I was stunned when I understood the implications. A popular Christian author was saying that “spiritual Christians” will start their own “personalized churches,” consisting of one individual only. He had redefined the word church to mean an individual watching a Christian TV show, going to a Christian concert, or home-schooling children. The author said that many spiritual Christians would leave the church in order to stay spiritual. And to justify this trend, he created a new category: individualized church. This is the epitome of individualism, I thought to myself. Just perfect for a western, individualized culture.
Although this author was promoting individualism for those leaving the church, many pastors and churches promote individualism for those attending the church.
Anonymity in the Church
I entered a famous mega-church a few years ago. I sat down for the service, didn’t know those around me, and left the same way. But here was the catch: I wasn’t supposed to know anyone. This particular church’s appeal is anonymity and lack of “requirements.” No membership requirements and no accountable relationships. I wandered outside and noticed a billboard highlighting only a handful of small groups.
This type of individualized, anonymous church experience is increasingly common throughout the Western world.
I initially grew as a new believer in this type of church environment. Many people, like me, gathered in masses to hear the Sunday preaching. The pastor was a gifted teacher and even though people could hear him on multiple radio stations, they still came to the preaching event.
Yet, discipleship for the hearers totally depended on whether they could personally apply the teaching on a particular Sunday morning! Most attending weren’t personally discipled. Granted, some discipleship groups sprang up naturally out of necessity, but the church didn’t proactively plan for such discipleship to occur. God gave me the grace to apply the teaching and follow Jesus. Many weren’t so fortunate and left the church.
Statistics now show us that an alarming number of “hearers” are leaving the church. Study after study highlights the reality that those “hearing” the Word in large group settings or via media are behaving the same way as those who don’t listen at all.
David Olson, one of the premier researchers of the North American Church, in his book, The American Church in Crisis, goes into detail about the mass exodus taking place in the Church today. I believe this is partly due to the individualistic form of discipleship that is just not making disciples. We might be winning occasional battles, but overall we’re losing the war.
The Way of the Master
The Bible never speaks of this individualistic form of discipleship. Jesus, our example, discipled twelve people by living with them for three years. He modeled discipleship as He lived, walked, and ate with them. He taught them through parables and real-life object lessons–not primarily in the large group setting.
Jesus didn’t simply teach His disciples about prayer. Rather, He asked them to accompany Him to prayer meetings. He allowed His disciples to see Him praying. When the disciples finally asked Him what He was doing, He took the opportunity to teach them about prayer (Luke 11:1-4). The same is true with evangelism. Jesus evangelized people in the presence of His disciples and then instructed them afterwards. He took advantage of real life situations to carefully explain doctrinal issues (e.g., rich young ruler in Matthew 19:23-26).
Christ knew that theoretical information separated from practical experience would have little lasting value. After the disciples finished their ministry tour, they met with Jesus to discuss what happened. The apostles gathered around Him and reported all they had done and taught (Mark 6:30).
On another occasion the disciples reported to Jesus, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in Your name” (Luke 10:17). Jesus seized the opportunity to instruct them and to offer additional guidelines: “Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20). The Lord constantly reviewed the experiences of His disciples and then offering additional commentary (Mark 9:17-29; 6:30-44).
The Early Church followed the same example. They applied the apostles teaching from house to house. They met publically as long as possible, but when persecution prevented public gatherings, they still continued to meet, moving from house to house (Acts 2:42-46).
The New Testament is written to communities, and discipleship takes place through relationships. Western individualism was absent from life in the First Century.
My Own Journey
I was born and raised in a Western, individualistic culture. Even though I spent eleven years of my life in Ecuador, I’m still a child of the West, and I readily admit that I’m culturally conditioned to a particular way of thinking. I embraced Jesus in this culture and have been walking with Him for thirty-six years.
For most of my adult life, I was on the road to becoming a missionary. When I entered Bible school in 1978, I had missions in mind, so I took all the courses on cross-cultural ministry. Later in seminary, both in New York and Pasadena, culture was my bread and butter topic. As a missionary for eleven years in Ecuador, I was sensitive to the differences between my own Western culture and the Latin American culture.
I then earned a Ph.D. in intercultural studies. One of the Ph.D. tutorials was on Latin American culture. I inwardly resisted doing this tutorial, arguing to myself that I had over-studied culture already. Yet, the tutorial changed my life. It gave me an entirely new appreciation and insight into Latin culture.
Since returning from Ecuador in 2001 and becoming a “missionary” to North America, I’ve once again tried to become a student of culture. The study of culture has been a core part of my life and ministry.
While writing this book, however, I’ve noticed a subtle danger in my thinking about culture. The danger is to exalt culture to a place it doesn’t deserve. I have this tendency. I find myself thinking, “That’s just the way they are” or “That’s the way we are.” I tend to believe the lie that it’s impossible to change one’s culture because it’s deeply embedded.
I’ve realized afresh that I need to judge my culture in light of God’s inerrant Word. No culture is perfect, but God’s Word is. Culture must conform to God’s Word and not the other way around. I’m becoming increasingly aware that God desires to change me to conform to His Word. The Bible, not culture, needs to dictate all that I do and think.
We in North America have developed a culture of individualism. While there are many wonderful traits of individualism, much of our present day individualism has led us down the dangerous path of isolationism, anonymity, and loneliness.
Biblical culture, on the other hand, is a one-another culture. Christ’s command to His disciples is clear: Love one another. The Triune God is timeless testimony of God’s unity. The Early Church was a face-to-face movement, meeting in homes and multiplying God’s life through community.
This book has changed me. I’ve again realized that I need to conform to what God reveals in Scripture and allow the Holy Spirit to transform me into a relational disciple. That’s what He wants, and I need to allow Him to work deeply within me.
My hope is that you will also be challenged and changed by reading this book. My prayer is that you will want to become a relational disciple, and that you will ask God for His abundant grace to transform you. You can’t change yourself, but God can. God has promised His Holy Spirit to work deeply within you to make you a relational disciple.