Individualism and the Churches

Many churches I come across see to be experiencing a lack of commitment compared with former years. This is seen in different ways. It could be the demise of the evening service. It often has a generational aspect to it. The faithful ‘never miss’ attenders are from an older age group while the younger married people are missing. It is seen in a lack of volunteers to take on responsibilities for the church like in children’s work or becoming an elder etc. It is also seen in a reluctance by many Christians to become church members – they like the fringe where they can hang loose.

My main message to pastors is that this lack of commitment in the church is not necessarily your fault. No doubt the devil likes to use this to tell you what a useless pastor you are. But actually, the bigger picture says something different.

One factor in this may be the increased pressures of modern life. Whereas jobs used to be 9-5 now they verge on 24/7. Another is the so-called therapy culture. People are encouraged to see themselves as frail and to prioritise looking after themselves and their families first.

The century of the self

But behind much of this is the fact that society at large is enamoured with individualism. Some sociologists speak of our times as ‘the century of the self’. Your life is yours. You’ve only got one life, live it for yourself (very different from Christian sacrifice). And this attitude has rubbed off on many Christians in the current generation. Today’s digital technology is very individual. In fact, very often ‘progress’ is calibrated in individualistic terms. ‘Personal’ means good (you’re in control). 

It is not that current society has no desire for community or interacting with others. It does. But it likes community with few or no obligations or responsibilities – being together at a rock concert, or the pub, or the online chat room. It is community which leaves the individual pretty much free. And of course, ‘freedom to be myself’ is deeply embedded motor of the sexual revolution. And the individualistic mindset which is in the cultural air we breathe, inevitably impacts churches.

We ought to be addressing this current individualism and teaching on it from Scripture – speaking into where our society is at present. 

Scripture and Individualism

My tentative summary is that Scripture seems to teach that though the individual is very important, the individual only finds true fulfilment in community. The Bible’s theme is of the significance of the individual in the service of community.


From the start of Scripture, we are faced with a God who reveals himself one God existing in three persons. The first verse of the Bible shows us that though there is only one true God, yet there is a plurality within God. In Genesis 1.1, ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth’, the Hebrew noun for God (Elohim) is plural while the verb ‘created’ is singular – denoting one God.

When it comes to the initial description of the creation of human beings we read, ‘Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness,”’ Genesis 1.26. The words ‘us’…’our’…’our’ are prominent. Though this is sometimes interpreted as God announcing his decision to create humanity to the heavenly court of angels, it more naturally conveys a first hint of the trinitarian relations in the being of the one God. 

The rest of the Bible, of course, makes clear that the true God is Trinitarian, Father, Son and Spirit, one God (e.g., Matt 28:19; 2 Cor 13:14). 


The way the original making of mankind in God’s image is announced contains both the singular and the plural. ‘So, God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them’ (Gen 1:27). There is a poetic parallel; ‘He created him…he created them.’

The individual is very important. This is clear from the way that Adam first exists as an individual and has personal dealings with God (Gen 2:7, 16, 17). God addresses Adam as ‘you’, singular (vv. 16, 17). Adam enters the garden alone and is given his own task (Gen 2:15). Yet though the individual is important he or she is not meant to live in a relational vacuum. ‘It is not good for the man to be alone’ (Gen 2:18). A solitary Adam is ‘not good’. That phrase may seem somewhat jarring as we read Genesis. But if we have grasped God’s triunity, the ‘not good’ ought not to be unexpected. Being alone is not what God intends for human beings, persons in his image. It is only through being together with another and others (whether in marriage or wider society) that the image of the relational God can fully blossom. The human individual finds fulfilment of his or her true self in community. 

Now, of course, when we come to Genesis 3 things change. We find the devil appealing in a very individualistic way to Eve (Gen 3:6), with the result that with the coming of sin, community is shattered (3:12). Distrust, suspicion and accusation abound – even against God. Community with God and between Adam and Eve is fractured.


Jesus frequently acts in such a way as not only to bless individuals, but to restore isolated outcasts to their place within the community of the people of God. Both the individual and the community are important. 

