There’s an epidemic in this country, one rampant in the west. It’s the overwhelming commitment to, even worship of, our personal individuality. And this is just as strong within the church as it is anywhere else in western society.
Now, let me back up a moment. No doubt we each have individual characteristics that make us unique. There is no one exactly like you; there is no one exactly like me (even if we have an “identical” twin). I like theology, writing, snowy vacations over and above sunny ones, fiction books, Belgian beer, Gevalia coffee, and more. You might despise each of those I just listed, while also carrying your own individual likes as well.
Therefore, in a sense, we each carry a distinct individuality.
We need to appreciate that and give space for it.
However, it’s interesting once we begin to realize that those things have been shaped by an assortment of other things in our lives – family, religious background, education, friends, culture, job, and more.
For example, I love Belgian beer because I lived for five and half years in Belgium, the “land of beer.” I had a significant chunk of time to taste good beer, the best beer. Before 2008, I’d never heard of Leffe, Chimay, or Maredsous. Now I have – and I’m thankful for it!
Also, I love coffee because I live in a culture that has the coffee shop as one of the centers of its social setting. After moving back to America, I have personally come to enjoy Gevalia coffee (it was the brand, Douwe Egbert, in Belgium).
So our claim to individuality has been affected, or infected, to some extent, by the various means across the various streams in our lives.
And here’s where I want to go with this: The same stands true in regards to our spiritual formation, or spiritual growth. While we might believe our spiritual formation rests primarily on our individually developed ideas and practices, it actually rests on a host of factors. One of those factors is the collective church community in which we find ourselves.
You see, many Christians in America carry the motto of me, Jesus, and my Bible. As long as they’re personally seeking Jesus through regularly reading of Scripture and prayerful reflection, they’ll be on the right path. Of course, the individual could be connected to a small group, Bible study, and perhaps there’s respect for a pastor within their church context, embracing most of what he or she teaches. Yet, while these others, even close others, can offer their input about faith and life, we are not really obliged to accept the feedback. Again, the ultimate commitment is to me, Jesus, and my Bible.
Of course, this approach is not as stark as I’ve laid out here. It’s more subtle. But it’s there, underneath whatever covering we lay over it.
Yet, in all honesty, I’d argue 1) this is a problematic approach to embrace and 2) this individual spiritual approach is most likely not reality in our lives.
Think about it this way: Our commitment to individuality is already a commitment to a collective perspective. How many people welcome this approach as a motto for life? There’s a bunch! And how did one come to hold to a more individualistic approach (if they actually do hold to such)? It was passed on to them, whether subtly or outrightly (again, it was probably more subtle, saturating our western culture in a number of ways). Those committed to deep individuality are really being driven by a sector of society that pushes individuality. So you have a “collective of individuality,” which is a community in and of itself.
Let’s take a practical example in the “church world” and consider this.
Our understanding of worship didn’t just come from our own thoughts. We were in a worshipping community that taught us that music was good (or not good). We were taught that raising our hands was good (or not good). We were taught that praying the Psalms in worship was good (or not good). We were taught that hymns were good (or not good). We were taught that prophecy and tongues were good (or not good). We were taught that creeds and confessions were good (or not good). We did not just come up with our own ideas about worship, not even by our own “pure” readings of Scripture. The same stands true with our ideas on prayer, evangelism, forgiveness, how baptism works, etc.
Of course, our personal reading of Scripture does shape our ideas. But it’s never “pure.” This shouldn’t alarm us, in an are-we-really-in-a-Matrix-type-reality. It’s simply the way it is. And I’m going to go out on a limb and say I believe God designed us this way. We were to be shaped by our families, churches, schools, socio-cultural setting, and more. “…he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:26-27).
We don’t realize how collectively shaped we are.
We hardly even see how collectively focused Scripture is (the plural “you” is employed well above the singular “you”).
I think if we’d recognize this, and not be scared to let go of being the sole proprietor we thought we were in our spiritual growth, it would open some beautiful doors to better understand spiritual formation as God intended – in collective measures. Yet, even more, recognizing a shared formation might launch us in to hungering more for spiritual formation at the collective-communal level, which could in turn spur on our own personal spiritual formation.
Remember, it’s already happening. Why not ask how we, together, can harness this for good?
Let’s stop believing the modernist, American tale of individualism. Let’s admit what’s already at work in life. Let’s start embracing the collective narrative that God has been shaping since the Garden. Let’s ready ourselves to be spiritually formed in the collective context, including our worship, prayer, service and mission.
Otherwise, we’ll continue to entrap ourselves in a false narrative.
I agree with your comments. I think it also leads to Christians leaving churches and “feeling” that being part of a local church is optional, as you say that the main point is “Jesus and me”. This results in an impoverished Christian life without the community that encourages and challenges that a church brings. It also devalues the church – that Christ died for.