Saturday, June 30, 2012

Individualism in the Church

We hate to admit it. We hate it to hear it. Yet, if we are truly honest, many churches are less community-like than most of us would like. Just take the Sunday service for example. Servants are few, consumers are many. More people grab stuff for themselves than to give away to others. Ask people to give and there will be few responses. Ask people to take things for free, and the responses will be overwhelming. From free food to free use of the Church facilities, people are coming to church with a sense of entitlement rather than a heart of service. For example, those serving in the Church make self-sacrificial service to come extra early to set things up for the rest of the congregation. Yet, there is a perennial number of people who choose come late, consistently. Despite the attempts to instill punctuality, they still turn up late. It is not a time or scheduling problem. It is a human problem. It is a problem with pride and sin. It is a problem that often gets accepted rather than addressed.

Today, I like to suggest that the problem goes much deeper. It is individualism. The lack of care and concern about how one's behaviour affects the rest of the community is a case in point. Let me give some bullet point examples.

  • "Why should I give when the Church is already so wealthy?"
  • "Why should I volunteer when there is already paid staff to do the work?"
  • "I come late, so why is that a problem to you?"
I wonder how these individuals will feel, if their actions impede the whole worship experience for early worshipers.  I know some worshipers are irritated when their singing experience gets rudely interrupted by a tap on the shoulder to move to another seat to make space for latecomers.

Whether it is outreach, serving in Church, or helping the community, the three most common excuses people have are:
  1. "I am busy."
  2. "I don't know how."
  3. "I fear."
All of us manifest evidence in varying degrees of the top three excuses. It is easy to justify saying that busyness and no-time throughout the week. The question I then ask is, "Am I not busy too?" For those that do not know how, I question them whether they want to remain in that condition forever. For those who fear, I wonder what kind of faith they are living. The opposite of fear is faith.

Individualism reigns supreme in many churches. A recovering alcoholic gives this indicting comment after receiving great help from the community at Alcoholics Anonymous. 

"After I had at last been part of a real community where we loved each other enough to be honest, to sacrifice our time and energy to aid others in their struggle with alcohol, the sweet superficiality of mu church was repulsive. When I tried to share with them some of the insights I gained from my own struggle, they looked at me like I was crazy, like my struggle was a purely personal problem." (Thomas Naylor, William Willimon, and Magdalena Naylor, The Search for Meaning, Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1994, p107)

In contrast, the early church literally shared everything and gave all they have to assist one another. The modern church has become devoid of such culture. Our modern culture has infected the church with individualism. Unwittingly, not only is the church learning to mind its own business, it has forgotten the Lord's business. Individualism must be recognized. It must be redeemed with a healthy understanding of self-need, and balanced with a constructive view of community living. Here are three biblical principles with regards to building community. It is in order of commitment.

First, learn about community by thinking right, and planning well. It begins with a mindset change about what community is all about.  It is not about thinking of ourselves all the time. It is thinking appropriately about ourselves. Irvin D Yalom writes, "Not to take possession of your life plan is to let your existence be an accident.Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 9:6 "The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully."  

Like weeds, individualism takes root when we are sleeping, or waking. It grows without us knowing it. When it comes to helping people, a person who does not plan his/her own life will end up retreating back to a vacuum of unmet needs. How can one who is empty help to fill another? The maxim is true. If we fail to plan, we plan to fail. When we fail to plan for our own lives, the default is what the world tells us. "Take care of yourselves first. Mind your own business." This unfortunately increases individualism especially when we fail to plan for ourselves first.

Second, learn to look at the needs of others before self.  

"The ultimate test of whether or not a collection of individuals is a community is whether the members are seriously concerned about one another's well-being." (Naylor, Willimon, and Naylor, The Search for Meaning, 130).

The biblical principle for community living is: "Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others." (Philippians 2:4)

If we are constantly on the look to benefit others, will it not increase the level of service in Church, the punctuality as well as any outreach in the Church? Perhaps, the biggest indictment on any church failing to reach out is that it is too overwhelmed with its own inner problems.

Third, live a life of self-sacrifice, just like Christ. This is perhaps the toughest thing for anyone to do. Sacrifice is a bad word. People avoid it. This is why the hymn "I Surrender All" is a particularly difficult one to sing. Yet, with sacrifice comes life. See how Bonhoeffer's sacrifice has encouraged the struggling German Church. See how the sacrifices of missionaries have resulted in the growth of the Church in those parts of the world they were sent to. See how Jesus through his own death brought life.

Plan well ourselves. Put the interests of others before ourselves. Prepare to live sacrificially. May this three-prong approach equip us to battle the weeds of individualism.


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