The Great Disconnect: Chronic Individualism and Social Change

My friend Jeanne recently started a new blog, designed to share commentary, critique and insight from current podcasts.  Her inaugural post was on RSA’s podcast on the Paradox of Choice.  You can read the blog here. I found it fascinating for Renata Saleci (the featured podcast guest)–an Eastern European woman reared in a society based on Communist ideals–to share her outsider’s perspective and critique on individualistic American society.  One of the main points she makes is that the very nature of individualistic culture and the “self-made man” in a capitalistic culture can actually be obstacle to social change.  As Jeanne writes in her blog:

“One of her conclusions is that the ideology of choice is not so optimistic, and it can actually prevent the social change it was once believed to inspire. The ideology of the “self-made man” goes against the reality of the social situation, pacifying people who inwardly turn their criticism. A more effective response would be organizing ourselves and making a critique of our society, not ourselves; this would be a more effective method of bringing about social change.”

Growing up in a conservative evangelical church, I’ve noticed that I grew up in a culture where the main emphasis has been on behavior modification.  “Don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t have premarital sex, don’t listen to this type of music and son on” were behavior rules to follow if one is to be a good Christian and earn favor with God.

Here’s good cultural example of this:  Prior to the Season 6 finale of LOST, Jimmy Kimmel had the cast of LOST on his show.  Mentioning some of the religious themes and the heaven/hell/purgatory imagery of the show, Jimmy summed up Christianity as being “good people get to go to heaven and bad people go to hell.”  And most of the cast nodded in agreement at his assessment of Christianity.  This perception of Christianity is common among many people.  Sadly, the message of Christ has often gotten warped in translation, and the gospel of grace remains neglected, even and especially among many churchgoing Christians.

Consequently, I’ve noticed a shift in postmodern evangelical circles to combat this behavior-driven emphasis with a return to “saved by faith and not be works” emphasis.  The teaching focus is on inward transformation, an “inside out” change that is not driven by behavioral change, but results in behavioral change through the power of  Scripture and the Holy Spirit.  This is absolutely a necessary teaching that I believe must be re-visited again and again in a spirit of confession and repentance.

However, I’ve also noticed that sometimes the tendency is to remain stuck in this individualistic cycle at the expense of true social change.  Since reading Edward T. Welch’s book “When People are Big and God is Small,” I’ve been overwhelmed with the way that individualism affects the way so many of us think, perceive the world and people around us, and make choices based on those perceptions.  It’s an interesting paradox that as our younger generation has become more aware of social justice issues, we’ve also become increasingly consumeristic in our lifestyles and that includes our view on money, technology, fashion, entertainment, food, therapy, relationships.  We engage in these things to get something out of it, and move on to the next thing when we’re done.  But I’ve noticed in my own life and others in my generation that what begins with good intentions for personal and spiritual growth can often lead to us getting stuck on the self-absorption train that doesn’t actually result in external life transformation or social change.  We often don’t give  generously of ourselves, our time, our money, our effort with a missional focus.

There’s a disconnect between inner growth and external change.

As Marc Driscoll observes in a recent Neue magazine article, that with this younger generation of believers “we’re just not seeing that kind of generosity.  It tends to be a more materialistic culture.  People tend to be more selfish.  They can tend to treat the Church more as a community of friends, but not really a place to be generous or on a mission.”

Among believers, I think we suffer from chronic individualism in terms of church and personal spiritual growth.  I often hear “I used to go to so-and-so church, but I wasn’t getting fed, or I didn’t like the worship or teaching so now I’m going to such-and-such.”  I’ve done that, and I’m sure we all have. On one hand, there is nothing wrong with choosing to associate with a particular church community because of certain teaching or worship style preferences:  I’m not knocking that.  But there does come a time when we have to step back and re-evaluate how much consumerism and individualism (“the church exists to serve me and my needs”) has affected our overall attitude and day-to-day decisions.  The individualistic tendencies must be challenged.

I think of the great minds and thinkers and leaders of the past where deep faith and inner spiritual growth has worked itself out in undeniable social change.  From William Wilberforce and the ending of the slave trade and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s defiance of Nazi rule, to Martin Luther King Jr.’s march for civil rights in the 60s, and all the unnamed heroes, teachers and missionaries in between, it’s sobering to think of all the people who have participated in the alleviation of injustice and suffering in obedience to God.  And it’s not merely limited to grandiose social efforts that reverberate throughout history:  it’s in sponsoring kids from sub-Saharan Africa, giving money and time generously to the local church and global mission causes, supporting development and education initiatives in impoverished communities.  It’s slowly but surely joining the story of God redeeming and renewing His creation.

Outward external change is not the impetus for true inner transformation, but it is certainly compelling evidence of it.

These thoughts are as much a critique of myself as the generation of which I am a part.  I’m still wrestling through all of these ideas as I evaluate my attitude toward my own life.



2 thoughts on “The Great Disconnect: Chronic Individualism and Social Change

  1. For sure, there is a disconnect. I often think that, in general, Christians are afraid to step on toes, too. So much so that it becomes a crime to speak out about injustices. Perhaps some are a little tired of being told issues cared about don’t matter, or that views on “issues” are wrong, that they do not belong in the church; and sadly, I, too, have often looked elsewhere for comrades outside the church who are intent on supporting justice issues unlike those in a church setting have done.

    I also wonder how this surplus of inward reflection does not, in most cases, spill over and cause a greater number of Christians to concern themselves with outward injustices. For me, it is a reflex and way of life; for many, especially some so religiously and spiritually inclined, every issue comes back to whether it will affect them personally.

    I am trying to find ways to talk about these things when Christians for the most part seem to shy away from topics that might “get them in trouble.” I think it is easier, and even lazy, to concern oneself solely with emotional matters of the heart rather than physically altering some evil in the world. It is as if evil only resides in individual actions, as if salvation is merely individual rather than congregational. I think it is/can be both, but many have other views.

    Do you think the struggle for individual salvation causes people to push and kick their way to the staircase to heaven to the point of ignoring oppression of others? I wonder if maybe this isn’t too harsh an analogy, and if people unknowingly do further harm when blame is cast on those who are thought of as “dragging down society” in various forms.

    My last question for you is: how can we, as Christians, have united efforts against injustices when we cannot even agree on what is just?

    yo, thanks for writin’ 😉

  2. Those are some good observations, Myranda. I agree… it is a “reflex” as you say. And part of it is a good reflex. But I think we definitely take the inward reflection to an extreme sometimes without balancing it out with asking bigger questions about this world we live in.

    I think the struggle for individual salvation is incomplete if it simply focuses on salvation of self without eventually moving to an understanding of the greater picture of reconciliation and renewal of the whole world (the new heavens and the new earth). Certainly, many come to know Christ initially for personal and individual reasons. I think it was C.S. Lewis who said we come to Christ with “such small ambitions”, whether it’s merely to attain an inner level of peace, to attempt to escape the threat of hell, because we feel inspired or moved. But we can’t remain at such an individualistic view of salvation.

    I guess I need to answer your question with another question… Which specific issues to you repeatedly find Christians not agreeing on what is just?

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