The COVID-19 pandemic has changed many things in the church. While some of them were good, a lot of them were terrible. The pandemic has shut down many churches from meeting together, which has then caused a decrease in ministries, which then led to a decrease in offerings, which then caused deficits in budgets. For some, it will eventually cause a closing. These situations are horrible and heartbreaking, and it would be tempting to blame the pandemic for all of it. However, that is not entirely true. The church has been fighting a sickness far worse than COVID for far longer than COVID has been around. This pandemic has revealed the underlying severe sickness of individualism.
Individualism in the American Culture
The United States of America is home to one of the most individualistic cultures in the entire world. From the beginnings of America, the founding fathers believed individualistic freedoms were so vital that they wrote a Bill of Rights to prevent future aggressors from violating an individual’s freedoms. Americans see themselves as individuals. In telling of one’s life, an American will describe themselves by their advancement, “Work is great! I have accomplished all my goals for this quarter.” When non-individualistic cultures describe themselves differently, when describing career accomplishments, they may say something to the effect of, “Work is going great! My team is crushing goals and working together!” Americans are individualistic as a culture and in their everyday thinking.
While this realization is not God-honoring nor enjoyable to admit, it is beneficial in the realms of preaching. The best preachers are not gunslingers, running by shooting a little theological information or biblical wisdom in the congregation’s direction and riding into the sunset. The best preachers are shepherds. They connect to their people as pastors who lead their flock. They know where their people are as a culture and how to communicate to that culture. For preaching, the calling is to proclaim the Word of God to an individualistic culture.
Individualism in Our Preaching
As we begin to relate this to preaching, we must also understand that the culture’s individualistic ideology has bled into the Western church. Preaching to individuals is normative for many preachers in the Western church. Beginning with preparation, a preacher may ask themselves what this means for individuals in their congregation. While delivering the sermon, a preacher may look out upon the congregation and lock eyes with individuals nodding their heads in agreement. In the invitation, the preacher may examine each person expecting one to come forward. Preparing the message for individuals, connecting to individuals in the delivery, and calling individuals to respond to the invitation are seen as the means to successful preaching.
However, this is not necessarily what was modeled in the Scriptures. The act of preaching was performed in the context of a congregation or crowd. Even the way that Scripture is written, there is a corporate nature to it. Except for the Pastoral Epistles, the New Testament Epistles were written to churches. If preaching was corporate and Scripture was written to the churches, preaching today must include a corporate aspect.
Individualism in Our Church
Individualism spoils the core definition of the church. In an individualistic culture, the church is anytime they sing in the shower, pray in the car, or read a devotional verse from a calendar at their desk. For the individual, a church family and corporate worship are optional at best. They believe that church is anywhere, at any time, with just about anything.
However, this is not Scriptural in the least. The church is a gathering of the saints as the people of God (1Pet 2:9–10; Rom 9:25–26) bound together through the Spirit’s fellowship (1Cor 10:17; 12–14; Eph 3) for worship and practice of the ordinances (Acts 2:42–47; 1Pet 2:9). The church is made up of the saints as a part of a corporate body to respond to the Scriptures corporately as individuals (1Cor 12:12–14).
Therefore, preaching should lead the congregation to that type of response as well. In addition to the preacher calling for individual responses, the preacher must be diligent in including corporate responses. For example, the preacher’s exhortation to rid yourselves of sin should not only include personal repentance of sin (Rom 8:13; Col 3:5) but a calling for the church body to eliminate sin from among them corporately (1Cor 5:1–13). Therefore, the preacher’s appeal to respond to the Word must be corporate and individual.
Individualism in the Mission
When individualism becomes the lens of the church, the mission of the church becomes tainted. No longer is the mission of Christ to build the church. Instead, individualism says that “Christ came to save me.” No longer is the Great Commission of the church to make disciples by preaching the gospel to the nations (Matt 28:18–20; Acts 1:8). Individualism in the church says, “The Great Commission is for the select few who are gifted to go and preach the gospel, and we should let them go.” Under the banner of individualism, the definition of discipleship changes for the church. Discipleship ceases to take place in the corporate body of Christian fellowship. Discipleship becomes an individual’s pursuit of Bible knowledge.
However, this is not so. When Christ gave the Great Commission, he gave it to the church (Matt 28:18–20; Acts 1:8). When the Holy Spirit fell at Pentecost, it fell upon the whole body of believers present in Jerusalem (Acts 2:1–4). The church’s mission to make disciples and reach the lost is not an individual’s obligation; it is the marching orders of the church (Acts 1:8).
Therefore, preaching must communicate that it is every Christian’s responsibility to share the gospel. The call of missions does not speak to gifted individuals exclusively. It calls the whole church to build the Kingdom. For example, the preacher’s invitation to go and share the gospel should not be an individual call alone. The invitation should be a rallying cry for the people of God to witness the life-saving gospel of Jesus to all who will hear. When challenging the church through the call of preaching, the preacher must be diligent to communicate that it is the responsibility of the whole Church to reach the world.
Preacher, this article has merely touched the surface on how individualism has infected the church. There is not enough space in this format to fully flesh out all the ways cultural individualism affects the church. Nevertheless, may this be a spark to get thoughts going on how we can draw congregations to be more than a group of individuals. May this lead us to preach so that we would call our people to be united as the people of God on a mission to make disciples.
Anthony Svajda is the Lead Pastor at Harvey Baptist Church in Stephenville, Texas.