The Problem of Individualism in the Church

Individualism. It has ruined the church.
We all understand as Christians that there is a need for the individual to come to faith, repent and believe in Christ Jesus as his personal Savior in order to be considered righteous in God’s eyes. We understand that we cannot rely on the faith of others to enter the gates of heaven. We must work out our individual salvation in fear in trembling. In this context the individual is important and we should focus on that. But is individualism consistent with Christianity?

The blood of Christ bought the Church (not an individual) (Eph. 5:25); all of us together (not individually) are the body of Christ; where two or three are (not one) (Matt. 18:20), there Christ is; Christ said we will be known by the love we have for one another, not for ourselves (John 13:35); Christ said the moral law is summarized in how we love God and one another, not how we love ourselves (Matt. 22:38-39). The whole Christian perspective is otherly, not individualistic!

Individualism is very scary and dangerous. It has permeated American culture and society, lifting the self above all others, and I’m concerned it has leaked into the church under the cover of the importance of having a personal relationship with God. The individualism that leads people to shooting each other because of a toy on Black Friday and to countless women getting abortions because “I don’t want to ruin my body from birthing a baby” is the same individualism that leads to families leaving churches because someone else sat in their pew, or because they weren’t treated with enough deference!

It is also this individualism that leads Christians to reason their way out of unhappy marriages, to rationalize pre-marital sex due to “love,” and to dishonor and disobey parents in pursuit of personal happiness. Of course, there are moral and biblical reasons for divorce (like adultery); however, too often the reasons for divorce I’ve encountered are that they are “just not happy” or “weren’t made for each other.” My concern is how individualism has been heralded in the church and what effect that has on my family, especially my daughter as she grows in this society and our church. 

We have to remember that we can’t uphold societal norms and characteristics without affecting our spiritual perspective. As Christ said, we cannot serve two masters. If we place a high value on individualism in civil society, it may lead us astray from proper morals taught in Christianity. The dangers of American modern individualism have already played out in the overall acceptance of same-sex relationships. 

The Church is struggling to find its bearings as “Western” society moves from the abolition of taboos against same-sex behaviour to the full legitimation of a whole cluster of behaviours that up until recent years were thought to be disturbing if not deviant or criminal…These changes in sexual ethics are themselves part of larger sea-changes in regards to the rise of the autonomous individual and the decline of older corporate orders. (ref.)

These are the fruits of individualism in the church. How can we protect our Christian perspective? The church holds a responsibility to preserve biblical perspectives and prevent societal ideas from permeating our lives. As I mentioned in another post, Sunday morning worship is meant for congregational uplifting of praise and worship to the one true God, the holy of holies, our Saviour Jesus Christ, and to allow the Holy Spirit to come into our presence and move our spirits to right living. In contrast to the corporate emphasis of worship, many churches, especially contemporary churches, have tailored Sunday morning services to serve the individual.

Some examples of individualistic elements to church services from my personal experience:

  • Having a soloist perform for the congregation while they do almost nothing (while they wait to give tithes and offerings, or while they wait to take communion, this doesn’t help the congregant focus on his own offering and repentance)
  • Having a soloist stand in the middle of the stage/platform (Having a soloist is fine, but why have him/her front and center for all to see? Aren’t they there to lift praises to God and direct our hearts to Him?)
  • Clapping for the soloist (I’ve heard the argument that you’re clapping praises to God for the talent bestowed upon the soloist, but it is very difficult to keep this in mind as you talk about his/her performance to your friends)
  • Singing worship music with many personal lyrics  (Me, I, My, etc)
  • Welcoming individuals/families and calling them out by name during the service (Not only is that somewhat embarrassing, but you’re pointing out an individual during Sunday morning service. Sunday morning service isn’t meant to be focused on the evangelical element of welcoming guests)
  • Using a large amount of the service to plug or promote a missionary or Christian group on tour (I’ve attended services where these guests had 30 minutes to talk about themselves, show a video and/or sing a couple songs while the congregation just sat there listening).

