Future Faith: Challenge Six: Rejecting the Heresy of Individualism

For any community to thrive, there must be more members who can say “me for the community” than those who say “the community for me.”

The deeply imbedded sense of individualism, accentuated by the political framework of modern liberalism, corrodes attempts to strengthen bonds of community, whether in church or society.

Me for community or community for me

That simple contrast—me for the community versus the community for me—captures the heart of the dilemma facing modern Western culture and, by extension, the expressions of the church that are sustained in its midst.

Modern Western culture freed humanity from oppressive, authoritarian rule governing thought, religion, and political structures. The role, rights, and agency of the individual became paramount.

One agrees to the obligations of belonging to a wider community to guarantee and gain certain individual rights and freedoms.

In the famous words of John Donne, “No man is an island, entire unto itself.” We live together in essential networks and webs of social cohesion and interaction.

Philosophers like Ayn Rand took individualism to such extremes that selfishness became a virtue, dismissing altruism and self-sacrifice and advocating a radical laissez-faire capitalism free of any government interference.

Think, for instance, of the famous line in President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” It was a political way of saying, me for the community, rather than the community for me.

Pew Research Center posed this question to Americans and Europeans: “What’s more important in society, that everyone be free to pursue life’s goals without interference from the state, or that the state play an active role in society so as to guarantee that nobody is in need?” Fifty-eight percent of Americans cited that an individual’s freedom was most important, while majorities in European nations felt the opposite.

Life organized around “me” at the center is constantly reinforced.

Biblical faith and community

That assumption is, in fact, foreign to Christian faith. Put simply, it’s an unbiblical, alien concept.

Throughout salvation history, God’s action has focused on creating a people faithful to God’s love and purposes for the world. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, people are invited to become members of this community based on God’s grace and empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Much of the New Testament is devoted to explaining to, exhorting, and instructing those who follow Jesus what it means to live together as a community, experiencing the gifts of the Spirit, and demonstrating the unity and reconciliation that is God’s gift.

The metaphor of existing together as one body powerfully highlights the intrinsic interdependence of every member with one another.

Another frequent metaphor for the church in the New Testament is the family.

The goal is to become incorporated into a community that is the vehicle for God’s transforming work in the world. The goal is not to find one’s individual happiness and affirm one’s individual rights. Therefore, Christians are always beckoned primarily to say, “me for the community.” That’s what it means to be claimed by God and participate in God’s ongoing transformation and redemption of the world.

The Christian journey always has an inward as well as an outward direction.

Christian faith is intended to be personal. Most definitely. But Christian faith is not intended to be individual. There’s a difference. We are addressed personally by God.

However, one’s transforming, personal encounter with God’s grace and love destroys the illusion of individualism.

views of reality

Dietrich Bonhoeffer led one of the “underground seminaries” of the Confessing Church in the 1930s, before it was closed by the Nazis. There he established practices to build the life of Christian community through prayer, meditation on Scripture, and identification with the most vulnerable in society.

life as relationships

The Cappadocian Fathers (including Gregory of Nyssa, Basil of Caesarea, and Gregory Nazianzen) of fourth century eastern Turkey finally turned to a word from Greek theater, perichoresis—circle dance—to describe the foundational quality of God’s character: relationship and communion. In the beginning was relationship.

Individualistic self-indulgence will always search for threads of religious justification and blessing, particularly in the crazy patchwork quilt of American Christianity.

the power and promise of community

A thirst for community, however, among both rich and poor persistently endures.

starting with community

A popular African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” offers a glimpse of how togetherness is valued over individualism in African cultures.

“Ubuntu” is that “a person is a person through other people.” This means that one can never conceive of their own identity as an isolated individual. Rather, personhood can only emerge out of relationships with others. Our humanity, in fact, is not embedded in our individuality but bestowed upon us by others. That’s how linked we are in bonds of communal belonging.

Bishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Prize-winning cleric from South Africa, helped export the concept of Ubuntu in his writings. “A person with Ubuntu,” wrote Tutu, “is open and available to others, affirming of others . . . knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole, and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished.”

“Liberation Theology” attempted to reconstruct theology by seeing the world and reading the Bible “through the eyes of the poor.”

Drawing as well on themes of solidarity within the political currents of the continent, such communities incarnated the conviction that the power of the gospel had to find its starting point in communal life with one another.

The power and promise of grounding faith in community that is so prevalent in global Christianity challenges US congregations to seek a transforming vision of future faith that is not based on the heresy of individualistic Christianity.

discussion guide


  • What do you think of Jean Vanier’s proposal that for any community to thrive, “there must be more members who can say ‘me for the community’ than those who say ‘the community for me’”?
  • How does the world around us, and sometimes even the church, organize life with “me” at the center?
  • From what biblical examples does the author draw in the perspective of life organized around community? What benefits are experienced “in community”?
  • How does God’s nature itself lead us toward community?
  • What examples of both individualistic ministry and community-based ministry are given in the chapter?
  • How can the power and promise of grounding faith in community, which is so prevalent in global Christianity, sharpen your faith community’s life together?
  • What more do you want to learn or do based on reading this chapter of the book?


