From We to Me

Americans since the 1960s are increasingly expressing themselves in terms that are individual-focused (“me”) rather than community-focused (“we”). So reports USA Today.

Such a trend may not be hard to imagine in society, but what about within the American Church? Are modern-day Christians tempted to find their identity in increasingly individualistic terms? Is #me trending over #we?

Yes, says Michael Svigel in his new book RetroChristianity: Reclaiming the Forgotten Faith. But to find the evidence and the cause he goes back further than the 1960s, seeing how personal growth in holiness shifted in the 1600s. Svigel explains the swing from we to me through a history lesson.

History and experience teach us that both the corporate and the individual dimensions of sanctification can be pushed to an extreme. Corporate spirituality was exaggerated to a great degree in the medieval Catholic period, in which the corporate disciplines of the sacramental system — inextricably linked to the life of the institutional Church under a strict hierarchy — made the notion of a personal relationship with God seem strange. In reaction to the extreme position that only those means of grace officially connected to the Church were trustworthy and valid, early attempts at reform emphasized the other side of the Christian life — the direct, personal, unmediated relationship with God through the Holy Spirit. This became a major emphasis of the Protestant Reformers in the sixteenth century.

However, during the modern era, from about 1600 onward, when education, religion, philosophy, and politics increasingly emphasized individualism over community, many Christians uncritically adopted an excessively individualistic approach to spirituality. The church started to be viewed as an optional voluntary gathering of individual believers, and congregational forms of church government began to take shape. . . .

I’m doubtful congregational polity necessarily indicates individualism over community, as Svigel here seems to assume, but his point about church gatherings becoming more and more “optional” is an important one. He continues:

. . . With it, the idea of corporate spirituality was replaced increasingly by individual spirituality. The proverbial pendulum swung to the opposite extreme from the medieval Catholic imbalance.

Today, most evangelicals are heirs of the extreme individualistic approach to the spiritual life. For example, many of you reading these words were not converted to Christianity or admitted into the church, but “accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Savior.” Then, as a follow up, you may have been taught that the key to the spiritual life was to “read your Bible and pray every day” or to “have your quiet time” or to “practice in the spiritual disciplines,” or to “nurture your personal relationship with God.”

In other words, the role of community is often lost, and our personal sanctification suffers for it. Svigel encourages us to think of how Scripture will help us maintain the we/me balance in our pursuit of maturity:

The balanced Christian life cannot stay in the extreme of corporate spirituality, nor retreat into a radically individual spirituality. Rather, a balanced, stable approach to spirituality must simultaneously embrace both corporate and individual means of sanctification. . . .

Scripture presents a balanced view of both corporate and individual aspects of the spiritual life. Paul illustrates this balanced approach in Galatians 6:1–5. Verses 1–2 stress the need for all of us to work together to bear each other’s burdens; but verses 3–5 remind us that each individual is personally accountable before God for how we have carried out the tasks God has given to each of us. Similarly, in a passage directly related to building the church on the foundation of Jesus Christ, Paul writes, “Let each one take care how he builds upon it,” warning that God’s judgment “will test what sort of work each one has done” (1 Corinthians 3:10, 13). Finally, Romans 12:1–8 proves to be a key passage on personal consecration and its corporate implications as each committed believer, having offered himself or herself to God’s service, contributes to the building up of the body of Christ.

In these passages (and many more) the spiritual growth of a believer involves an inseparable and dynamic interplay between both individual and community means of sanctification. To neglect either the personal or the corporate in the process of sanctification will inevitably result in an unbalanced Christian life. (250–252)

Yes, and perhaps our danger today is the neglected vision for the community — at least in many evangelical quarters. It seems many of us are more likely to lose sight of God’s intended role of our brothers and sisters in Christ to our growth in godliness, a tendency Russell Moore is sure to help us correct in his conference message this fall: "Acting the Miracle Together: Corporate Dynamics in Christian Sanctification."

Tony Reinke is a content strategist and staff writer for Desiring God and the author of Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books (2011) and John Newton on the Christian Life: To Live Is Christ (2015). He hosts the Ask Pastor John and Authors on the Line podcasts, and lives in the Twin Cities with his wife and their three children. He also blogs at tonyreinke.com.