I am convinced that the most serious challenge to the Christian church in the United States is the individualistic, consumeristic, self-indulgent, and personal entitlement mindset of most Americans. On a recent church visit, I met a forty-something woman who told me, “I come to church for me. I ask my husband to stay home with the kids so I can come here and get my “God fix.” It is such a blessing to not have to worry about him or the kids. Church is one of the few things that’s just mine.” Am I crazy, or does this kind of sentiment miss a few points? In numerous interviews with both regular church attenders as well as those unaffiliated with any church, I have been struck (repeatedly) by the number of people who share that their greatest gripe with the church is that they cannot “be left alone” when they attend. Fully 40% of active United Methodists say they prefer to come to church, slide in unobtrusively, worship, then slip out unaccosted. What’s this about? It certainly doesn’t honor or reflect the fundamental communal nature of “church.”
But this shouldn’t be surprising. Independent evangelical Christians perpetrated a privatized, individualized, personalized, and consumeristic version of Christianity throughout the twentieth century in the United States. However, blame must be shared with the mainline church that bought into the “do you know Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” and “have you been born again?” mentality that transformed the Christian faith from shared journey to a “me-and-my-buddy-Jesus” closed-club. The “we” of community has given way to the “me” entitlement mentality that saturates today’s church and larger culture.
One phenomenon I noted in my travels and research is the radical disconnect between what pastors and laity leaders believe about their churches and what participants perceive. I have visited almost one hundred different congregations — UM and otherwise — renowned for their “small group” ministries. Many of the leaders in these congregations proudly proclaim that “everyone is connected to a small group.” However, what I discovered in talking to regular participants is that over 50% only attend a worship service — and that on an irregular basis. At least half of our active members — even in the churches that promote community through small groups — view their relationship to the local church as that of a consumer. The church is a service provider to meet the needs and desires of those attending worship. These people want nothing more, they expect nothing more, and they have no interest in what the church/community might expect in return.
Congregational leaders caught in the numbers game find no value in challenging such a mindset. Most pastors will do nothing that might damage their attendance numbers. If people want to come in as passive consumers, so be it — they pump up the numbers by which churches are deemed “successful.” As one of my mentors once said, “A lukewarm body is better than nobody,” when we discussed the phenomenon of Christmas and Easter Christians. I’m no longer sure this is true. If the church is about attendance, this position can be defended. If church is something more… anything more… it cannot be.
Many tell me that “you have to start somewhere,” and that “you can’t expect people to ‘show up’ spiritually mature.” Both these statements are a) true, and b) disingenuous. The problem isn’t with the people but with the ecclesiology of our modern-day church leaders. We have allowed too many of our church folks to stay at the beginner level. Certainly, everyone has to start somewhere, but shame on us if after a couple decades these people are still where they started! And the fact that so many individuals stay Christian consumers throughout an entire lifetime may indicate that they are not being held accountable to any standards of Christian growth or discipleship. Getting older is no guarantee of maturity. Youth is fleeting, immaturity can last a lifetime. Most Christians will not go where they are not led. Leaders must take some responsibility for the maturity of those who follow. If a person comes into a congregation as an individualistic consumer, that’s fine — as long as they are taught, trained, equipped, encouraged, and supported to become part of the community that comprises the body of Christ.
John Dominic Crossan and Marcus J. Borg address these issues in their wonderfully refreshing book, The First Paul. They firmly establish “community” as a central tenet of Pauline theology:
Although conversion is a personal process, Paul did not simply convert individuals. Paul created communities. He converted people to a new life in community, to life together “in Christ.” The phrase is shorthand for a way of life in community radically different from that in the normal societies of this world.
For Paul, life “in Christ” was always a communal matter. This was so not simply because “it’s important to be part of a church,” but because his purpose, his passion, was to create communities whose life together embodied an alternative to the normalcy of the “wisdom of this world.”
The language of “new family” implies as much: members of his communities had the same obligations to each other as did members of a biological family.
In today’s society, this is radically counter-cultural. Sociologists agree that tight-knit community spirit, civility, and a shared sense of responsibility for one another is in short supply. “We” is nowhere near as popular as “me.” “Ours” is always conditional upon “mine.” There is no room for “us” in “I.” Which is deeply problematic because theologically, Christianity is a communal faith. The body of Christ is predicated upon connection, interrelationship, and collaboration. The strength of our witness is dependent on our interdependence — with each other and with God.
A private, personal, and individualistic relationship to God might feel okay, but we need to be honest: it isn’t Christianity. At least not a Christianity grounded in scripture or theological tradition outside of 20th century America. It poses an incredible challenge to the men and women who accept responsibility to lead the church. Our message and our mission is to overcome the gospel of entitlement preached 24/7/365 throughout our society by offering a message of connection, cooperation, collaboration, and synergy that very few people seem to want to hear.
Our churches are torn apart by competing agenda, where individuals choose sides and battle to get their own way. What is good for the whole is rarely considered as important as the personal preferences of the powerful few. In our denomination, we present ourselves as being “united,” but that is not the perception of many who visit us. Too many people feel that the church is just like every other organization in the world — full of people asking the singular question, “what’s in it for me?”
Entitlement and personal privilege are not centrals themes of our faith. Never have been, never should be. It will require some intentional commitment and focus to counter the predominant cultural values. But that is what we are here for. That is what Christ came and died for. The ways of the world are not God’s ways. WE are God’s people, WE are the body of Christ, and by God’s grace through the Holy Spirit, WE are the church together.