Individualism is Independent, Informal, and In Charge.
When you get married you sign a marriage certificate.
When you have kids you sign a birth certificate.
When you partner in business you sign a contract.
Heck, you may be reading this on your mobile phone and probably signed a contract with the mobile company too. Mind you, you probably got a sexy iPhone 5s out of the deal.
Funny enough, it seems like we try to rewrite the history of the early church as though the Church is the only exception. But, think about it: based on the fact that we even have the Epistles, which were letters written by Church leaders with authority in the young organization, it’s clear that there was a very real sense of belonging to a formal institution, and considering that many early Christians still attended synagogue, formal worship services. The Church, in order to enact God’s mission for the world, was to function as an alternative society of a sorts and that included roles, relationships, and all of the formalities of every day human life. Their relationships in the Church, much like our relationships in real life, include both informal times together, and the formal events or corporate gatherings. The difference? Jesus is Lord all the time.
These kind of formal arrangements make us responsible for and to one another and our promises. Our most meaningful relationships are public, visible, and we willingly make them formal. Rather than assume that this cheapens our commitment perhaps we should consider that when it matters, we are happy to visibly, publicly put our money where our mouth is. We actively belong to the people we believe in.
We can’t approach the Church as individualists, and claim that Jesus as Lord elsewhere. Individualism belongs to no one – independent and without submission. Christianity submits. Individualism says, “I am lord, I decide what’s right.” Christianity, “Jesus is Lord over all.”
We can’t endorse individualism in one sphere of our lives, and claim to belong and be accountable to a community in another. Our lives aren’t as compartmentalized as we might like to think — our ‘public’ life and ‘private’ lives are intertwined and interconnected. We are whole, embodied persons before God, and so our worship, legal, business and political choices are ultimately reflections of our character and beliefs. In other words, there is no such thing as “business is business”. You have a life, plain and simple. Not a spiritual life, not a work-life, not a family-life — just a life. It’s not complicated. And so to act as though ‘membership’ and submission are too formal for our relationship to the Body of Christ is no different than claiming that a marriage is too great a commitment to have meaningful sex. Despite our obvious efforts to do so, we Christians can’t argue both sides of that coin.
“I think, therefore I am.” - René Descartes
So much of our trouble stems from the idea that we don’t think of ourselves as ‘whole’ at all. We like to assume our own mental mastery, living in the illusion that we’re more in control of things than we actually are. Like Descartes, we’d like to believe that we are, first and foremost, thinking creatures. But if a changed mind automatically meant a changed life then in this information age we should be the most visibly Christ-like generation in history. I don’t know about you, but I have my doubts.
Think about a Big Mac. We all probably believe that fast food is bad for us. We ate the information, but do we still eat Big Macs? You bet we do! That is, until something goes wrong and we experience the dangers of fast food in a deeper way, or we begin to habitually say ‘no’. Then, all of a not-so-sudden, things are different. This is because we’re shaped as much if not more by the negative experience and the positive habit as we are the information itself. Sometimes we can personalize the information, perhaps it inspires an emotional experience. Then, feeling ownership, we may try to do something about it and justify it as though it was a rational decision. At the end of the day, it’s still an act of will and habit that results in us living anything like coherent and consistent lives. This is an important lesson for the Christian disciple.
In his book Desiring The Kingdom, James K Smith argues (like St. Augustine before him) that we are not principally thinkers, but lovers — worshippers. We learn and grow not only by consuming information but by habit and the active directing of our will. In other words, we spend our days worshipping something or someone in everything we do. All-too-often we use our intellect to rationalize in confirmation bias towards gut-level-decisions we’ve already enacted with our habits — Miller’s right about this, but somehow missing that he’s doing the same thing himself, as we all are all of the time. These habits function like the liturgies of day-to-day life, constantly telling our heart, soul, mind and strength who is really in charge. Perhaps this is where ideas become identity and belief becomes belonging.
And this is exactly what makes Donald Miller’s questions about learning style and the “educational” format of the Evangelical worship service so incredibly important. To a certain degree it’s true that we have different learning styles. It’s true that our personalities have certain emphases in how we digest what we’re fed – but to create a hierarchy of human experience based solely on our own strong suit isn’t the answer either. I’ll come back to this later, but this is where Individualism makes us historically shortsighted – assuming that the modern Evangelical forms of worship are traditional, when, historically speaking, they are anything but.
