IN HIS BOOK Community and Growth, Jean Vanier explains that for any community to thrive, there must be more members who can say “me for the community” than those who say “the community for me.”
That simple contrast—me for the community vs. the community for me—captures the heart of the dilemma facing modern Western culture and, by extension, the expressions of the church that are sustained in its midst. The Enlightenment and the models for political, social, and economic life that it spawned in modern Western culture freed humanity from oppressive, authoritarian rule governing thought, religion, and political structures. The role, rights, and agency of the individual became paramount. This revolutionized the philosophical framework for how society should be governed.
In contrast to individualism, what generally can be termed “collectivism” begins by asserting that realities of social groups are the primary reference point for understanding how societies should be organized and governed. In a nutshell, individuals don’t really have a meaningful identity apart from their belonging to a social group. Participation in a collective group, in this view, is both a more realistic understanding of how society functions and is the context that makes individual life possible.
For political philosophy, the question becomes where the starting point is: Does society find its moral foundation in the rights of its individual members, who then make agreements and social contracts for how best to preserve these rights? Or does society begin by recognizing we are social beings, and collectively we decide—through various political processes—how best to secure the rights of all who belong to a shared community? Normally this becomes a healthy political dialogue between the primacy of individual freedom and the responsibility of upholding the common good of society.
But ideas can be pushed to extremes, at times with frightful consequences of enormous social evil. That was the case, most dramatically, when collectivism was hijacked by Marxist ideology. Declaring that all supposed individualism was an illusion since the real circumstances and destiny of working people were completely controlled by those who owned the means of production, Marxism proclaimed that liberation would come only through the revolutionary overthrow of the power structure. A new collective state, guided by a vanguard of leadership expressed through a party, would demand complete allegiance to achieve its utopian goals. The results were not only failed economic systems, but authoritarian terror subjecting millions to untold suffering and death.
Individualism has also been pushed to extremes. The familiar term “rugged individualism” was coined by Herbert Hoover in his final campaign speech for his election as president in 1928. The stock market crashed seven months later, plunging the country into the Great Depression. Hoover continued promoting rugged individualism and, apart from major public works projects, was reluctant to see government intervene in the economic life of the nation, even as social and economic catastrophe escalated. One result was Franklin Roosevelt’s landslide election in 1932. More recently, philosophers such as Ayn Rand took individualism to such extremes that selfishness became a virtue, dismissing altruism and self-sacrifice and advocating a radical laissez-faire capitalism free of any government interference.
Normally, however, there’s at least an aspirational appeal to care about the common good. Think, for instance, of the famous line in President John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” It was a political way of saying, “me for the community, rather than the community for me.”
Nevertheless, the dominance of individualism as a primary feature shaping American life is beyond question. For example, the Pew Research Center posed this question to Americans and Europeans: “What’s more important in society, that everyone be free to pursue life’s goals without interference from the state, or that the state play an active role in society so as to guarantee that nobody is in need?” Fifty-eight percent of Americans cited that an individual’s freedom was most important, while majorities in European nations felt opposite. For most Americans, the starting point is “the community for me.” The creative power of advertising in our consumer society, meshed with the tools of social media, wants us to believe that the individual is at the center of everything.
Biblical faith and community
But here’s the rub. That assumption is, in fact, foreign to Christian faith. Put simply, it’s an unbiblical, alien concept. The biblical story, beginning first with creation, launches into human history with God calling forth a people. Angels visiting Abraham and Sarah promise their offspring will multiply into a people chosen and shaped by God. Moses has the God-given task of liberating a people. They are then led as a community seeking a place, a new land, together where their community could blossom. Prophets call the people of God back to their true identity, forsaking other corporate loyalties.
Then, the people, as a community, are sent into exile, where they long as a people to be restored together to their homeland. The promise of salvation coming through the Messiah, the Anointed One, is given to the people of Israel, and extended beyond. When Jesus calls those to follow him, he calls them into a community, and not to private, individualistic fulfillment. At Pentecost, the Spirit of God was poured out to create a new community, the church. This community, together, crosses and reconciles the divisive boundaries in society—Jew/Greek, Slave/Free, Male/Female. All this happens in and through belonging to the new community of God’s people.
