Overcoming Individualism

Working toward my goal of doing more cross-cultural reading, I finally finished reading Divided By Faith last week.  It’s an extensively researched account of the racial division in American churches, relating the history of racial division and analyzing current segregation.   It’s very informative, especially if you like reading sociology.  But the chief lesson I took away from the book boils down to this: whites and evangelicals are individualistic, therefore evangelicals who are white are hyper-individualistic. This leads white evangelicals to often suggest ineffective individualized approaches to racial problems.   

It’s not that white Christians have no racial conscience; no one in their right mind today would not say that racism is sin.  According to the authors of Divided by Faith, it’s an issue of the “tools” we have to work with.  Because we’re individualists, we use individual tools rather than corporate tools.  As the title of chapter 6 – “Let’s Be Friends” – implies, the have-a-black-friend approach is much more popular among white evangelicals than the move-into-a-black-neighborhood approach.  Developing a relationship with someone of another color makes sense to a mind that’s been taught a gospel of personal sin and personal salvation through personal relationship with a personal God.  But the truth is that racism is not just an individual sin – it’s ingrained in our society, at institutional, political, and economic levels that must be addressed on a larger scale.

Which raises the question, how do we find other, less-individualistic “tools” with which to approach racial division?   Within the Church, though, the question becomes more how to we repent of our over-accomodation to American individualism and reclaim a more biblical sense of communal identity?  Paul Louis Metzger, in Consuming Jesus, suggests that recovering the centrality of Word and Sacrament in churches will counter the consumerism in American churches today.  In short, we should go to church not to experience the best praise band or the most dynamic preacher, but to encounter Jesus.  We try to model this at Upper Room, with it being one reason why we celebrate the Lord’s Supper each week.  But I think we also have to be aware of the message we preach: a personal relationship with God is good, but by no means is it meant to be private.  The Bible is filled with images of community and communal redemption.   We have to teach a holistic communal Gospel rather than an individualistic reduction of the Gospel.   And I think – or at least hope – that we seek to teach this at Upper Room, as well.

So, we’re trying.  But we still have a long way to go.  Sunday after church at Upper Room, a number of us went out to lunch at a nearby Chinese restaurant.  I didn’t realize until Mike told me yesterday that all of the white people at the table had ordered individually while the three Asians had ordered family-style.  It may be a relatively small cultural difference, but it reveals how much individualism is still ingrained in us.  

How else can the Church overcome individualism?  What other tools can we use to create a more corporate sense of identity?


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