Ministry Temptations in a World of Expressive Individualism

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If you’ve been following along in this series on expressive individualism (one of the big challenges facing the church today), you may be thinking: Trevin, this cultural analysis is helpful in understanding our current context, but what’s to be done? This question is especially important when the gravitational pull toward mere inspiration and the recasting of human purpose and human sin in expressive individualist terms is so pervasive. So then, how do we resist? How do we do ministry in this era?

These are good questions for people seeking to live on mission in the place and time in which we are called. A missionary to another country may analyze the culture and begin to understand the people’s fears and hopes, but at some point, the missionary has to open his or her mouth and speak. And not only speak, but also live in a way that stands apart from the wider society, so that their call to a counter-cultural life is embodied. Effective ministry may begin with cultural analysis, but it never ends there. Whatever challenges we face, we are called to live and minister in faith, not to bemoan or decry the mission field God has set before us.

With that counsel in mind, we should consider two temptations we will encounter as we try to do ministry in a world of expressive individualism.

Temptation #1: Present Christianity as a means to moralistic and therapeutic ends.

If such a large percentage of Americans believe the highest goal of life is to enjoy themselves, then why not show how the Bible helps us make the most of life? If people believe the purpose of life is to be a good person, to fulfill your unique destiny, and express your deepest self to the world, then why not show how Christianity can aid them in their journey of self-discovery? Whether the goal is moralistic (“be a good person”) or therapeutic (“feel good about myself”), the temptation here is to recast Christianity as one way, or even the best way, or achieving these desires.

This temptation is stronger than we think. Church leaders can be theologically accurate in that they do not promote heresy or teach aberrant doctrines, and yet still fail to give certain truths the weight they deserve. We can assent to the gospel but deliver sermons that lean toward motivational speech or self-reliance or perseverance. We check off the right doctrines about God, but man is at the center, because the overall approach is still moralistic or therapeutic.

When we present Christianity as a means instead of an end, we’ve turned the gospel into a tool to be used for our self-construction. Some church leaders are well aware of this particular temptation, and so their response is to run headlong toward another one.

Temptation #2: Take every opportunity to excoriate and expose expressive individualism.

The opposite temptation is to see the pervasiveness of expressive individualism and to try to counter it by mocking its slogans, deriding the pursuit of self-fulfillment, and making self-denial the purpose of Christianity. In order to expose the lies of expressive individualism, you seek to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity by confronting the ideology head-on. If most people wrongly assume the highest goal of life is to enjoy themselves, you’ll make the point again and again that self-sacrifice and self-denial are the end goal (and you imply that enjoying life competes with glorifying God).

In some circles, this temptation may be stronger than the previous one, especially if you’ve been reading this series and nodding along. You arm yourself with sociological and theological analysis of our current cultural moment, and then adopt a confrontational posture, which you assume is what is required if you are to do faithful ministry in this era.

The problem is the “confront and expose” approach can also lead to subtle and strange distortions of Christianity. In lifting up self-denial as the purpose of life instead of self-fulfillment, we turn Christianity into a religion that seems to equate faithfulness with rejecting joy, when in fact Jesus’s call for self-denial is countercultural not only for the expressive individualist but also for the dour legalist who overlooks the truth that Christ’s call for self-denial is in pursuit of a greater self-fulfillment. The apostles’ call to embrace suffering is the means to deeper joy—an everlasting happiness that we trust will be ours in Christ.

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.

So, how do we avoid these two temptations and do ministry more effectively in this age? We will look at some suggestions for faithful ministry in a future column.

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