This community is called the “Body of Christ.” Throughout salvation history, God’s action has focused on creating a people faithful to God’s love and purposes for the world. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, people are invited to become members of this community, based on God’s grace and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Thus, this community, the church, is equipped to embody and carry forth together the presence of Jesus Christ in the world. Just as the Spirit descended uniquely on Jesus as God’s Son, that same Spirit now fills the Body of Christ, together, in its ongoing witness of God’s grace and love.
Much of the New Testament is devoted to explaining, exhorting, and instructing those who follow Jesus what it means to live together as a community, experiencing the gifts of the Spirit, and demonstrating the unity and reconciliation that is God’s gift. Thus, the metaphor of existing together as one body highlights powerfully the intrinsic interdependence of every member with one another. One’s relationship to God is placed in a new relationship of love to one another. This is not an optional choice, but a defining connection. Christian faith, incorporating us into the reach of God’s grace, binds us to one another as Christ’s body. This Christian understanding of community clarifies that those who follow Jesus are not a random collection of individuals.
The starting point for one who follows Jesus is always found in God’s action to form a faithful people. The goal is to become incorporated into a community that is the vehicle for God’s transforming work in the world. The goal is not to find one’s individual happiness and affirm one’s individual rights. Therefore, Christians are always beckoned primarily to say, me for the community. That’s what it means to be claimed by God and participate in God’s ongoing transformation and redemption of the world.
Of course, Jesus comes to us as individuals. Each person is confronted with an invitation to accept the gospel, or not. Our relationship to God is personal, and even intimate. The Christian journey always has an inward as well as an outward direction. However, one’s transforming, personal encounter with God’s grace and love destroys the illusion of individualism. We no longer live unto ourselves. It’s not about me. Called and claimed by God’s love, we enter indissolubly into the community of God’s people. That’s where we ground our identity, where we find our nurture, where we experience God’s love, and where we discover our calling. It happens together.
Life as relationships
It is against this backdrop that the religious heresy of American individualism, woven into the fabric of a domesticated faith and reinforced by the cultural heritage of the Western Enlightenment, becomes exposed. Ingrained in the heritage and popularized story of our country, individualism has become embedded in versions of American theology that, in fact, are globally exceptional. And that’s not a compliment. The expressions are numerous, from the self-improvement theologies of Norman Vincent Peale and Robert H. Schuller to the “prosperity gospel” of Paula White, Creflo Dollar, and Joel Osteen. Faith growing in American soil can readily draw on the culture’s taproot of rugged individualism.
The popularity of these ministries is testimony not to their fidelity to the biblical message but to their determination to place the psychological fulfillment and material success of the individual at the center of the faith experience. In the United States, that message sells. Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston is the largest in the United States. In its day, Schuller’s “Hour of Power” was the most widely viewed religious telecast. And when Creflo Dollar walks his prosperity gospel talk with two Rolls-Royces, a Gulfstream jet, and a collection of ultra-luxury homes, his followers love it, seeing it as evidence of God’s blessings. The message, it seems, is not just community for me, it’s the world for me.
Individualistic self-indulgence will always search for threads of religious justification and blessing, particularly in the crazy patch-work quilt of U.S. Christianity. This tempting message can captivate many. But in the end, simple wisdom prevails as most believers realize that Jesus didn’t come to earth to give people Gulfstream jets.
A thirst for community, among both rich and poor, persistently endures. Expressions of the church that will thrive in the future and that will resonate life reflecting the core of Christian faith will invite people into gracious, accepting communities shaped by the character and presence of God’s love. Such communities become the reference point for one’s life of discipleship, offering accountability, nurture, and trust. Moreover, they are the social laboratories providing the antidote to the mythical power and attraction of self-centered individualism in the culture.
In many respects, U.S. congregations now find themselves at a crossroads. Popular streams of spiritually sanctioned individualism, drawn from the culture, reverberate through many parts of the U.S. church. But the communal nature of Christian faith, with its overwhelming biblical roots, has gone from being an anti-establishment practice to becoming almost commonplace. As U.S. Christianity faces its future, increasingly its congregations will need to choose which of these versions of the gospel will claim their allegiance and shape their life and ministry. This is not a matter of accommodating a diversity of views. It’s a question of walking faithfully, with others, in response to God’s self-giving love.
This article is adapted with permission from his forthcoming book Future Faith: Ten Challenges Reshaping Christianity in the 21st Century (Fortress Press, 2018).