Consider the lyrics from most contemporary worship songs today, “I believe that You’re my Healer,” “O God, You are MY God,” “Spirit lead ME where MY trust is without borders,” and the songs go on and on that point God’s love and salvation directly to ME, MYSELF and I. This is not to say that these songs are wrong or evil in nature, or even that they’re misleading. I just want to point out the overwhelming presence of this self-directed, individual kind of worship prevalent in churches today. I love Hillsong United, Hillsong, Gateway, Leeland, Fee, Chris Tomlin, and etc, but I think there’s a right time and place for that kind of worship that is outside of the holy congregational worship of Sundays.

Why have some churches made individualism central (possibly unknowingly) in Sunday morning worship? The worst spin on this is that they are simply focusing on the itching ears of the world, and giving it what it wants (an appeal to them as individuals). The best spin on this is that the church is actually trying to teach the importance of all persons working out their own salvation, individually. Just like most educators would say parents have forgotten their duty as parents to teach their children basic life skills, churches may believe that parents have forsaken teaching their children how to have a personal relationship with Christ.

So the church may be taking on the responsibility to teach every individual how to have a personal relationship with Christ from the Sunday morning pulpit like the educational institution has taken on the responsibility to teach children things in the classroom that should have been taught at home (sex, how to wash hands, how to sew, and etc). This comes at a heavy cost. What used to be a service of worship for feeding the flock and worshiping God has turned into an educational setting, teaching the basics of reading and praying. It has gone so far as to tailor the entire service for the individual in the absence of corporate prayer. Even the act of singing worship songs has become individualistic in that individuals are encouraged to praise and raise their hands “as the Spirit leads.” I’ve been in that setting and I must say that it disrupts my ability to worship and praise by making me stop and wonder: Am I as close to God as that person over there with their hands in the air? This is a grave disservice to the flock, who are coming to the throne room of God to worship as one.

In the Anglican church, congregants are encouraged to say their prayers together. It is printed in the bulletin. Everyone who is able is asked to stand or sit together and as a congregation: we pray, we sing, we chant, we move–we worship the Lord in chorus! We listen to homilies (sermons) that give us a deeper understanding of the Bible and Christian tradition. The individual is invisble in the act of true congregational worship. On the other hand, our personal relationship is formed by the daily prayer and scripture readings outlined in the Book of Common Prayer. It is this Daily Office that prods us to a deeper relationship with Christ. We are encouraged to stay after the service for Sunday school lessons where personal questions may be addressed and specific skills may be taught to help us in our walk towards holiness in Christ.

Some examples of corporate worship in Anglican church services are:

  • The congregation stands together to sing hymns and songs
  • The congregation kneels together in prayer
  • The congregation does not clap for soloists or groups performing (The song is just a weave in the fabric of worship to God)
  • The soloist isn’t standing in the front, but rather to the side, and sometimes depending on the song, facing the cross
  • In times when the congregation is waiting like offertory or communion, playing organ music or the choir singing an anthem allows for a ‘background’ of music for people to meditate rather than focusing on a performance
  • Singing hymns with lyrics that show collectivism in worshiping God
  • The sermons are intended to teach us about theology, the bible, and how they shape our relationship with God (Not self-help lessons)
  • Waiting until after the service to personally greet the guests
  • Always keeping the focus of Sunday worship on praising God as a congregation, including repenting as a congregation and partaking in communion as a congregation

These are the elements of worship that the Anglican church uses to combat the decease of individualism by minimizing the importance of the individual. Outside of Sacred Sunday Service we should continue to encourage each other to individually own up to our faith, to submit ourselves individually to prayer and reading. However, I urge us to consider the sins and heresies promoted by the acceptance of individualism in the church, and whether our children can be safely brought to a saving faith in a church embracing “me”-ism.


One thought on “The Problem of Individualism in the Church

  1. Pingback: The Problem of Collectivism in the Church: finding the balance | The Anglican Mom

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