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Should the Church Embrace Individualism?

When I was in seminary, community was the thing. We were taught how to use models of group discernment to help us make important life decisions. We had a student government, run on Quaker principles, that was supposed to help us work together as a community. We had shared worship that was meant to draw us into a corporate relationship with God.

Despite all these good intentions, my experience of seminary was largely an individual one. I was on my journey, and others were on their own. I made friends and shared great experiences with others, but the reality was that my fellow students and I were generally only going to be around for a few years. Once we were done earning our degree, we’d be off to some other part of the world.

It was hard to build really strong community in such circumstances. Despite all our ideals about communal decision-making and discernment, there’s only so far you can go when you know that nobody is going to be around three years from now.

Fast forward to my present ministry context: Washington, DC. In many ways, it’s not so different from seminary. I know lots of wonderful people, and we have a good time together. I learn a lot from my friends here, and we support one another as best we’re able. But in the end, we’re all on our own journeys. Some of us will be here a long time; others will be moving on in just a few short years. It’s not always clear who will fall into which category. 

Life is in a state of near-constant flux. At any given moment, some of our friends may be leaving the city. At the same time, new and wonderful people will emerge to take their place. Our city is an amazing environment for networking, for making new friends.

Forming community that transcends our individual choices is tougher. What does it look like to bind ourselves together in community when we’re so focused on maximizing our own personal dreams – career, family, life’s work?

These are worthy goals that we’re pursuing. We’ve got jobs we love, children we adore, hopes that we nurture, and ambitions that excite us. It makes me wonder, is it possible that my desire for committed, intentional community has been misguided all along? What if we’d be better off encouraging each individual (or family) to follow God’s call for them? Would we be more faithful if the church embraced individualism?

Even if this kind of radical individualism isn’t the best path to enlightenment, it surely is more in keeping with the spirit of our age. When I look at the movements and networks that are growing and thriving, it is those that allow individuals to take autonomous action to improve their lives, and the lives of others. Most successful movements in our time are those that invite you to come, just as you are, and participate in your own way. No strings attached.

At least not at first.

While I can’t imagine that Christ is truly calling the church to embrace individualism, neither can I believe that our present situation calls for the same type of community that was life-giving in centuries past. Electronic communication and rapid transit have fundamentally altered our reality. The world has changed. What does the faithful church of Jesus Christ look like in these new circumstances? What does it look like to be the body of Christ in such a mobile, fluid, creative, and exhausting age?

Our answer to this question will be crucial for the development of a living faith in our time. Have you found part of the answer? Please share.

Related Posts:

Do We Really Want Community?

Freelance Ministry or the Body of Christ?

  • louismoreaugottschalk

    keep on keepin on keep on speaking truth in love. W/ rigorous honesty we shall recover.(IMO) (=

  • broschultz

    We have to go back to Paul’s comparing each of us to a body part. Individualism has to be defined to be discussed. For all the talk of individualism we live in a very complicated age where no one can do all the multitasking necessary to do great things. What separates a community from an individual is the reward system. In a community, as in a physical body, the whole benefits from the success of the individual part pretty much equally since the body is one and what’s good for one part is good for the others. Capitalist individualism is more of the “trickle down” (if you have prostate problems you will have a better understanding of the term) variety of benefits to society.


    It helps to make a commitment. I shall remain where I am unless I feel a REALLY strong leading to move elsewhere (and I cannot emphasize that REALLY strongly enough).

  • I wonder if the Internet allows us to move community from the local setting to a global one. I’ve tried, but online misses something that in-person can achieve.

  • Bill Rushby

    Hello, Micah! To gain more insight into your fluid and not very communal community, it may help to reconceptualize its social structure. One could look at it as being layered like an onion. At the center is the core of the long-term, geographically stable and deeply committed members. Then there are layers of more “transitional” participants. On the outer layer, there are those whose contact and commitment are quite minimal.
    Then you could ask what role each group could play in building a viable Christian community, and what each layer’s needs and opportunities are. You co9uld also ask what each layer could contribute, and what they need, to enhance their experience of Christian fellowship, ministry and witness in the group.

    • Thanks, Bill.

      Your model still places geographical stability as the anchor and center of the community. As someone who’s been trying to hold that role for a number of years here in DC, it feels like a hard burden to carry.

  • Daniel

    This is a great post and a great discussion. I think that revisiting the lifestyles that make living in community difficult is a good place to start. Personally, I feel like the best communities would be formed around mutual physical needs. In my area, I see young mothers more tightly knitted to their “mom’s support groups” than they are to their church. It is there, where moms have urgent questions about breastfeeding, gluten, babysitting, colic, discipline etc.. where real community forms. Mutual need is the lifeblood of community. In a world where technology and opportunity allow us to live isolated and (seemingly) self-sufficient worlds, we have reduced the need of community. Or have we? Our physical needs may be met in this fast paced, transient, isolated work world we live it. “But is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” The lack of community and shared life may have a profound sociological and psychological impact on us and our children. I appreciate Wendell Berry’s work on this regard and his emphasize on the importance of being a people of “place.”

    Emergent theology has deconstructed our firm grasp on dogmas, confessions, certainty etc… Perhaps an “Emergent” Lifestyle is needed, that deconstructs the security we have in the conveniences of life and the ease with which we meet our basic human needs. Maybe the exposed and insecure position that we would be left in would also be the soil needed for love, community and worship.

    This may seem drastic and unrealistic, but for me the prospect is exciting. As an illustration, perhaps “how” we get food onto our table is as important as “that” we get food onto our table. Perhaps having lives committed to sustainable housing and homesteading would be an opportunity. If a my family committed to eat fruits and vegetables that was grown within a 5 mile radius of their home, than we would be propelled into sharing life to a greater extent with our neighbors. I would enjoy that discussion. How could changing our lifestyles to place ourselves in a position of dependence on those in close geographical proximity to us cultivate a strong and vibrant community for ourselves and our children!

    How to form communities? Allow ourselves to move down a few layers in Maslow’s pyramid. That may be a good place to start!

    • This is great, Daniel.

      I’ve been thinking a whole lot about Maslow’s pyramid lately, and where the gospel community plugs into that paradigm. You’re so right that our community must be a function of necessity, not consumeristic choice.

      I’ll admit that I’m still struggling with how we get from A to B on that one, but I think you’re asking the right questions.