For many Christians, individualism has become distasteful. The phrases American individualism or rugged individualism do not carry positive connotations anymore. The team player is now the epitome of godliness in churches -- the guy who doesn't make trouble. The person who goes it alone, who isn't swayed by majority opinion, who makes his or her own decisions based on inner-directed priorities is a difficult person, someone who needs to be teachable.
Which is to say, malleable.
When I was in seminary, individualism was the cultural trait blamed for the breakdown of community in local churches. People were just too independent. They didn't realize how much they needed each other.
I see similar themes among emergents, many of whom are searching for corporate identities to restore a sense of togetherness, and to discover a mission that is larger than self. For them, individualism is the beating heart of the consumer society, in which people take, use, and throw away without regard for their responsibilities.
I also hear a distaste for individualism among reformed evangelicals, who criticize a therapeutic gospel they see as too centered on the first-person singular. Self-esteem, the morphing of sin into addiction, the rationalizing of personal failings, they say, all come from a sick culture of self-love.
All of these perspectives target real problems. But they finger the wrong culprit.
In John 9, we get an extended look at a man whom Jesus heals of blindness. In almost every respect, this man is helpless: physically incapable of sight, economically destitute, socially outcast. Yet, after he is healed, we discover that he has one quality that raises him above the civil and religious rulers. He is able to stand alone. In the story, he will not yield to any form of pressure -- not to intimidation by his neighbors, nor to the status of the Pharisees, nor to the lack of support from his frightened parents, nor even to the formal punishment of excommunication.
In a new series of sermons, we will explore how Christ used this man's individuality to glorify the Father. In the process, we'll discover how individuality results from the unique way a person comes to identify with Jesus.
I believe one of the most important qualities a Christian can exhibit is uniqueness. Put another way, the greatest potential witness for the power of Christ is a Christian who refuses to conform, who does not give in to fear of what other people think. Like the man born blind, the Christian who can stand alone has the opportunity to reflect Christ's glory through a singular gem.
Churches should be nurturing individualism of this kind. It is characterized by a discerning conscience, a gut-level attachment to Christ and his power, and a willingness to stick out -- all qualities that we will unpack in this series.
To be sure, every Christian is called to the relational graces of love. The restraint of self in the interests of others is at the heart of Christian community. Those who practice self-indulgence in the name of individuality are missing the deep identification with Christ they should exhibit in their thoughts and actions.
But love is not the sum of people-pleasing flatteries.
The real culprit behind the breakdown of community, the loss of shared mission, and the growth of the self-esteem gospel is not individuality but consumerism.
The consumer measures goodness by how much can be bought for the lowest price. The Christian individualist measures goodness by how high a price Christ paid for him. The bottom line for the consumer is, "What's in it for me?" The bottom line for the Christian individualist is, "What's in it through me for Christ?" To find the safe bet, the wary consumer looks at what the majority does, but the Christian individualist looks only at what Christ does -- and sees no risk.
I don't think consumerism is individualistic at all. Consumerism is deeply conformist. If the bottom line is what's in it for me, then my assets had better be safe. And the safest thing is to be with the herd. Though we can't escape the refrain, "Be true to yourself," we see masses of people who dress the same, talk the same, listen to the same music, and drive the same cars.
For the consumer, the self to which he must be true is his demographic.
In this new series, then, we will explore the paradox that strong, healthy individuality is the expression of a life submitted to loving Christ. And I think we'll also stumble onto a greater paradox -- that strong individuality in Christ is the foundation for strong togetherness.