A week ago I had coffee with a new friend who is a priest in a more liturgical Christian tradition and in our conversation he mentioned that he was trained to prepare and deliver twelve-minute homilies in a worship service. Look at the length of TED talks that have become so popular — eighteen minutes as a rule. I don’t know about you, but I’m surprised how much you can really learn in 18 minutes. And, as you can see by reading my blog, I’m not someone accustomed to brevity. It seems to me that the liturgies of the traditional Church are more considerate of our reality as whole, embodied persons and even varying learning styles, though possibly sometimes at the expense of cultural relevance and its impact on mission. We’ve thrown out the baby with the bathwater yet again.
So what do our corporate worship habits say about us? What are we telling people about the nature of life and faith when they take part in our church worship services? A typical Evangelical service is roughly ninety minutes long and consists of three basic elements: music, an opportunity to give money, and a sermon – and almost a full hour is spent attempting to teach through a single sermon. The reading of Scripture aloud doesn’t usually fit the programmed event model. The eucharist – one of the few things that was prescribed in scripture – is all too often optional. That alone, combined with the idea that we aren’t actually changing as a result of stuffing more ideas into our heads, should get our attention. Are we producing disciples who live and act more like Jesus, or trolls for the blogosphere? Which am I? Which are you?
The form of the worship service – and by that I mean the entire time together as a corporate body – is, as a whole narrative, more influential in our spiritual formation than the sermon alone. The lyrics of the songs we sing, the prayers we pray, and the story subversively told in our forms drive home the subtle narrative of who is really, truly, king in our lives. While we say one thing with our words, with our habits I fear that, combined with the overwhelming messages of our culture, our Evangelical worship services say something else altogether: reason is god.
Of course, we would never want to say that out loud. But it’s possible that that’s what’s between the lines. This isn’t anti-intellectualism – far from it! To even accuse me of this would be nonsense. What I am saying is that we aren’t just intellectuals with the occasional emotional moment. Or worse, just in need of using our emotional faculties to trick our intellect into paying attention and retaining something — musical worship is sometimes reduced to this kind of role. The renewing of our minds is a real, tangible, thing. God wishes to use our reason – but we must remember that we are, at the end of the day, flesh-bone-and-brains humans.
And this is exactly why, with his kinesthetic learning style, Miller has me confused in where he seems to have landed. The act of singing in a group, for example, especially if you don’t enjoy singing, is a practice in being reminded that the world, or the worship of God, does not revolve around ourselves or our entertainment preferences (this is another problem we may have created, but that’s for another post). In standing, moving his body in a way that doesn’t connect emotionally, perhaps Donald is blessed with the ability to truly remind himself that Jesus is Lord in a way many of us aren’t. Where some could simply enjoy the music and the experience, Donald Miller could practice something like a spiritual discipline. This is a gift.
But this doesn’t excuse the pastor and worship leader’s responsibility to consider that for every Donald Miller there are many others like him, who endure the reductionistic form our Evangelical worship services sometimes take. We long for something more — all of us want a story to live in, to be reminded that we are part of something timeless, ancient, beautiful, relevant… and true.
Think about two of the most basic Christian sacraments – Baptism and the Eucharist (communion). They assume community. You don’t simply dive in the pool and consider it done — pragmatic though that would be — instead a family member stands with you, holds you, assists you, and embraces you in warm welcome. It’s a visible ritual that declares that you belong to Christ, and therefore to the family of God — adopted into the family of Abraham, David, and so on until you reach Jesus himself and Jesus, in turn, reaches out to you.
The Eucharist (communion), too, is to be shared, given, eaten, drank, received. What a beautifully simple reminder that we are human and that was meant that be.
We all have this dependency on God in common, the independence of individualism an idolatrous ruse.
God didn’t give us an escape hatch from our humanity, but a new, redemptive way to be human, so that our fractured and broken nature could finally be whole. We want to feel it in our bones, pray it from our lips, know it in the renewing of our minds, sing it from our lungs, and see it in each other’s open eyes: Jesus is Lord. And for that we need other people. Unexpected people — each of them a gift from God. And so we need our family, the Church — broken and spread thin as she is. We need her songs, her prayers, her habits and her wisdom. We need to stand in worshipping together – where for a brief time, reality and timelessness are the same thing – knowing we stand on the shoulders of humble giants who, in their humanity, made mistakes but nevertheless spur us on to whisper with every breath of our own human life: Jesus is Lord.
Tomorrow Part 3 – Individualism Consumes Community