Chapter One: Conformed to the Pattern of Individualism

Worldwide Cell Churches

Bob Dylan wrote an award winning song in 1979 called, Gotta Serve Somebody. One line from the chorus reads:

“It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

You’re gonna have to serve somebody. This is true. Everyone is a disciple of someone or

something. Some are disciples of liberalism, conservatism, or wealth. Others conform to Communism; others to Confucianism; others to Hinduism. It’s impossible not to serve someone or something.

Without ever knowing it, we learn a way of living that shapes our way of thinking and relating. The word “disciple” simply means pupil or learner. In ancient times, a teacher’s students or followers were called disciples. In the Greek world, philosophers were surrounded by their pupils. The Jews claimed to be disciples of Moses (John 9:28) and the followers of John the Baptist were known as his disciples (Mark 2:18; John 1:35). Jesus also had a group of disciples (Matthew 5:1; Luke 6:17; 19:37).

In Western culture, we are born into a culture of individualism. It’s a philosophy that says:

“I can make it alone.”
“I can do it by myself.”
“I can pick myself up by my own bootstraps.”
“I don’t need help from anybody.”

The Western world admires those who battle through difficult times and reach the top. We admire the hero who goes it alone. We see this in the cowboy of the West, Huckleberry Finn, and the Lone Ranger.

Yet, Paul the apostle warned the believers in Rome not to be conformed or shaped by the pattern of this world (Romans 12: 2). The Greek word Paul uses for “conformed” carries the idea of fashioning or becoming like someone or something. The world is constantly trying to fashion us according to its pattern, and Scripture tells us that we need to resist that conformity.

The Western World’s Culture of Individualism

Alexis de Tocqueville, a French sociologist, wrote Democracy in America (1835) after his travels in the United States. Even today, his writings on American culture speak truth. He described individualism in North America this way:

Individualism is a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself (note 1).

While de Tocqueville admired American individualism, he also noticed the grave danger of isolationism that could easily capture the hearts of Americans. He writes:

As democratic individualism grows, there are more and more people who, though neither rich nor powerful enough to have much hold over others, have gained or kept enough wealth and enough understanding to look after their own needs. Such folk owe no man anything and hardly expect anything from anybody. They form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine that they hold destiny in their hands (note 2).

De Tocqueville felt isolationism could be a real problem for Americans. He hoped that civic and social responsibility would bring people together to meet in groups and prevent Americans from developing their own cocoons.

One hundred seventy-five years have passed since de Tocqueville visited these shores. I wonder what he would think now.

Isolationism and loneliness are now part of the American psyche. Anxiety, loneliness, mood disorders, and social detachment are now common place. More and more people are depressed. George Gallup wrote, “Americans are among the loneliest people in the world” (note 3).

M. Scott Peck says:

Trapped in our tradition of rugged individualism, we are an extraordinarily lonely people. So lonely, in fact, that many cannot even acknowledge their loneliness to themselves, much less to others. Look at the sad, frozen faces all around you and search in vain for the souls hidden behind masks of makeup, masks of pretense, masks of composure (note 4).

Isolationism is the result of individualism separated from the triune God. It has increasingly evolved into immorality and family breakdown. It’s estimated that six out of ten children born in the 1990s will live in single-parent households by the time they’re eighteen years old (note 5).

Individual achievement in and of itself is good. God wants us to use the gifts and talents He’s given us to the highest level possible. The fact is, however, that individualism causes us to isolate ourselves from others and focus only on what benefits “me”—fulfilling Tocqueville worst fears.

Individualism and Others

People’s lives are more and more centered inside the house, rather than in the neighborhood or the community. It’s common for people to drive into their driveways, go into their houses, and seldom interact with the community around them.

Walking has decreased significantly in America to a point in which it’s rare to meet others outside. With the increased use of automobiles, the life of the sidewalk and the front yard has largely disappeared, and social intercourse that used to be the main characteristic of urban life has vanished.

In 1974 nearly one in four Americans visited with a neighbor several times a week. By 1994, that figure had declined to 16 percent and there was a shocking increase in the number of people who had never spent an evening with a neighbor—a 41 percent increase since the same question was asked twenty years earlier (note 6).

I remember attending a barbeque at the home association where I live. People just hung out by themselves. They didn’t reach out, and I found it hard to make bridges into their lives. I was amazed at how lonely people could be in a group setting.

