In a series for Scot McKnight’s blog, Todd Dildine examined several factors that have led to the decline of church membership in America. One of those factors is the hyper-individualism that has overtaken much of our society/culture:
A shift has occurred. We have moved from a “we” culture to a “me” culture. Since the 1950s, American society has been reorienting markedly toward valuing individualism, and it’s reached a point where it has become a prime factor responsible for pulling our Church community apart. We are more likely to understand ourselves in relation to our selves than in how we affect and are affected by others.
This is a difficult one for us Americans to fully identify, because describing individualism would be like describing water to a fish. It is all around us — it’s normal. It’s perhaps even one of the attributes that has helped America become so materially successful. But we can see it more clearly by comparing different time periods in America, contrasting today’s society with when we were more community oriented.
During WW2, American propaganda invoked men to participate by calling them to do their duty for their country. To fulfill their community obligation. Not because it’s something that would serve their individual interests, but the good of the whole. In a more individualistic culture, appealing to the value of community obligation would fall flat on deaf ears. Today, the Army applies a different tactic — appealing to the individual. What will the army do for me? The Army will help me “be all I can be.”
In his newest book, Harvard Political Scientist Robert Putnam illustrates the water we swim in by highlighting the colloquial definition of the phrase “our kids” and how it has changed in meaning over the past decades. In 1950, when parents used the phrase “our kids,” in general they were claiming responsibility over the kids of their community at large. Today, in a more individualistic world, when parents invoke the phrase “our kids,” they are much more likely to be referring to their own biological kids. Their sense of responsibility is more confined to their own kin, not the larger social network around them.
Dildine applies what Putnam is describing to the church in the following example:
Imagine that you are in church that has a youth program that appears to be decaying. How might a parent who is oriented towards community respond compared to a more individualistic parent?
The parent from the 1950s would be more likely to jump in and see it as her duty to help build the program back up to vibrancy. She might volunteer, host a gathering, or teach a class. If someone asked her to justify her new zeal, she might respond with something like “our kids deserve better than what they are getting — so I’m going to work at it.”
A more individualistic parent might have sympathy for other kids, but when push comes to shove, it’s his kids he’s concerned about. When confronted with the problem of an anemic youth program, he is more likely to complain, remain silent… or simply look for an alternative youth program and move to a different church so his own kids are better off. If he was pressed to justify his actions, he might say “our kids deserve better than what they are getting — so I’m going to go somewhere else.”
Then Dildine makes this crucial point:
Humans are necessarily both individualistic and collectivistic. This argument is not intended to fillet people for thinking about themselves. The problem, however, is that we’ve reached such an extreme — the “hyper” in hyper-individualism — that it’s having significant impacts on our communities, even our faith, and our systems are beginning to reflect and perpetuate that problem. The pH of the water around us has become so imbalanced that we don’t even realize we’re swimming in acid.
This is an important observation by Dildine. Thinking about self is a normal thing, but when all I think about is self then I have a serious problem.
As does the church.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “The church is the church only when it exists for others.”
Hyper-individualism prevents the church from existing for the sake of others and from pursuing the Great Commission that Jesus directed the church to obey. And while there are systemic issues that the church as an organization can correct in order to combat the hyper-individualism that is killing the church, the best course of action is for each member of the church to adopt the mindset of John the Baptist who famously said, “He [Jesus Christ] must increase, but I must decrease” (John 2:30).