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.
Categories: Church Leadership, Congregational Life, Core Values, Religion in the U.S.
“I personally think the transformation of the world is impossible to any of us individually. Only in community — as the body of Christ — with Christ as the head and empowered by God’s own Spirit”
Your right on there…and I think the Lord has given us his example via the trinity to reveal the need we all have to approach him in community and unity. Though we all must face our human condition individually in terms of responsibility…(in that we all stand before the Lord as his child and in his judgement individually)…but apporach him in worship, and communion and in prayer communally.
This is excellent material and a challenging word to the North American church. I agree with nearly everything you say above. Where I want to quibble with you is your statement that “Christianity is a communal faith.” This is certainly true. However, what is missing here is the missional nature of Christian community. I know you know this, so I’m not tell you anything new. Christian community does not exist for itself. It is community, centered in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, called into being to be for the world. Christian community is missional.
I say this because when we emphasize the communal character of the church, too often “being community” becomes the mission. This is, as you well know and touch on in this post, is antithetical to Biblical ecclesiology.
The truly countercultural character of Christianity is its mission, not so much its communal nature. The mission is to send people into the world to participate in and cooperate with Christ’s mission of preparing the world for the coming reign of God. Congregations, therefore, are to be outposts of God’s reign in the world.
Thanks, Dan, for another good word. Keep it up!
Thanks, Steve. You nailed me! I know what I mean, but not everyone would pick up from this post that I believe community is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. I personally think the transformation of the world is impossible to any of us individually. Only in community — as the body of Christ — with Christ as the head and empowered by God’s own Spirit — is transformation possible. Out of context, my comments about community are incomplete. Thanks for adding your comments and radically improving this post.
Again — on point, Good Stuff — Keep It Coming!
As a Church Musician I have been looking at the “Me and Jesus” type of music that seems to make up alot of our congregational favorites — as evidenced by the frequency these types of songs are chosen during Hymn Sings. The challenge, as I see it, is HOW do we move from this “Me and Jesus” mindset to a “Body of Christ” mindset……….with grace, of course, so as to not create unforseen consequences in making this change.
In His Grace + Peace
I have to say that I find this situation very strange. I am a Non-Christian but I attend a Christian church for the following reasons:
2) Experience God/Spirituality
As a Non-Christian I have found the church can be a great place for community and fellowship and this is why I attend. I also like to be bothered per say and I am active on three committees at the UMC church I attend.
I don’t understand why anyone would belong to a church but not want the community that it offers. If my only goal was the spiritual then I can handle this on my own.
I fully embrace an individualistic approach to God since all relationships are unique and therefore my relationship and approach are unique. I have a brother but his relationship to my mother is unique compared to mine even though we have many similarities.
However, I cannot truly get the community without a church. So, I began attending a church and have found a place where I can experience fellowship and community. Unfortunately, people do only attend church to go to the worship services and rarely ever talk to anyone else or involve themselves in the church or missions.
Our individualistic society has produced some wonderful things which include a more inclusive and accepting society in regards to religion which is what I think God truly wants. However, it has gone too far and driven too many people to view community and fellowship as pointless and even as Non-Christian who believes in a unique path for all I believe that God wants us to be in relationships with each other as this is one of the primary ways in which we can experience a full and fulfilling life.
Strange and sad at the same time.
Completely agree with you Dan. But I also see another dynamic. The church I serve is great at the “we” but too often that “we” is a closed group of individuals who are similar.
I had an upset member last Sunday during a meeting to discuss our worship services say, “This isn’t the pastor’s church, this isn’t so and so’s church, this is our church.” While I appreciated the ownership this man felt within the group, I had to point out that indeed this is Christ’s church not our church. Our concern is not only with this small group of people but those who are outside the church.
It seems in our individualistic culture, even the same individualistic behavior can be seen in groups.
You are right on, Justin. I do a workshop on healthy church environments where I talk about three dysfunctional types (comfortable, corrosive, and resigned) all grounded in the “me” worldview, vs. the functional type (creative/productive) grounded in the “we” worldview. In the dysfunctional types I talk about “me clusters” — small subgroups of individuals who expand the individualistic, privatized, consumeristic mindset to a tribe within the larger community. While they believe they are modeling community, all they are really doing is creating a corporate “me” mentality. The healthy “we” I am promoting is an “all of us” we, more global and inclusive, without factions or divisions. Thanks for pointing out the distinction through your comment.
There is so much here, but let me focus on two.
Where is this survey that 40% of UMs want to go to church and not be bothered? People seem to like to at least chat (if you don’t want to call it fellowship) at the churches I’ve seen. Although, I will grant that is less than 100. But, still….
Also, I believe you are right on target with your concern about “individualized” Christianity. It is one of my biggest problems with “ten thousand doors.” We can’t (and shouldn’t try to) create an individually customized “experience” for everybody.
As I write in the blog, 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. This is based on approximately 7,000 interviews, approximately 3/4 from UM congregations. The responses are an amalgam — most say they would like to be left alone, or not bothered, or not approached. Some say they would prefer not seeing anyone, or would rather that others not intrude on their time. Some say they won’t go to church anymore because they didn’t enjoy all the socializing or the interruptions. Two-out-of-every-five people interviewed wished there was less busyness, noise, conversation, and distraction in church. Is this a good thing? A bad thing? Don’t know, but it doesn’t change the fact that a good representative sample of long-time United Methodists do not enjoy, look forward to, desire, or seek to engage in the more communal aspects of worship attendance. On a different note, the question has been asked to all interviewees if corporate worship is important for a Christian, or if a person can worship just as well all alone? 68% believe that a person can worship just as well on their own and that they do not require worship with others. An additional 27% say they enjoy worship with others and would miss it, but that it isn’t essential. Only 5% of the total of over 7,000 people in the U.S. think that corporate worship is essential. I did the research, crunched the numbers, built the database — this is where the research is being reported.