He deliberately seeks out the lost. Rejected but repentant Zacchaeus has a new heart for people and Jesus states that, ‘this man too is a son of Abraham,’ – he belongs (Lk 19:1-10).

The miracles of the Master accomplish the same goal. Lepers who must be kept quarantined are cleansed and so reinstated in society (Mk 1:40-45). The demoniac who lived alone among the tombs is restored to his right mind and sent back to his people (Mk 5:19). The isolated woman, embarrassed by her issue of blood which made her ‘unclean’ (Mk 5:32) is healed, confesses her faith publicly and is a ‘daughter’ (5.34) – part of Christ’s family.

Our Lord’s atoning death is, of course, legitimately seen as being for individuals (Gal 2:20), but also has a definite collective aim: Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (Eph 5:25). The rebuilding of community is part of Jesus coming to undo and destroy the works of the devil.

The early church

The outpouring of the Spirit and the preaching of Jesus as ‘Lord and Christ’ results in the calling together of God’s new community – the church. This fledgeling assembly is marked by togetherness: ‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayer…All the believers were together and had everything in common…’ (Acts 2:42-44).

The striking unity of the Jerusalem church after Pentecost is not simply meant to be an exceptional and glorious start to Christ’s church. It is meant to set an example and be programmatic for all true churches. (Though later it is indicated that practically such large numbers as 3000+ give rise to problems (Acts 6:1-2).) We see this in larger perspective when we understand that God the Father’s overall plan is reconciliation and ‘to bring all things in heaven and on earth together, under one head, even Christ’ (Eph 1:10). 

Here is the reversal, not only of Babel, but of the Fall in social terms. Whereas the devil’s scheme is for division and fragmentation, God’s programme for the ages is individuals together in community in Christ. The different elements of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23) are not just seen as virtues in an individual (though they are that) but as social characteristics that build, enhance and maintain community.

Today’s churches

We can see that we are meant to be God’s new community – but my fear is that today we are making enormous compromises and producing, or at least supporting, a Christianised version of individualism.

Personalised Sundays

The risen Lord Jesus first met with his disciples on a Sunday (Jn 20:1, 19, 26). The first day of the week was the day that the NT church gathered to worship in community (1 Cor 16:2; Rev 1:10).

The assembling of the committed believers is obviously the heart of the community life of the church. But many churches these days only meet once on a Sunday not seeing that the less we meet the weaker our sense of community is likely to be. Whereas the original church in Jerusalem was so keen to be together with their brothers and sisters in Christ that they met every day in the Temple courts (Acts 2:46), many Christians find any kind of Sunday attendance a stretch. Certainly, the tradition of two Sunday services is dying out. The interests of the individual, whether it be for relaxation, the family, work or for sport, takes precedence. 

Personalized identity

‘Who am I?’ is an understandable question in a secular world. What can I say about myself? Am I the mere transient product of the forces of blind chance? 

Many young people are anxious over such questions. Therefore, the church and its teachers have for the last decade or so rightly responded to this question assuring Christians of their identity in Christ. The classic verses in Galatians have been of great comfort to many: ‘You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptised into Christ Jesus clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise’ (Gal 3:26-29).

The problem is that such verses have tended to be explained almost completely through individualistic lenses. You (personally) are a ‘son’ (females as well); you are clothed in Christ; you are a true child of Abraham; you are an heir. But though all that is true, the corporate side of Paul’s words is often neglected. Repeatedly as he addresses the churches in Galatia here, he emphasises that this is true of ‘all’ of them. In particular, he underlines their collective unity: ‘You are all one in Christ Jesus’. Although personal identity in Christ is to the fore, our corporate identity is often neglected. One book I saw recently on the subject of identity had seven chapters. Six concentrated on personal identity and just one looked at our corporate identity as Christians and members of churches. This imbalance is an indication of how we have swallowed individualism.  