John, one of our church members, volunteered to coach his boy’s baseball team. His hope was to get to know others and develop relationships with them. He found out, however, that parents would come to the baseball diamond and quickly pick up their kids. They wouldn’t hang around to talk.

Are people less relationally inclined today because they have less time? Actually, people still have about the same amount of leisure time as they did during the World War II period. The key factor, rather, is what people are doing with their leisure time. Between 1965 and 1995 Americans gained an average of six hours a week in leisure time, and yet, almost all six of those additional hours were spent watching TV (note 7).

Harvard professor, Robert Putman, in his book, Bowling Alone, describes the downward spiral of social relationship in North American culture from the end of World War II to the present. The title of Putnam’s book is revealing. Bowling used to be the sport that drew people together. Bowling was associated with friends, family, or the development of new social relationships. Bowling is now a lone venture. Another isolated activity (note 8).

On the Move

I understand moving. As a missionary family to Ecuador for eleven years, we often lived out of our suitcase, as we traveled from North America to South America.

Moving is also an American way of life. The statistics say that one in five Americans move each year. Two in five expect to move in the next five years (note 9). We as Americans have an itch to see different sites and hear new sounds. I spoke to a friend who was a long-term member of a church in San Diego. She told me that her church has been riddled with people moving. It had become a revolving door. Her experience is not uncommon.

Increased mobility, however, has decreased long-term relationships. Americans don’t get to know their neighbors very well. Will Miller and Glenn Spark, in their book, Refrigerator Rights, warn people about the huge social price tag that comes with relocating. Often, they say, right at the point of deepening their friendships with neighbors and colleagues, they move to another city, and the process of developing friendships has to start all over again. They’ve noticed that fewer people in North America feel like they have the liberty to enter someone’s home, open the refrigerator door, and make a sandwich. This lack of “refrigerator rights” is often due to the high mobility of American society.

Relationships take time to develop. They don’t happen overnight. It takes awhile to earn the trust of a neighbor or work associate. Whenever we move, we’re moving away from the people we know. It’s difficult to replace those relationships.

I remember eating with Buddy Lindsay in a fish restaurant in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Buddy is a tax lawyer in Myrtle Beach, was raised in Myrtle Beach, and likely will die there. As I talked with Buddy that sunny day in February, I realized that he personally knew the majority of business owners and key people in the city. This guy understands community, I thought to myself. People know, love, and respect Buddy because he’s taken the time to get to know them. Buddy is a great example of blooming where he was planted.

My parents have also lived in the same house in Long Beach, California since 1950. My mom organized her neighborhood to have regular block socials. She has always been involved in PTA, Assistance League, and other social activities. Even at eighty-three she is still giving back. Most of us can think of these kinds of wonderful examples, but it appears that they are increasingly becoming exceptions to the rule.

Media Isolation

TV has changed the world. We can now virtually travel to places in an instant, learn insights about history and science, and enjoy a good laugh together. And when the NBA championships roll around each year, I love TV.

TV is so popular, in fact, that the average American watches four hours of it each day (note 10). This is nearly the highest viewership in the world. The average U.S. household has at least one TV set turned on for about seven hours a day. The average school-aged child spends twenty-seven hours per week watching TV (some preschoolers watch much more). Television absorbed almost 40 percent of the average American’s free time in 1997, an increase of roughly one-third since 1965. Over the course of a year, children spend more time watching TV than they spend in school or participating in any other activity, except sleep.

The TV is molding who we are. It is socializing us. Years ago, TV watching was done in a group. The entire family would sit before the TV and enjoy the same program. It is much different today. Viewers sit before the tube all by themselves. Many households have a TV in each room in order to accommodate personal viewing preferences.

One of the key reasons TVs are hanging in exercise rooms around the country is because they allow people to avoid engagement in social dialogue. Many unconsciously believe that watching TV gives them a “relationship with the TV person,” so they think they’re engaged socially, when in fact they are not. TV also keeps people from buying books and reading.

Even a relational sport, like bowling, is now invaded by TV. Robert Putnam writes:

Even on a full night of league play team members are no longer in lively conversation with one another about the day’s events, public and private. Instead each stares silently at the screen while awaiting his or her turn. Even while bowling together, they are watching alone (note 11).

TV is in airports, bars, hotels, stores, and restaurants.

TV is often the babysitter of choice for those with children. Wrong move. Studies show that TV watching has three main effects on children: they become less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others, they become more fearful of the world around them, and they are more likely to behave in aggressive and harmful ways (note 12).

