I will never forget my college graduation ceremony. Our class president stood before the graduating class and began to speak about the importance of working hard and doing what’s right. It sounded like something from a cheesy, low-budget film. But there was one part that stuck out to me.
As he was ending the speech, he began to list all the important things in life like family, friends, and having fun. He went down the list attempting to build anticipation in the crowd and said, “While these things are all important, never forget the most important thing in life…” He paused for dramatic effect, but I could tell where he was going, so I decided to disrupt the silence and yelled, “Jesus!”
Despite being in a secular university, my classmates laughed and looked at me. But the speaker paid no mind to my inappropriate outburst and said, “Yourself. You are the most important thing in life.”
It’s all about you. As Westerners, we live in an incredibly individualistic society where the mantra of life is to “do it yourself,” “depend on no one,” and “always look out for number one.” We favor people who against all odds can overcome every obstacle, and be a trailblazer to their own success—regardless if they lied, cheated, and stole to get there. But is this form of individualism really a good thing? And more importantly, is individualism good for the church?
While no one would argue that taking care of yourself is bad, individualism in the West isn’t really focusing on your health and well-being; rather, it is a complete self-centered, narcissistic approach to life where the well-being of others is always secondary to yourself. Western individualism crowns you as Lord and King.
But this sort of way of life destroys the people that God has made us to be and, more importantly, kills the mission of the church. Here are four reasons why individualism kills the church and why you should work to avoid it.
1. Individualism stunts your personal growth
You would think that someone who focuses solely on their own self-development would be a stable, healthy, and growing person, but it just isn’t the case.
The Bible continuously reminds us to value others and consider their interests above our own (Philippians 2:3). Although sin tempts us to do otherwise, this is what it means to be a good, moral human being—and how to function as the church. It’s in us to care, and when we violate this need, we violate who we are.
It’s in us to care, and when we violate this need, we violate who we are.
Personal growth, for this matter, is not only about developing as a person, it’s about better contributing as a person for God’s glory. For example, if you grow in wisdom you not only make better choices for yourself, but you have the power to help others make better choices for themselves, which is how the church is suppose to benefit one another.
2. Individualism destroys personal meaning
One of the most important questions that you can ever ask yourself is “What is my purpose in life.” I know, sounds like a question that focuses on individualism. However, there is nothing wrong with having individuality. The problem comes when we think of ourselves as the center of the universe, but this takes away all meaning in life. There is no sense in growing as an individual if you have no way to help others through your growth.
Community gives us a reason to excel at life. Think about a village that sends off a young man or woman to learn a skill so that they can come back and provide toward that village’s need. Or a parent who sacrifices their goals for the sake of their children. Considering the needs of others helps us find meaning in life.
Considering the needs of others helps us find meaning in life.
For Christians, our meaning comes from Christ and living out his mission on this earth, and through this lens we can figure out what that means for us as individuals.
3. Individualism takes away from the image of God
“You do not need to be a part of the church to have a thriving relationship with God; your relationship with Jesus is just that…your relationship with Jesus.”
As a pastor who serves in a more liberal part of the country, I hear this sentiment regularly. However, when a person withholds themselves from fellowship with the body, they aren’t just hurting themselves, but they are hurting the church.
God has given each of us different talents, personalities, and insights that all represent a unique part of who God is.
Scripture tells us that we are all image bearers of God (Genesis 1:27). God has given each of us different talents, personalities, and insights that all represent a unique part of who God is, which means we individually and holistically represents him. As image bearers of God, when a person removes themselves from the church a piece of that image goes with him—along with the talents that God has given.
4. Individualism works against the mission of the church
The Great Commission to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19) is at its strongest when individuals see themselves as one part of a whole. Thinking that my needs, accomplishments, and well-being is all that matters conflicts in the church’s best efforts to actualize the mission of God.
Think about it: If a church is full of committed Christians who have a different kinds of professional skills (e.g., craftsman, hospitality, custodians, teachers, businessman, doctor, etc.), then they can be very effective at meeting a variety of needs. For example, the businessman can team up with the doctor who teamed up with the pilot who teamed up with the teaching missionary to provide medical aid to someone in need. It becomes a beautiful picture of collective and missional individuality.
We are like puzzle pieces. We each have unique shapes and colors that when left alone offer no clear picture, but when placed together can offer a beautiful image—an image of Christ. When we resist selfish individualism and crown Christ as king instead of ourselves, together we can make a difference for his glory.