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Individualism Negating the Individual

Updated: Feb 20, 2020

Carl Trueman's latest essay is over at Reformation21. I was interested in his point particularly as it informs our worship, and closely related, how we as individual believers engage in the life of the church (or fail to do so). I’ll tantalize you with the following extensive quotation from Trueman:

The is the problem of American Christendom.  Now, all of the palaver about the `end of Christendom’ should not fool us into thinking that a form of Christendom does not still exist.   Anywhere where Christianity has become a formality, there is Christendom; anywhere where the belief of the group substitutes for the belief of the individual, there is Christendom; anywhere the rules of the outward game can be learned, executed with panache, and substituted for the attitude of the heart, there is Christendom.  And, lest we forget, the form of that formality can be orthodoxy, just as easily as it can be heterodoxy; it can be rooted in the Westminster Standards just as easily as in the tweets of the latest aspiring authentocrat; it can be found in traditional worship styles as much as in the spontaneity of the new.  And, ironically, American individualism feeds directly into this negation of the individual: the individual as consumer, as dilettante, thrives in a world of large, anonymous churches, churches which happily continue week by week with only 10% of the people engaged in giving of time and money; there are no demands made on the 90% of individuals who make up the corporate entity precisely because the body is essentially self-perpetuating.  The crowd is truly untruth at that point.
This tension in orthodox Christianity, between being necessarily part of a whole and an individual accountable to God, is something with which all Christians must wrestle.  To resolve it one way or the other would be to lose something crucial, for the Christian faith demands we reject both solipsistic piety and also any notion of the crowd as our mediator. The one cuts us off from the body; the other makes us mere passengers who never engage God for ourselves.
There are no easy answers to this; that’s what makes it such an interesting and irresolvable tension.  But, as it stands, the church in America seems to have the worst of both worlds: an individualism which does not lead to true individual existence as a Christian, one where I truly take responsibility for myself before God but allow others to do it for me; and which therefore plunges inexorably towards the anonymity of the megachurch and the laziness of the pew-sitting Sunday passenger.   It is not simply the crowd which is untruth at that point.  It is the church as well.
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