TV has drawn people to isolation in their house. Time diaries show that husbands and wives watch TV three or four times more than they spend talking to each other, and six to seven times as much as they spend in community activities outside the home (note 13).

The Church Mirrors Society

Church congregations are made up of the same people who live in society. Kirk Hadaway, author and professor, touches this raw nerve when he writes, “Churches like society itself have become more and more impersonal. It is not enough to hear it from the pulpit, read it in the Bible, or see it in individuals. It has to be experienced in community” (note 14). The Spirit of God transforms people, and transformation takes place in community.

Like the transitory nature of the greater society, statistics say that one in seven adults change churches each year. People often decide on which church to attend based on personal taste and choice. Mark Galli, senior managing editor of Christianity Today, writes:

. . . our penchant for changing churches, usually because “I just wasn’t being fed,” as well as our need to test every church and pastor against our personal reading of the Bible—well, you can see why Protestants have managed in 500 years to create out of two traditions (Orthodox and Catholic) some 30,000 denominations. . . . the personal experience of the worshiper so often becomes more important than the object of worship. Thus, the continual proliferation of churches, parachurches, and movements because the group we belong to just doesn’t do it the way we think “the Lord is leading me” to do it (note 15).

Many churches use marketing and other techniques to attract those wandering from church to church. Rather than making disciples who make disciples, marketing becomes the chief means to draw people into the building. In their book, Selling Out the Church: The Dangers of Church Marketing, Philip Kenneson and James Street noted that the entrepreneurial church is “viewed primarily as a business” (note 16).

Marketing the church using marketing principles may not necessarily be wrong, but one needs to ask, “Can the market-driven church remain Christ’s church?” (note 17). Once again, Scripture, rather than culture must guide all we do or say. Jesus is interested in growing an organic, life-giving church, rather than an anonymous and impersonal one.

It’s easier to criticize than provide solutions. Often believers in the church see themselves as individuals first, Americans second, and Christians third. Those in the church are the same people who appreciate their rights, freedoms, and independence. These are the same people who don’t know their neighbors next door, much less trust them.

Getting Back to Relational Discipleship

God desires for us to be dependent on Him and interdependent with one another. Community is about the people of God working together, eating together, and serving together. Jesus has called us to live out the Christian faith. We are social creatures, and our Creator has placed within us a longing for relationships.

One encouraging sign is that the upcoming generations are more relational. The post-modern culture desires authentic communication with people. They are saying, “We don’t want to do church without loving relationships.”

Younger people in general are far more open to community and relationships than their predecessors. The emerging church is hungry for Christ-like relationships and reality-based ministry. They want to see Jesus in people before they’re ready to “decide” for Jesus. Generation Next longs for a relational form of church—one that views ministry in terms of relationally-based New Testament ministry rather than techniques and programs that a supposed to make the church grow.


  1. Robert N. Bellah, et al., Habits of the Heart (Berkley: University of California Press, 1996), p. 37.
  2. Ibid.
  3. George Gallup Jr., The People’s Religion (New York: MacMillan, 1989), as quoted in Andy Stanley and Bill Willits, Creating Community (Sister, Oregon: Multnomah Publishers, 2004), p. 22.
  4. M. Scott Peck, The Different Drummer (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), p. 58.
  5. George Barna as quoted in Julie Gorman, Community That Is Christian (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1993), p. 81.
  6. John L. Locke, The De-Voicing of Society (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998), p. 132.
  7. Robert D. Putman, Bowling Alone (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), p. 223.
  8. Putnam believes that 50% of the social decline is generational. Yet, the other 50% of isolationism comes from excessive media focus (25%), flight to the suburbs (10%), and driving alone to work (15%). Ibid.,p. 284.
  9. Ibid., p. 204.
  10. Ibid., p. 222.
  11. Ibid., p. 245.
  12. Jeanne Sather, “TV: How Many Hours Will Your Kids Watch Today?” Accessed at Sunday, June 23, 2002 at
  13. Ibid., p. 224.
  14. C. Kirk Hadaway, Francis M. DuBose, and Stuart A. Wright, Home Cell Groups and House Churches (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1987), p. 211.
  15. Mark Galli, “Is the Gay Marriage Debate Over?” Christianity Today (July 2009), p. 33.
  16. Philip D. Kenneson and James L. Street, Selling Out the Church: The Dangers of Church Marketing (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997), p. 15.
  17. Ibid., p. 16.