Previous post can be found here:

Challenge One: Revitalizing Withering Congregations

Challenge Two: Embracing the Color of the Future

Challenge Three: Seeing through Non-Western Eyes

Challenge Four: Perceiving the World as Sacred

Challenge Five: Affirming Spirit-Filled Communities

For more on this, please support the author and buy his book at Amazon or Fortress Press. I do not receive any compensation for this summary.

Sterker as Darwin en Feuerbach

Die mens wat God na sy beeld gemaak het – dit wil sê in vryheid gemaak het – is die mens wat uit die aarde geneem is. Sterker as dit kon selfs Darwin en Feuerbach nie praat nie. Die mens is uit die aarde, die mens is ‘n stuk aarde. Sy aardverbondenheid is deel van hom. Die aarde is sy moeder, hy het uit haar skoot voortgekom. Maar die aarde waaruit die mens geneem is, is die aarde voor die vloek, is nog geseënde grond. Dit is die aarde van God waaruit die mens geneem is. Van die aarde is sy liggaam. Sy liggaam is deel van sy wese. Sy liggaam is nie maar ‘n kerker, ‘n omhulsel of ‘n uiterlike nie, sy liggaam is hy self. Die mens “het” nie ‘n liggaam en “het” nie ‘n siel nie, hy “is” liggaam-en-siel. Die mens van die skepping is in werklikheid sy liggaam soos Christus geheel en al sy liggaam is, soos die kerk die liggaam van Christus is. Die mens wat hom van sy liggaam distansieer, distansieer hom van sy bestaan voor God, die Skepper. Dit is die erns van die menslike bestaan: sy gebondenheid aan die moederaarde, sy liggaamwees. Die mens se bestaan is ‘n bestaan-op-aarde, hy het nie van bo gekom as een wat deur ‘n wrede noodlot na die aardse wêreld uitgedryf is en daaraan verkneg is nie, maar hy is uit die aarde – waarin hy sluimerend dood was – verwek deur die Woord van God, die Almagtige; hy is ‘n stuk aarde, maar aarde wat deur God tot menswees geroep is. “Ontwaak, jy wat slaap, en staan op uit die dode, en Christus sal oor jou skyn” (Efesiërs 5:14). So het Michelangelo dit ook gesien: Adam rus teen die jong aardbodem aan, so vas en innig daarmee verbonde dat hy self in sy dromende bestaan hoogs uitsonderlik is, hoogs wonderbaarlik is, maar tog nog ‘n stuk aarde is, en juis in die volledige verbondenheid aan die geseënde grond van die skeppingsaarde word die volle heerlikheid van die eerste mens sigbaar. En in hierdie rus teen die aarde aan, in hierdie diepe skeppingslaap word die mens lewend deur die liggaamlike aanraking van die vinger van God. Dieselfde hand wat die mens geformeer het, raak hom nou soos uit die verte liggies aan en wek hom tot lewe. Die hand van God hou die mens nie meer vas nie maar stel hom vry, en die skeppende krag word die liefde van die Skepper wat na die skepsel uitreik. Die hand van God  op hierdie beeld in die Sixtynse Kapel bevat meer kennis van die skepping as menige diepversende bespiegeling.

Ek, die vreemdeling

Ek is ‘n vreemdeling op aarde. Daarmee erken ek dat ek nie hier kan bly nie, dat my dae min is. Ek het ook hier geen reg op eiendom en tuiste nie. Al die goeie wat my ten deel val, moet ek dankbaar ontvang; onreg en geweld moet ek ly sonder dat iemand my verdedig. Ek het nòg op mense, nòg op dinge ‘n houvas. As vreemdeling is ek onderworpe aan die wette van my herberg. Die aarde wat my voed, het reg o my arbeid en my krag. Dit kom my nie toe om die aarde waarop ek lewe, te verag nie. Ek is aan hom trou en dank verskuldig. Ek mag my bestemming om ‘n vreemdeling te moet wees, en daarmee saam my roeping deur God tot hierdie vreemdelingskap, nie ontwyk deur my lewe op aarde met gedagtes oor die hemel om te droom nie. Daar is ‘n baie goddelose heimwee na die ander wêreld, en vir dié heimwee is daar gewis geen tuiskoms nie. Ek moet ‘n vreemdeling wees, met alles wat dit inhou. Ek mag my gemoed nie sluit vir die take, die pyn en die vreugde van die aarde nie, en ek moet geduldig wag op die waarmaking van die beloftes van God, maar dan waarlik wag – en nie vooruit in wense en drome daarna wil gryp nie. Van ‘n vaderland is hier geen sprake nie. Ek weet hierdie aare kan nie ‘n vaderland wees nie, en tog weet ek dat die aarde aan God behoort en dat ek hier nie net ‘n vreemdeling is nie, maar ‘n pelgrim en ‘n bywonder van God (Psalm 39:13). Omdat ek egter op aarde niks anders as ‘n vreemdeling is nie, sonder reg, sonder houvas, sonder beveiliging, omdat God self my so swak en gering gemaak het, daarom het Hy my één vaste pand van my bestemming gegee: sy Woord. Hierdie enigste sekerheid sal Hy nie van my wegneem nie, hierdie Woord sal Hy teenoor my gestand doen, daarin sal Hy my sy krag laat ervaar. As dié Woord van huis uit by my is, vind ek in die vreemde my pad, in die onreg my reg, in die onsekerheid my houvas, in die arbeid my krag, in die lyding die geduld.