Why Is Expressive Individualism a Challenge for the Church?

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In my previous column, we looked at the term “expressive individualism.” Today, I want us to see why a society captivated by this view of the world presents a challenge for the church in our efforts to be faithful to the gospel.

Me vs. God

The first reason why expressive individualism poses a challenge is that we’ve been commissioned to proclaim a message that is radically God-centered. The gospel challenges the “Me” with “I Am”—the One who created and sustains us. Expressive individualism would have us look deep into our hearts to discover our inner essence and express that to the world. But the gospel shows how the depths of our hearts are steeped in sin; it claims that what we need most is not expression, but redemption.

The world says we should look inward, while the gospel says to look upward. In an expressive individualist society, that message is countercultural. Such instruction is easy to resist, because looking up implies that something or Someone stands outside us and above us. Something that stands above us may exert some sort of authority or claim upon our lives. And like most good Westerners, we chafe against claims of moral authority. We push back against institutions that demand something from us.

The rationale for this particular form of rebellion against God is that conforming to nature or to an outside standard—seen in Christianity as obedience to God—stifles “the real me.” To follow the ancient instructions of Scripture, or to conform to a moral standard that comes from outside, feels like a betrayal of my identity. Submitting myself to Truth that comes from outside myself feels like I am abandoning the call to “live my truth.” And so, the primary message of the church, one that confronts the “Me” with the claims of God, feels wrong. The sociologists who wrote Habits of the Heart put it his way:

We believe in the dignity, indeed the sacredness, of the individual. 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. Our highest and noblest aspirations, not only for ourselves, but for those we care about, for our society and for the world, are closely linked to our individualism.

What happens to the church in this environment? It’s not that suddenly all the sanctuaries are emptied and the church gets rejected. Instead, the people who continue to attend church do so because they believe the church can help them find and express themselves. Religiosity doesn’t disappear; it morphs into something adaptable, something you embrace on your own terms. Faith is no longer focused on reality or something true; it’s a therapeutic choice intended to aid you in your pursuit of self-exaltation and self-fulfillment.

James K. A. Smith sums up Charles Taylor’s description of why this outlook proves challenging for the church:

Now in the Age of Authenticity, with its expressive individualist outlook, we have a qualitative shift: “The religious life or practice that I become part of must not only be my choice, but it must speak to me, it must make sense in terms of my spiritual development as I understand this.” The expressivist forges her own religion (“spirituality”), her own, personal Jesus. . . . It becomes less and less “rational” to accept any external constraints. A new spiritual injunction arises: “let everyone follow his/her own path of spiritual inspiration. Don’t be led off yours by the allegation that it doesn’t fit with some orthodoxy.”

In the expressivist framework, anything that gets in the way of self-exaltation or self-fulfillment is a problem. This means that any universal or binding ethic, morals that are absolute, truths that are transcendent—in our culture, they all fall down before the idol of the mighty Me. God may still be present, but “Me” is on the throne. God has been relegated, in the words of Mark Sayers, “to the role of servant, and massager of the personal will.”

Me vs. Us

The second reason why expressive individualism presents a challenge for the church is this: belonging to a church, in the sense of embracing membership that goes beyond therapeutic benefits or perks and privileges, doesn’t make much sense in this kind of environment. The plot line for many Westerners is the lone individual taking on the big, bad institution. The church as institution is to be resisted.

If finding yourself means expressing yourself over against what your family made you to be, or your church made you to be, then leaving church, for some, becomes a rite of passage. And for those who stay, it must be a conscious choice, a conscious acceptance for one’s own self of the religion you’ve inherited.

The expressivist way is for you to chart your own course. If the church gets behind your life choices, great! But if the church were to challenge your behavior or attitude, you’d suddenly claim that your life story is no one else’s business. “Trust thyself,” Emerson wrote; “every heart vibrates to that iron string.”

Again, expressive individualism does not empty the church of its members. It merely fills the pews with people who see their church attendance as another expression of their own identities, an aid in their own pursuit of happiness. The church has limited, if any, real authority. The mighty Me stays enthroned, even when the mighty Me is in the church pew.

What Are the Opportunities?

These are two of the main challenges that expressive individualism poses for the church. But with these challenges come some terrific opportunities. More on those in a future column . . .

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