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Going It Alone

January 13, 2015

I didn’t attend a church service on Sunday. I find that happening more frequently lately. Since returning from Haiti I have not found a fellowship group in which I felt really comfortable. The churches I did visit did not particularly appeal to me. They didn’t appear to offer what I wanted. Nor did they seem to offer opportunities for me to participate in a meaningful way. At one, a pastor seemingly welcomed my offer to get involved in a church project, agreed to have coffee with me to discuss it, asked for my number to arrange our meeting, but then never called. When I phoned him (twice), he did not return my calls.

And that bothers me. It bothers me that I have become increasingly unenthusiastic about church attendance. It bothers me that I am “church shopping” rather than just seeking out a local congregation where I can fellowship. And it bothers me to have my offer to participate ignored. My discomfort has triggered an interrogation of my beliefs, something I undertake frequently. I am trying to better understand myself, the church community, the society I live in and those with whom I share it—and ultimately God.

How is it that I, and many others, have gotten so picky about the churches we attend? When did attending church become more about meeting my personal felt needs than about community? How did personal good gain ascendance over the common good? How did Christians become so cavalier in their attitudes toward others in their congregations? Just what is going on here?

We live in a society that places a high value on individualism—individual freedoms and personal rights. We see ourselves as separate and independent of others, free to pursue our own goals and interests, to do our own thing. We champion individual achievement, self-fulfillment, and ever since Maslow brought the concept to prominence, self-actualization. We see value in society and cooperate with one another to a degree, but we don’t see ourselves as having much responsibility for others. We are comfortable choosing to selfishly protect our own benefits even when we know that doing so will harm others.  We balk at the idea of sacrificing any of our self-interest for the common good.

How did we get this way? My quest to understand our way of thinking about ourselves and our society led me to the highly influential seventeenth century English philosopher, John Locke. Locke advocated a degree of individual freedom unheard of in his time, along with unlimited opportunity to compete for personal material well-being. But Enlightenment rationalism proved not nearly so constructive as is often supposed. Ruthless individualism has come to pervade every sphere of our society, undermining every institution that traditionally functioned for the common good, including the church.

The church today bears little resemblance to its first century forerunner or to those pre-Enlightenment. From its inception, Christianity existed as community. Being a Christian meant belonging to the body of believers in Christ, the church. The emphasis was on commonality, togetherness in a life in common, sharing in the lives of the brethren. There were no believers outside of the church.

This collectivism is evident in the more than two dozen Reciprocal Commands, the “one another” imperatives of the New Testament. These are instructions about how to live in vibrant communion with one another as God intended. They explain how “the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” (Ephesians 4:16)

Collectivism runs contrary to individualism.   Though each member of the body is important, it is the body as a whole, the relationship between its members, that is paramount. Individuals are not sufficient to themselves. The needs of the individual members are subordinate to those of the collective, and when necessary, must be sacrificed in love for the good of the group. For the nascent church, it was not about integrating the Gospel they had received into their worldview; it was believing that God had broken into their world, upset their ordinary ways of seeing and believing, and offered them a counterculture life transformation that would change everything.

But today’s church has untethered itself from its early roots and succumbed to the love of individualism. We see ourselves more as an assembly of individual believers than as a body. Connection and accountability to a faith community is far less important than individual spirituality, which is seen as personal and private. In the evangelical circles in which I have circulated for more than thirty years, the emphasis is on accepting Jesus as one’s personal saviour, developing a personal relationship with God. In love with individualism, churches have become enlistment centers for heaven training recruits in personal holiness, focusing far more on orthodoxy than on the practicals of living with one another in love. The Great Commission call to make disciples has taken a back seat to making converts. But without discipleship, new faith often withers or stagnates. Many who move into the pews never get past a diet of milk.

We have adopted a dispensational view of the Bible that further promotes individualism. We see ourselves as autonomous individuals led through the personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit. We prefer to see God as working through individuals, not through a communal entity, a holy people. Accordingly, we confer celebrity status upon talented individuals within the Christian community.

The Bible has replaced the church as a source of authority. In essence, every individual has become his own church. Tragically, this self-focused spirituality often leads to conflating God’s will with personal desires and privatizing morality. As the Talmud says, we do not see things as they are, but as we are.

No man (or woman) is an island. The Bible does not promote Lone Rangers for Jesus. Personal experience is simply not enough. Fellowship is not optional, and Christian fellowship is more than a warm smile, a polite handshake and a few cordial words once a week. We are called to discipleship, both to be discipled and to be disciplers, not for a season, but for a lifetime. Accountability only to oneself, or even bringing God into the equation is not enough. The Bible makes it abundantly clear that we are to be accountable to one another. By definition both fellowship and discipleship require community. The ember separated from the fire soon grows cold.

How do we turn this around? How do I rekindle my enthusiasm for church? What will it take for the church to stop considering the Reciprocal Commands as optional? When will someone calling me a brother in Christ mean more than we belong to the same club? For as John Wesley would say, we’re charged to “watch over one another in love.” That, the Bible says, is how the world will recognize us as Christians.

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