic trajectory and a cynical trajectory.

A meritocracy is a system where people are selected by the abilities, so a meritocratic individualist believes society’s rules and norms are trustworthy. Moving from that trust the meritocratic individual believes that, so long as they do right by the rules/norms and try hard enough, they will benefit. On the contrary, the cynical one does not trust the rules and norms. Thus, they are led to believe that no matter what they do, they will always be fighting up hill to make it.

This is a gross dichotomy, of course, and we all have both a bit of the cynic and meritocratic within us. The lack of trust in our grand American institutions (ie. government and church) is so low precisely because of our collective individualistic cynicism. However, there is also a perpetual optimism that pervades our society (ie. “just vote your conscious” and “I can worship anywhere”) that’s rooted in our collective individualist meritocratic beliefs.
Also, it remains, that whether or not one is more cynical or meritocratic, as an individualist, they are isolated. Whether or not they are working against a system or making a system work for them, the individualist is ultimately dependent on and trusting their self. Hope may or may not be more attainable for either, depending on how they feel about themselves.

Coupled with the trajectories of individualism are the problems stemming from our embrace and assimilation of individualism into Christian theology.

We have created the individualistic practices of today, be it the “spiritual but not religious” and Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. For instance, individualistic salvation theology (soteriology) has offered up a salvation that frees the individual up to find the presence, acceptance and truth of God on their own. What has resulted is self-justified legalism, wherein everyone is able to find justification for their own beliefs and practices, regardless of how restrictive or permissive. That is, you get Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
Couple this with a meaningless membership type of ecclesiology that is heavily influenced by this individualistic soteriology, and you get a community that’s present for themselves, with the fellowship just a positive side-effect. We have essentially flung open the doors for a community-less religion. So it should be no surprise that plenty of people feel quite free to go it alone.
Nor should it be a surprise when many do. The legalism of MTD means that individual salvation is inherently wrapped within what they find moralistic and therapeutic, that is beliefs and practices. After all that is how they believe God saves them. A community, founded in such individualistic theology, can’t help but be damned when they come up against significant changes. Change is always difficult, but it is even more difficult when one is asked to lose their salvation in the change.

Such focus on individualistic conversion and a lack of focus on meaningful ecclesiology, means that whatever community is present is accepted as is, leaving unchallenged it’s functions and practices, no matter how damaging. Thus, when a congregation comes into conflict it simply encourages people to live into the theology they’ve been given – a religionless spirituality.
I will give credit where it’s due: The current religious landscape is the way it is because the soteriology did an incredibly good job of capturing and expressing the reality of God’s love and desire for humanity, which is why there is a spirituality outside of religion and why MTD is infectious, for it carries the idea that God is concerned about us.

Having said all that, if we are to move toward the individualist it will be through chaplaincy. Chaplaincy entails meeting someone in the place they are.
So, we must meet individualists in their meritocracy by offering pastoral guidance when it comes to their merits and reorient those merits beyond the self to the grander, greater Kingdom. This means talking about money, sex, salvation, politics, social justice, time-management, habits and practices, emotional health, etc. It might mean doing Ted type talks in church (gasp!). Ultimatley, it’s a reorientation of their salvation and of their morals and ethics.
We must also meet them in their cynicism by offering pastoral care. Our individualistic theology has hurt those who have looked to the church for community, but found only more isolation, be they change agents or humble disciples. And by meeting people in their cynicism, I don’t mean merely apologizing. I mean having a place that allows for healing, which means having a place that allows for hurting where we are present with them, sitting with them in the pain and hurt and expecting nothing in return.

The other movement toward the individualist is a movement toward something greater: worship.
Worship is other oriented. Oriented toward God. Oriented toward the community. Worship is a corporate orientation away from the self. Meeting individualists must go beyond caring for and guiding people, it must also offer that which has been lacking, a theology, an ecclesiology and salvation that is communal.
I mentioned in my prior post that Sunday morning might be better suited toward the aforementioned guidance, but that means that worship in some form must occur some other time during the week be it another service, home/life-groups or something else entirely.
The point is if you don’t have worship, the reorientation and the healing loses its power because it’s not moving toward something greater than the individual.

Your thoughts?




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