Expressive individualism receives much well-deserved criticism from Christians these days. And yet, as a pastor to Gen Z college students, I often desire for my students to be more individualistic. In one sense, this generation and the campus culture they inhabit is the zenith of expressive individualism. But in another, independence and individualism seem scarce, having been swallowed by groupthink and an unquestionable orthodoxy of thought. Pastorally (and culturally), this dynamic threatens the spiritual health of young people.
Robert Bellah’s description of American individualism in Habits of the Heart reveals the tension: “Anything that would violate our right to think for ourselves, judge for ourselves, make our own decisions, live our lives as we see fit, is not only morally wrong; it is sacrilegious” (142). Particularly as a matter of truth, such individualism can bear bad fruit and create an obstacle to Christian faith. Together with the rise of secularism, we see a Disneyesque understanding of reality—looking within to find my meaning and my truth, free of external constraints. To quote Frozen’s Elsa, “No right, no wrong, no rules for me; I’m free!”
And yet, relative to that very emerging culture that rejects external authority, the individualistic skills Bellah describes are crucial to evangelism and Christian growth. If students can’t think for themselves and challenge the prevailing orthodoxy of their secular peers, faith is near impossible. Herein lies the tension I observe pastorally.
Inescapable Individualism and Its Benefits
Carl Trueman is no fan of expressive individualism, as seen in the title and contents of his massively helpful book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution. But amid his critique, Trueman helpfully reminds us that “we are all expressive individualists now, and there is no way we can escape from this fact.” And what’s more, individualism is not “an unmitigated evil,” but has produced some good fruit (386).
In one sense, this generation and the campus culture they inhabit is the zenith of expressive individualism. But in another, independence and individualism seem scarce, having been swallowed by groupthink and an unquestionable orthodoxy of thought.
Chief among these benefits is a recognition of individuals’ dignity as image-bearers and an affirmation of the inner life. More broadly, we can observe that the individualism of modern capitalism has lifted millions out of poverty and advanced human flourishing.
To these benefits we should add the faithful individualism that has allowed God’s people of all ages to stand out and against the dominant voices of their collective cultures. This was the call of the people of Israel in Canaan, Christ’s disciples during Second Temple Judaism, and early Christians in the pagan world. It was the strength of the reformers and the Puritans as they stood for the gospel at all costs. And it was the boldness of Wilberforce, Bonhoeffer, King, and countless other Christians in their fights for righteousness against the collective wisdom of their times.
I certainly don’t want my students to find their truth inside themselves, but, having found it in the external Word of God, I do want them to stand firm and live confidently as outsiders and nonconformists. An independent, sometimes contrarian spirit here is an asset, not a liability.
Christian Individualism Together
The need for some individualism is grounded theologically in the reality of sin and the call to holiness. The corruption of the fall and the endurance of common grace means Christians will sometimes enjoy the collective crowd in this world—but often they must step out and stand alone. In an increasingly secular culture, modern Christians must heed the lesson of Peter’s denial and leave the warmth of the fire (John 18:17–18).
Individualistic skills are crucial to evangelism and Christian growth.
This can be a lonely place, but the community of the church means this stepping out is never truly alone. Individualism in a biblical sense is something we do together. United to Christ as individuals, we are united to one another. This is the beauty and safeguard of a Christian “corporate individualism.” Indeed, the removal of this safeguard amid rising secularism points to one reason for the corrosive elements of today’s individualism.
The possibility of individualistic community is not without secular analogue. As Rosaria Butterfield has observed, the LGBTQ movement, for all its roots in expressive individualism, is a uniquely rich, vibrant, and cohesive community. We see this also in those living as foreigners today, whether immigrants in America or expats abroad. These groups must work to preserve their culture even as they live as outsiders. They do this in community.
So too Christians, as citizens of a heavenly kingdom, are living as strangers and exiles in this world (Phil. 3:20; Heb. 11:13; 1 Pet. 2:11). The church then exists as an embassy of that heavenly kingdom, an outpost for those conforming to a different sort of community (and an invitation for others to join).
Even as Christians can agree with many critiques of individualism from inside and outside the church, let us retain enough individualism to question conventional wisdom. This is especially true for Protestants, who are often blamed for individualism’s evils. But even if the Reformation is partly responsible (a debatable point), such a trade might be inevitable for faithfulness in a fallen world—and one we might willingly make for the sake of Christ’s gospel.
The strength we need for faithfulness in this world is found in a sanctified individualism, grounded in the external Word of God and connected to Christian community, but always ready to stand alone.
That gospel can blunt the harmful aspects of individualism while empowering us to walk by faith in the way of Christ, “who suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his blood,” and calls us to “go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured” (Heb. 13:12–13).
The strength my Gen Z students (and all of us) need for faithfulness in this world is found in a certain kind of individualism—a sanctified individualism, grounded in the external Word of God and connected to Christian community, but always ready to stand alone.