Doing Ministry in a World of Expressive Individualism

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As we draw to a close this series on expressive individualism, I’d like to offer a few suggestions on how we can be more effective in ministry in a society where expressive individualism reigns. In the previous column, we noted two major temptations:

  • to recast Christianity according to moralistic and therapeutic purposes;
  • to excoriate and expose expressive individualism at every turn.

Both of these approaches are problematic. The first distorts Christianity by twisting it into something that will appeal to the longing of personal self-discovery and fulfillment. The second distorts Christianity by misapplying Jesus’s call to self-denial and by missing how the longings evident in expressive individualism could be redirected toward God.

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? What follows are some preliminary thoughts that may lead to fruitful reflection and action in our churches.

1. In preaching and teaching, confront through contrast, not condemnation.

You won’t get far with someone steeped in expressive individualism by mocking or rejecting out of hand all talk of self-discovery or self-fulfillment. Instead, in our preaching and teaching, we will need to confront the problems of expressive individualism by showing its contrast with Christianity.

Contrast should be a regular feature of our preaching ministry. It’s a 21st-century way of saying, “You have heard it said . . . in this movie, in this book, in this slogan, but Jesus says to you . . .” Until we become more adept at pointing out expressive individualism and contrasting it with Christianity, our congregations will be formed by expressive individualism without even knowing it.

Preaching that is powerful (not to mention interesting) takes a common-sense assumption for an expressive individualist age and then leads the congregation to question it by (1) demonstrating that people in other parts of the world do not share this common-sense assumption and (2) showing that Scripture challenges the assumption in various ways, and then by (3) explaining how only Christ can fulfill the deeper longing behind the assumption. We set worldly proverbs next to scriptural teaching and show the contrast.

2. Lift up and celebrate artistic works that challenge expressive individualism.

Art is integral to the formation of a moral imagination. If the heroic narrative of many of today’s most popular movies and television shows is expressivist (free yourself by creating your own meaning and expressing your essence to the world), then we will need to find counter-examples in movies and other forms of media to lift up and celebrate. Be on the lookout for artistic examples of redemption through sacrifice, or heroic examples of self-denial for the good of others, or examples of individualism that lead to negative consequences.

3. Tell the stories that reveal our church to be a contrast community.

We should also use stories from local congregations. Why not lift up examples of courage and self-sacrifice within our midst?

Some churches may decide to re-establish the time of testimony during worship services, either in person or via video, so that the stories that form our congregational life together provide a contrast to the countless consumer testimonies that come to us through advertising. Other churches may choose to lift up these stories in other ways (fellowship times, special mission services, pastoral illustrations, or through social media).

4. Recommend spiritual practices that subvert expressive individualism.

Habits matter for spiritual formation. Regular Bible reading and prayer are the two most recommended among Christians, and rightly so. But, as we’ve seen, even Bible reading and prayer can easily get caught in the riptide of “mere inspiration.”

What we need are practices of Bible reading, prayer, and other spiritual disciplines (fasting, in particular) that take place within a community with a specific purpose: to intentionally subvert the dominant worldview of our time. These disciplines are not merely spiritual exercises, but acts of resistance so that we will be more aware of and less formed by expressive individualism. I’ve written before about the “Scripture before phone” practice, but there must be many more that we can adopt—simple, quiet, but powerful habits to reshape our orientation toward the world. (For more on this, see the forthcoming book from Justin Earley.)

Aside on Church Gatherings

The only way these practices of spiritual resistance will have an effect is if they are done in community and not merely as individuals (where they can easily be co-opted by the “find and express yourself” project). Unfortunately, our generation has radically reduced the opportunities for church gathering. I admit there were good reasons to make this move: the need to simplify church schedules and reconnect all activities to the mission of making disciples, the recognition of busier and busier schedules among our families, or the problem of asking for so much time from church members that there was little opportunity to live on mission in the community.

Still, I wonder if more has been lost with the decline of Sunday night, Wednesday night, and other weekly events than we realize. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard testimonies like this:

“The church was at the center of our family life. We were there every time the doors were open, and our commitment taught me as a kid to recognize the power and impact of the church as a community.”

Will anyone be able to say that in our generation, when so many of our churches only have their doors open once a week? Have we ceded the church’s importance to travel ball, Netflix, or other family activities? Are we assuming that a reduced schedule gives people more opportunities to live on mission, or have we merely given people more opportunities to be formed by expressive individualism without any counterpoint?

An Invitation 

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.

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