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.

The result is a world in which we are unaware of our past and untethered to any particular place. In an interview in Comment, Patrick Deneen describes this as the desire “to be unbound by time,” to be a “free acting individual, bereft of or liberated from the woof of time.”

It’s no wonder that Ancestry.com and television shows like Finding Your Roots (where celebrities learn about where they came from) have grown in popularity in recent years. Despite the expressive individualist promise of discovering freedom by escaping obligations related to time or place, we are constantly drawn back to personal history and geography in hopes that tracing our roots through time and place will reveal the forces that have shaped the person we are called to “be true to” or to “find and express.”

Timeless Churches

Responding to a culture with little interest in time and place, the church in North America has often followed suit. We are apt to downplay our creedal heritage or denominational distinctives. Recent surveys show widespread theological error, perhaps due to minimal education in church history or doctrinal essentials.

For all the gains of the modern worship movement (and there are many), there are some corresponding losses.

  • Localized expressions of song disappear, only to be replaced by more familiar forms of popular music that can go farther faster in finding an audience.
  • Ancient liturgical practices or denominational distinctives are dismissed with a wave of the worship leader’s hand as irrelevant or out of date.
  • Efficiency of space becomes the primary benchmark for evaluating and constructing new worship spaces, because the building has become a gathering for people to have individualized religious experiences.

In a society that forgets its past and doesn’t think much about its future, in which geographical heritage has little to no hold on a person, the dominant feeling of many is disorientation. This sense of rootlessness—this idea that we have endless choices before us—is a source of excitement and exhaustion. It changes the way we view adulthood and the transition from adolescence to maturity. Jeffrey Arnett describes the delay as a desire for time when “no dreams have been permanently dashed, no doors have been permanently closed, every possibility for happiness is still alive.” That’s exciting, but over time, it creates anxiety and exhaustion. Every choice eventually closes a door on others.

Placeless People

Just as we sense a rootlessness in time, we also feel a corresponding rootlessness in space. Leaning on the work of anthropologist Marc Auge, Mark Sayers explains the difference between “places” and “non-places.”

Places are concerned with history, relationships, and identity. Someone can call a place “home,” for example, or they can walk into it with a sense of belonging— like a workplace, church building, or relative’s home. Spaces that are not concerned with history, relationships, or identity, then, are non-places.

For Auge, hotels, airports, and highways are examples of non-places. They are built for transience, not for roots in a common story or identity. Sayers again:

Ultimately, non-places communicate the myth that a particular kind of life is possible—a detached, free-floating life bereft of responsibility, in which one can walk through the rainstorm and stay dry, avoiding the difficulties, blockages, and restrictions humans have always encountered. Our non-place habits are liturgies that shape us, fool us, into thinking we can have total freedom, expanding human flourishing, and satisfaction, through the consumption of products and experiences. They whisper to us that we can be godlike, hovering above it all while maintaining individual autonomy.

What’s the temptation for the church in this kind of rootless world? To embrace that sense of non-place, to become just another rootless space for people to find and invent themselves.

Embracing Time and Place

A better way forward would be to appeal to the deeper longings of people in our society for something rooted in both time and place. Seen in this light, everything about our services—our worship songs, our preaching, our time at the Table, our prayers, our sanctuaries, our calendar—would be oriented toward the kinds of faith-forming practices that help us to maintain a sense of grounding in a fluid and fast-paced world.

Some younger pastors have sensed this need, which has led to a resurgence of liturgical practices: the quoting of ancient creeds, the singing of ancient hymns, the desire for churches to express their theology in their own new songs and hymns, and the return to something resembling the ancient church calendar.

In some cases, these are faddish appropriations of ancient practices without any sense of obligation or commitment to the traditions from which they come. But I suspect that there’s more going on in some of these trends, that some church leaders recognize the problem of conceiving of church as “timeless” and “placeless” and seeing the congregation as a gathering of Christians who are just looking to maximize their individualistic concepts of freedom. Not surprisingly, they turn back to elements of tradition to resource themselves for the journey ahead.

As we think about how to remain faithful in an age of expressive individualism, I wonder what other resources we should consider. How can we resist the lies of our age while showing how the gospel answers our deepest longings?