The Suburban Church: Individualism

At the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, Pastor Tim Keller told the nearly 4000 Christian leaders gathered there, “If you love what God loves then you will love the cities.” It is estimated that eight million people move into the city every three months. Today, about fifty percent of

Tim Keller

Tim Keller

the wold’s population lives in the cities. “Since God loves people,” Keller argues, “he loves cities.”

Of course, I agree with Keller. But agreeing with him means I also must disagree with him.

If fifty percent of the world’s population lives in cities, then fifty percent also live outside of cities in rural or suburban areas. Therefore, God not only loves cities, he loves rural and suburban areas too.  And while there are many similarities to doing ministry both inside and outside the city there are many differences too.

In our last few posts we have been discussing some of the challenges to doing suburban ministry: individualism, consumerism, escapism, and neglecting the poor and needy. In this post I want to look more closely at individualism (sometimes called radical or extreme individualism).

In many ways individualism is a uniquely American invention. It is “made in the USA.” Individualism, as Dinesh D’Souza describes it, is the “self-directed life” wherein “the individual is placed in the driver’s seat of his own life…” What’s more, as James Davison Hunter defines it, the individual is seen as “the key actor in social change.” And the change, always moves from the individual to the family to the community.

From the standpoint of classical Christianity change always moved from the church to the family to the community. The travesty is that the modern church has also adopted the belief that the individual is the chief means of cultural change. The result is that the church mirrors the culture in its belief in the individual as the “key actor in social change.” This has led to a host of well-meaning, but misguided, ways of doing ministry–especially in the suburbs.

First, it has resulted in a preference for individual worship over corporate worship. It is common for people to believe that they can worship anywhere, at anytime, by themselves rather than when and where the people of God are gathered together. The church has tried to accommodate this aspect of individualism by holding worship services on Saturdays or Mondays as well as various times on Sunday. But by in large it hasn’t worked.

Second, it has culminated in an individual approach to evangelism. Over the past few decades the church has focused almost exclusively on individual methods of evangelism rather than corporate witness. When Jesus said, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men,” many seem to think he meant we should grab our trusty rod and reel and head out to our favorite fishing hole. But people didn’t fish that way in Jesus’ day. People fished together with nets–big nets. Fishing wasn’t a one man job nor was it focused on catching one fish at a time. Often fishermen would catch more fish then the crew could bring in and more than the nets could hold. It was not uncommon for nets to rip and tear. In fact, there were whole industries dedicated to nothing other than repairing nets.

Third, it has resulted in an individualistic view of the gospel. In the later part of the modern period our understanding of the gospel has focused almost solely on the conversion of the individual soul rather than on the redemption of all of creation (including individual souls). The gospel isn’t just about converting a lost sinner, it’s about God redeeming his whole created order.

So with this in mind, what would suburban ministry look like?

First, it would recover the idea that worship is a public not a private affair. It would remember how radical it is to gather together as the ecclesia, the called out and called together people of God. Our individual freedom has deadened our senses to this dangerous reality. We need to remember that in many places around the world Christians are persecuted for no other reason than just gathering together for corporate worship.  As James K. A. Smith reminds us, one of the very first things we should consider:

…is something that easily slips from notice: the very fact that we are here–that on a Sunday morning, one of the few times that the…streets are quiet and even the steady hum of consumption and production gets a bit quieter, here we find the people streaming into a space to gather for worship of the triune God…We could be snug in our beds at home, or enjoying the New York Times Magazine with a cup of coffee on our front porch. But instead we are part of–let’s be honest–a rather motley crew that has made its way here.”

This is not an irrelevant or insignificant event. Christians around the world have been martyred by people who realize the importance of this gathering. Is it possible that the enemies of Christianity realize the importance of corporate worship more than Christians do? It is a much rarer phenomenon, is it not, for an individual to be persecuted for private worship.

Next, it would focus on a public and unified witness. The church is a communion or a community. However, as Peter Leithart reminds us, “Christian community…is not an extra religious layer on social life. The church is not a club for religious people. The church is a way of living together before God, a new way of being human together. It is also a way of witnessing together. One way that this

Peter Leithart

Peter Leithart

might be worked out in practicality is for the church to see itself as a parish–a geographic territory served by the church. If the church can recover the idea that it is a parish called to serve a certain geographic territory it can have an incredible corporate witness. For instance, imagine what would happen if the entire church began to patronize all the local businesses within a mile of their place of worship. If a single church member did this it may not be without influence, but if the entire community of the church participated in such a practice it would be a powerful statement. If the people of God were to scope out a five-mile radius around their place of worship and do as much as possible within that zone it would be an incredible witness. Within less than a mile is my grocery store, my gas station, my dry cleaner, my barber, the book store, department store, and my favorite restaurants. I am a regular at all of these places. They all know me by name. They all know when I’m there, and, even more importantly, when I’m not. In short, I have a relationship with these people. We care for each other. In the broadest sense of the word , I am their pastor. Can you imagine what would happen if an entire church frequented and patronized the same places? It would be a powerful corporate witness.

Finally, it would emphasize the bigness of the gospel. The purpose of the gospel isn’t merely so individuals can be converted and go to heaven when they die. Rather, the purpose of the gospel is to bring heaven to earth. This is the meaning of Jesus’ words in the prayer that he taught the disciples: Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:7-13).

Todd Hiestand has rightly said:

[W]hen we only emphasize the individual nature of the gospel we miss out on the bigger picture of the redemptive narrative of Scripture. Jesus came not only to save individuals, He came to redeem all of creation. Churches that focus primarily on individual salvation tend to lose focus on this aspect of the church’s calling. The church’s call to be a “sign, witness and foretaste” of the coming Kingdom are often overlooked when our only concern is getting people to heaven when they die. Here Jesus’ prayer that the Father’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven can be a real and practical manifestation of the local and global church.


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