In America, we value the individual. Individualism is a core principle of American idealism. We proclaim a message of rugged individualism. We value individual freedom and personal choices. We praise the individuals who have overcome great odds and succeed (however that is defined). We like to think that when someone does something wrong, that it is just the individual that is to blame – we don’t buy into the notion that there may be larger systemic issues at play. This belief in the individual has deep roots in America and permeates much of our culture.
Even parts of Christianity in America have adopted this core principle. The more fundamentalist and evangelical branches of American Christianity talk more about the personal relationship with Jesus than anything else. It’s about saying the sinners’ prayer and turning your life over to Jesus. It’s all about you and Jesus. Your personal piety and private faith.
Individualism comes with two seemingly opposing definitions
- The habit or principle of being independent and self-reliant.
- Self-centered feeling or conduct; egoism.
Individualism can be healthy. But like most things, it’s not an all or nothing thing. Too much Individualism pushes us into the realm of narcissism.
We shouldn’t be completely independent. That’s not actually possible either. We need other people. I believe that interdependent is far better than individualism.
Interdependence is defined as: The dependence of two or more people or things on each other. (Source: https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/interdependence)
When we think about our lives, more often than not, it fits with interdependence, rather than individualism.
Christianity and individualism doesn’t mesh well together. “Individuals” misses a great deal of Jesus’ message. Yes, the individual is important. Yes, people are made in the image of God. Yes, God cares deeply about individuals. All of that is true. But if that’s where we believe that faith stops, then we have a very lacking faith. If God only cares about individuals, then why does Scripture talk about the God of nations? If God only cares about individuals, then why does Scripture talk about the judgement of nations? If God only cares about individuals, then why were churches set up at all? If God only cares about individuals, then why would Jesus bother with the Beatitudes, which speak about groups of people, not just individuals. If God only cares about individuals, then why did Jesus feed the multitudes and draw in crowds. If God only cares about individuals, then how does John 3:16 make any sense at all?
When I look at the state of the church today, I see an unhealthy strain of individualism that runs rampant through our churches and culture – a strain of individualism that tries to pass itself off as Christianity. But it’s missing so much of what Christianity is about. So many people think they are Christians because they go to church, as if being a Christian is a passive thing with some check boxes.
Being a Christian isn’t about membership. It’s about a way of life lived out. Not just privately, but publicly. Being a Christian isn’t about knowing the right words to say. It’s about living those words, incorporating them into your life, and letting them transform you.
Being a Christian is about death and resurrection – death to our loyalties and allegiances, our nationalism and privilege, our preferences and comfort. Being a Christian is about denying oneself, picking up the thing that will kill you, and following Jesus. It’s about loving your neighbor, seeing the image of God in all, and seeking shalom, because that’s what God has always been about.
This strain of individualism allows us to ignore or spin away injustices because we believe that they are someone else’s problem, not ours. Individualism gives us cover to not speak up or act when something is wrong because we believe it doesn’t affect us.
Except it does – regardless of whether we believe it or not. Faith isn’t just a private matter. It is public too. The famous hymn states it clearly – “They will know we are Christians by our love.” How will they know if our faith is solely a private matter? People will know though if they see us living out our faith in a public manner.
Christianity is far more than the boundaries of individualism. It has to be. Trying to contain faith to just the personal realm makes about as much sense as sitting in the dark while a flashlight is on under a container. Why would you do that? Seems like a waste doesn’t it?