Personalized sermons

The way the modern evangelical churches lean towards a Christianised individualism is often indicated by the application sections of expositions from the pulpit. The staple applications of contemporary sermons have to do with personal prayer, personal Bible reading, personal evangelism, personal handling of emotions, how to deal with personal tragedies, the Christian at work and the Christian in the family. The underlying assumption is that we see ourselves almost exclusively as individuals. This is how preaching tries to make itself relevant to the coming week. However, there is comparatively little concerning the need for church membership, of seeing ourselves as part of a body gifted to contribute to the well-being of that body (that is sometimes seen as the domain of the church ‘staff’). Yet our spiritual gifting from God is specifically allocated to build up the body of Christ as each part does its work (Eph 4:16).

Personalised baptism

On the Day of Pentecost, ‘Those who accepted (Peter’s) message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day’ (Acts 2:41). To be baptised was to join the church. The idea of ‘I want to be baptised, but I don’t want to join the church’ panders to Christian individualism. It implies that ‘I want to be joined to Christ as my head, but not to his body, the church’. New Testament Christians would be astonished.

To be baptised was indeed to personally make a public declaration of faith in Christ, but it also meant being baptised into the body of Christ, the church (1 Cor 12:13). You take your stand with Christ’s people – the church. But the majority of evangelical churches now make a separation between baptism and church membership. The emphasis is more or less solely on individual faith without any obligation to a corporate dimension. This is a Christianised individualism.  

Personalized church

As the world suffered from the Covid pandemic beginning in 2020, churches understandably had to stop meeting together in order to try to stem the spread of the disease in the community. Churches did their best to honour the Lord’s Day by meeting together online. Church services were broadcast on YouTube. Fellowship groups took place via Zoom. 

However, because of their previously inculcated individualistic mindset, this caused many Christians to wonder whether physically meeting together as churches is all that necessary. In their armchairs, they were being encouraged by the online sermons. They enjoyed singing along to pre-recorded worship songs as part of the video service. And it was so much more convenient to worship from the sofa without having to get the car out to go to church and find a place to park. The fact that Christians were thinking like this is a measure of how far we have drifted into individualism. 

But the personalized church is often disguised more subtly than that. Large churches gather many people. They come together but there is little or no corporate life of the church as a body. Such churches are often the equivalent of a spiritual convenience store where people drive in once on a Sunday to get edified through the sermon, have a brief chat with a few Christian friends, and then simply carry on their individualistic lives – of myself, my family and my career. Consciously or unconsciously, these ‘successful’ churches are simply providing a scaffolding to support a Christianised form of individualism.     

Personalized communion

The Lord’s Supper is the central Christian celebration. We remember Jesus. We proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Cor 11:24-26). But we do this as a community, as a church.

The apostle Paul emphasizes this. He writes, ‘Because there is one loaf, we, who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf’ (1 Cor 10:17). 

Communion is a celebration of what Christ has done for us. Emblematically we drink his blood and we eat his flesh in the wine and bread. It portrays our solidarity with him as the means by which the benefits of the cross are ours. But Paul says that it is equally meant to be a portrayal of our solidarity with each other as we eat from the one loaf. It highlights the fact that we are one in the church. Indeed, the reprimand that Paul gives to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 11 is precisely because people are acting selfishly as if they are not members of the same body at all. The communion is meant to be for a church, a community of people in Christ at peace with each other and committed to each other, who know each other, feel for each other (Rom 12:15).

And yet the way communion operates in most evangelical churches takes little or no notice of this collective dimension. The Lord’s table is regarded far more in terms of ‘my personal communion with Christ’ than it is as a communion together as a church. Further, Christians who are not members of the church and may have made it quite clear that they do not wish to be part of the church (and perhaps any church) are nevertheless welcome to take the bread and wine. The church as a body of members is set aside while the ‘rights’ of the individual to come to the table are validated. We must not even challenge it. The open table is frequently an expression of pure individualism. 

Time to rethink

But the church is not just a resource for individuals to use in their pursuit of their personal agendas. It is their family. It is the body of Christ. Now, obviously it is possible to over-emphasize the collective nature of the church, in a way that squashes the individual, so that it becomes unhealthy and cult-like – everyone must be the same, think the same. We don’t want that. But at present in conservative evangelical churches the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of individualism and many Christians need to rethink if they want to obey the Lord.