This fall, I have been writing a series of columns on expressive individualism and its challenge to the church in the 21st century. Several readers have asked me to bring these reflections together in one place for easy access. Here are links to every post in the series.
Our only aim here is to briefly entertain the question, “What is expressive individualism?” When defining expressive individualism, it might be best to start with the slogans behind the movement…
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.
We have the opportunity to stand out in the world by choosing to die to ourselves, to lay our lives down for something greater than ourselves. The New Testament tells us to crucify the self the world tells us to be true to. Nothing is more non-conformist and radical and rebellious than seeking conformity with Christ and the death of your old self.
What happens here is that church members migrate from one congregation to another, enjoying for a season the preaching and music here, sometimes coming back to their go-to congregation when they’re in the mood for something more familiar, or heading over to a third church for a mission trip. The result is sporadic attendance at any particular congregation.
One of the peculiar characteristics of living in a time of expressive individualism—a time in which many conceive the purpose of life in terms of their ability to find and express a version of themselves that resists conformity with previous generations, family constraints, or other outside forces—is the notion that we are both timeless and placeless. Timeless, in that we have no obligations to our forebears and little responsibility for future generations. Placeless, in that no roots can hold us down or put a claim on us when we have endless geographical choices before us.
If the first and greatest commandment is to “be yourself,” then the unforgivable sin is to be false or to wilt before some external benchmark that others (like the church) might foist upon you. Sin is the failure to be true to yourself. Thus, the solution is not repentance, but reassertion. It’s to reestablish your claim to ultimate sovereignty over your life and to courageously resist the outside forces that would call you to any kind of “conformity.”
Church attendance, devotionals, Christian songs—all of these become ways of helping us along in the life we envision for ourselves (a life of seeking to find and express our best selves), rather than powerful words to radically reorient and shift our self-understanding. We can mount up on wings like eagles, run and not grow weary, be strong and courageous, and bask in God’s plans to prosper us as we walk life’s road. These words and images are drawn from the Bible, but they’ve been caught in the riptide of mere inspiration.
The confrontational approach to expressive individualism can often lead people to assume our faith implies the rejection of joy and the rejection of self, whereas true Christianity is about the pursuit of joy in God and the rediscovery of ourselves in him. Yes, our old selves are crucified, but that’s because they are to be renewed and restored. We are remade, not destroyed.
Effective ministry in a world of expressive individualism will require a more difficult path. We must recognize and affirm some of the deepest longings of expressive individualism (the desire for happiness, the discovery of one’s purpose, the aspiration to moral goodness), while simultaneously confronting expressive individualism’s inability to deliver on those promises. Or, as I’ve said in This Is Our Time, we expose the lies while showing how the gospel fulfills the deeper longing.
But how? What does this look like?
These are just a few of the questions and suggestions swirling around in my mind these days as we consider how best to live in an expressive individualist society. I welcome your suggestions and feedback (please email them to [email protected] ). I hope to feature some in an upcoming column after the holidays.