USA Today recently reported on a study that concluded, "...U.S. society since 1960 has become increasingly focused on the self." I'm not sure we needed a study of 750,000 plus books written in the US the last 52 years to verify the shift from 'we' to 'me;' but, quantitative evidence helps the sometimes skeptical who may not be paying attention. Individualism is a prominent trend in our culture--and a threat to the church as it was created to be.
Let me jump to my question for discussion, "What does this trend have to do with the church, either the local church or as a movement of God's people?"
My first response is for us to look at the language of our worship songs and sermons since 1960. (Anyone out there looking for a PhD or DMin project?) My hunch is that our worship choruses have more "I's" and "Me's" than "Us's" and "We's." I do believe that trend is shifting some, but as a whole, I am certain that individualized worship of a personal God has dominated our worship scene over the last fifty years.
The threat? If it's all about God and me, where and with whom do I live out my individual relationship with God? You have your warm, present-in-the-moment God, and I have mine. So, how do we share a common calling or even a worship experience together? If it's about me and my God, then what does any of my worship have to do with you or others?
Sermons have turned from mobilizing a movement to helping the individual. My unqualified hunch is that preachers spend more time on helping people with their personal problems (with an occasional proof text) than they do interpreting the Story of God from Scripture in order to engage the called out ones in the world as the Sent Ones--not to be happy as a Blessed One. I'm afraid our culture's emphasis on 'me' has turned our pastors' heads toward helping 'me' rather than calling 'us' to be a distinctive movement of people who reflect the priorities and practices of God.
Our programs or "ministries" tend to be more about meeting the needs of those who are members of the group rather than serving others in the name of Jesus. Leading and equipping a people in a movement is different than managing programs to meet the needs of those who join up to receive our services. When care of the individual trumps the mobilization of a cared for people, the movement the church was created to be will halt. Only a revival of the first missional movement will restore our work together.
Yes, God called individuals and they had a personal relationship with God; but, that calling always resulted in a unique group of people, who as a group lived and loved as God's selfless ambassadors to a selfish world.
My goal is not to give you a definitive response to this trend but to let you know if it continues to invade the missional movement of the church, we will lose the power of who God called us to be as his people.
The church has an opportunity to call the individual to "deny self," follow Jesus and join his people in the movement to bring about the reign and ways of God among all people and to find a higher calling than simply caring for 'me.'