Not long ago, relativism defined the cultural conversation. Truth was “unknowable.” Perhaps it was somewhere “out there,” but anyone’s guess as to where was as good as the next.
This is no longer the case.
Today, we’re in a new cultural moment—one marked not by relativism, but by a new phenomenon known as expressive individualism. While relativism may label an assertion of external and objective truth as arrogant, expressive individualism calls it oppressive. The relativist asks, “Who’s to say what’s true?” The expressive individualist replies, “Me.”
Look across the landscape of cultural artifacts, and you’ll find the same motif time and again: Power and freedom are found in self-discovery. As Tim Keller notes, “The only heroic narrative we’ve got left in our culture is the individual looking inside, seeing who they want to be, and asserting that over and against everyone else in society.”
So we really have moved on from relativism: Truth is now not only knowable, it’s been found. All you have to do is look inside yourself.
Individualism and the Church
Many in the church can sniff out—even refute—relativism. We’ve been handed enough apologetic tools and basic reasoning skills to dismantle the notion that truth is subjective. Expressive individualism, however, is more insidious. It allows us to appear as if we’re worshiping God, when in reality we’re bowing to the god of self. It acknowledges the power of Jesus, but convinces us that he intends to use his power to further our own self-centered goals and aspirations. It agrees we can be certain about truth, but points to our own hearts as the source.
When we center everything, from Sundays to small groups, on the individual experience, we stoke the fire of self-worship.
It’s sobering to think about the church’s collusion with this framework. Rather than pushing back against individualism, congregations often subtly encourage it. When we center everything, from Sundays to small groups, on the individual experience, we stoke the fire of self-worship. If we’re not careful, we can betray the message that “Christ is king” with a method that says, “Actually, you are.”
Biblically speaking, it’s difficult to find two terms more antithetical than self and church. And it’s not as though we must wade through cloaked language to discover this antithesis. When Jesus calls us into his church, his charge is not that we discover but deny ourselves (Matt. 16:24–25). Further, when Jesus enumerates the things that spring from our hearts, truth doesn’t make the list. Only false testimony and evil thoughts do.
Or pull on any thread in Paul’s epistles, and you’ll find it connected to a call to pursue humble unity and consider others more significant than yourself. Simply put, a biblical understanding of what it means to believe in Jesus and belong to his church is incompatible with expressive individualism.
Biblically speaking, it’s difficult to find two terms more antithetical than ‘self’ and ‘church.’
Truth is neither relative nor self-generated; it is knowable. In fact, it’s touchable. Ultimate truth exists in the form of a man, the God-man—the one who died for our sinful hearts so that we could die to them.
The fruit-desiring, lie-believing, wilderness-wandering self is the very thing we bury as we are buried with Christ. His death for us becomes our death to self, and his new life becomes our new life—a life in which we deny ourselves instead of listening to ourselves, in which we take up our cross instead of taking up our dreams, and in which we follow him instead of following our hearts.
Church Planting’s Counter-Culture
Church planting has always been central to Jesus’s mission. But it’s particularly helpful and corrective in today’s cultural climate. As embodied creatures, we are formed by what we do. Our rhythms of life shape us from the outside in. What we do with our time, our hands, our lips, our money—all of it shapes our hearts. Just like the liturgy of a worship gathering, the method becomes part of the message. And both the method and also the message of church planting regularly remind us that we are not the point.
Planting a church requires a radical commitment to a unified, corporate identity. This commitment naturally undermines expressive individualism, since it simply won’t allow us to place ourselves—our beliefs, our preferences, our desires—at the center of the church’s reason for existence.
Planting a church requires a radical commitment to a unified, corporate identity. This commitment naturally undermines expressive individualism.
When we plant churches and press into the challenges, we invite our brothers and sisters into rhythms of life and ministry that will, slowly but surely, force the primacy of self to erode. And that will, time and again, yield the blessed—albeit painful—reminder that we are not, in fact, the arbiters of truth and goodness.
In a church plant, you have to strip away the superfluous for the sake of the essential. While there’s nothing necessarily wrong with programs and production, the simplicity of a church plant offers a repeated invitation to forsake self-centeredness for self-denial.
Musical preferences begin to pale in comparison to the beautiful sound of a school cafeteria filling with gospel-proclaiming voices. Preaching “style” matters little when a living room is filled with those listening to their pastor faithfully mine the depths of God’s Word week in and week out. Life as a part of a church plant has a way of forcing us to not only keep the truth of the gospel central, but also primary. And it teaches us, in both message and method, that we must daily trust our faithful King rather than our fickle selves.
At a time when the church is, lamentably, one of the first places to capitulate to individualism, church planting gives Christ’s followers a chance to regularly exercise the much-needed practice of leading our hearts rather than following them. It takes whatever “truth” we think we’ve found within and subverts it with the pre-eminence of Christ and the truth of the gospel. And the more we keep that truth—the truth—at the forefront, the quicker the so-called truth we find “within” gets exposed for the counterfeit that it is.