The church of me, myself, and I
We know that contemporary Christian faith is being largely defined as a private affair when, in the name of setting a mood and atmosphere for worship, we make our gathering places so dark that we can barely see those sitting next to us, let alone those on the other side of the room, all in the name of facilitating a worship experience.
We know that contemporary Christian faith is being largely defined as a private affair when the worship leader instructs us to ‘shut ourselves in’ and ‘close our eyes,’ so as not to be distracted by those around us.
We know that contemporary Christian faith is being largely defined along the lines of privatization and individualism when, during a traditional evangelical Sunday altar call, the pastor instructs us to close our eyes, bow our heads, and not look around.
The list of examples can go on and on.
For instance, what about those times when we insist that people enter into their personal and private ‘prayer closet’ so they can spend time alone with God.
What about those moments when we’re instructed to engage in ‘personal devotions’ so God can speak to us in the privacy of our homes.
I’m not for a moment saying that spending time alone with God is a bad thing. However, when we combine all of the instructions to be alone, to close our eyes, to block out the distractions around us during our Sunday gatherings, and to avoid looking around during an altar call (if you’re particular church tradition incorporates this into their gatherings), we can clearly see that the private and individual element of faith is emphasized far more than the community orientation we see demonstrated throughout the New Testament witness.
The sad reality is that a group who should be known, defined, and shaped by togetherness and communal faith is instead being defined by a privatized faith.
Privatized spirituality, no doubt informed by the flight of the individual over community, has informed and shaped not only how we understand Christianity, but the way in which we live out Christianity as well.
In the end, contemporary Christianity has become all about me.
My decision to receive forgiveness.
My walk with Jesus.
My prayer time.
My personal devotions.
My interpretation of the Bible.
My worship experience.
Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me.
Individualism and Christian faith
When we combine this me-centered perspective with the view that accepting Christian faith is ultimately a ‘personal decision,’ where the Christian community is viewed as a non-essential element within the salvation equation, it is no wonder we have come to define faith as a deeply private affair.
Contemporary Christianity in the West has been shaped and defined by the cultural assumption of individualism far more than the New Testament focus on gathering and assembly of Jesus-people.
In our current climate, faith is viewed as a ‘personal choice’ that in turn defines our ‘private spirituality.’ As a result, we have allowed the cultural assumption of individualism to trump the New Testament emphasis on community and togetherness.
However, as Gordon Hackman has said,
A church that does nothing but reflect the values of the mainstream secular culture is a redundancy.
We know we’ve encountered Christian individualism when we hear people say things like,
“I church myself” and
“I don’t need the church” and
“It’s all about Jesus and me.”
These statements indicate that we have either misunderstood the biblical emphasis on community or have abandoned it altogether in favor of adopting a philosophy of individualism.
I once heard a popular vocal artist make this statement – “I complete myself.” The sad thing is many Christians have bought into this idea without even thinking about it.
The Church as a forming community
The whole idea of gathering together as a community of faith is a central and defining component of what we are called to embrace as followers of Jesus. We learn and live out our faith together, not in isolation. Our faith is informed and shaped by the community.
Personal devotions are fine, but they should always be something we do in conjunction with the community, and not as a substitute for community. Community helps us to better understand what we read during our personal devotions and also provides a place to live out what we learn.
Unfortunately, many see the church as an optional and peripheral mechanism of faith, rather than a necessary and central component for faith.
The paradox is clear. On the one hand, individualism is seen as a bright light to be embraced. On the other hand, we’re all starving for community and togetherness – something that social media platforms such as Facebook clearly suggests.
Personal and communal faith
The reality is that faith needs to be both personal and public. However, they are not a company of equals.
While faith has a personal dynamic built into it, this personal dynamic is fed, sustained by, and funneled into the community of faith. Church isn’t an optional piece of equipment, but is the central component necessary to properly understand, cultivate, and express faith.
Faith is shaped by community and for community. Church life doesn’t lie on the periphery of our faith experience, but at its center. The church is, as Paul has often stated, a body of people, not a company of individuals – similar to independent sales representatives. (cf. 1 Corinthians 12-14).
‘Every person for themselves’ is not the Church’s mantra. ‘Every person for each other’ within community is our mantra.
When individualism becomes the center, and the church, both locally and globally, is viewed as an option and not the norm, we will end up with a self-centered, deeply privatized, me-and-Jesus type of Christianity that in no way resembles the community-centeredness of the New Testament church.
For the most part, Evangelicals claim to be ‘people of the book.’ That is, we claim the Bible to be the norming-norm for all that we believe and practice. The irony is that Evangelicalism seems to have embraced individualism far more than many others within the larger Christian tradition.
What’s wrong with this picture? We claim to believe in one thing, yet live a very different message. We’ve tried to convince each other that we can church ourselves, but we can’t.
Dark rooms, closing our eyes to remove the distractions around us, combined with highly personalized Bible reading plans and prayer times, all point towards the reality that we have allowed a deeply private faith to take center stage. In essence, Christian spirituality has become a one-person show.
However, we need each other. We need each gift, each life, each person to become actively engaged in moving us all toward being the people we are designed to be. In fact, we will only become all we can be when we join together.
Interdependence, not independence, is the way of the body of Christ. And, our togetherness will always represent Christ better than our separation. In fact, our very existence depends on it.
Recapturing Jesus's vision
Jesus said that his followers will be known by their ‘love for one another.’ Can we make this claim of the contemporary Christian Church? (John 13:35)
Today, more than ever, we need to recapture Jesus's vision of the one Church which has Him as its King. And, to allow the ancient witness of the New Testament church to form and shape our contemporary witness and practice.
Togetherness reflects the heart of Jesus. Togetherness reflects the heart of God.
Holy Spirit, help us.
“I pray that they may all be one. Father! May they be in us, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they be one, so that the world will believe that you sent me.” – Jesus, (John 17:21)
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