"In my opinion, there can be no spiritual growth when one abdicates personal integrity and responsibility."
Steve Hassan in "Combatting Cult Mind Control"
"I know we’re more reserved and see ourselves more as individuals than as a collective in our culture, but we are not a collection of individuals on Sunday."
David Fairchild Lead Pastor of Mars Hill West Seattle *
As a Third Culture Kid and then a student of foreign languages, I have always found culture and the different ways people think to be fascinating. Identifying as a Christian, I trusted Christ as an individual, and believe strongly that though my parents led me to Christ, I must have my own personal faith, and my own kids must be free to trust Christ or reject Him. I have personally always thought outside the box of any given culture I have lived in, whether due to personality or to different experience, I may never entirely know, without a good psychologist. In any case, after experiencing and observing the pervasiveness of spiritual abuse and feeling the effects of mind control in certain situations, I began to research cults and figure out what was healthy and what was not.
In my reading, I came across a theme. Cults tend to remove responsibility from members and place too much power in the hands of a few superior leaders or leader. In short, healthy religion allows adherents the freedom to be and think for themselves and have different interests and ways of serving God and builds them up emotionally for this, while unhealthy systems pressure members to give up themselves to the group, and value the leaders' agenda over individual responsibilities and areas of community involvement and friendship.
So it bothered me when I read this first sentence of a tweet I screenshot from the feed of an Acts29 church:
It bothered me enough to tweet about it and discuss it privately with others with experience of spiritual abuse. I love many people at this church and I am very concerned if they don't see anything wrong with the thinking behind this use of words. It bothers me because I believe that just as we come to Christ as individuals, we are individually responsible for our own spiritual growth, interdependent in our need for community that will help us grow, and free to follow Christ in our personal area of ministry. What this comment, in context of an outreach that particular church was building up to when the tweet went out, what such a comment does is put pressure on individuals to conform to the group and put aside individual concerns, that legitimately need to be tended, in order to supply time for the ministry the church has on its agenda. Regardless of whether the church's agenda and mission opportunity is of personal value to the individuals inside the church as well as those outside, individualism discouraged by leadership can lead to stifling creative works of God's Spirit.
When churches limit the potential for creativity by their "vision" of ministry they can only produce clones. By teaching collectivism over individualism, I believe churches are becoming cults and actually hindering Christian liberty and even stifling God's Holy Spirit who is not just present in our collective worship but in the individuals who love Jesus. This is dangerous and wrong. Even Jesus was an individual.
To ensure I was defining my terms correctly, I googled both "individualism" and "collectivism" and the definitions I found stand in screenshots below:
I think it is important that Christians in every church situation in which they find themselves are freed to be the individuals God created them in Christ to be. This teaching above implies that if we are not on the church's brand of mission we are selfish. I would agree with the statement if the person tweeting had said "selfishness" in the place of "individualism", but as it stands it reminds me of what a pastor at a famous mega church said on FB once about the Church not being comprised of individuals but being a collective*.
In fact, the Bible seems to say that the diverse unique individuals who come to Christ do indeed form one Body. But, contrary to collectivist mentality, it also makes it clear we are all individually different and yet absolutely acceptable because of Christ, not for our united service to the community nor for an outwardly happy worship despite our individual emotional state on a Sunday morning. Nor are we "being the Church" just on Sunday, but in fact we are creatively salt and light in the world in our individual circumstances 24/7!
We can only be empathically interdependent if we allow differences between us. We cannot all weep at the same time; there must be some who are able to support the grieving because they are not currently experiencing overwhelming grief. And vice versa on rejoicing.
This brings me to a comment and my reply on my public FB page:
I think it is sad when the place, that should be the safest, most diverse (not just racially or culturally), and most freeing of individuals to worship and serve Christ as He leads them uniquely through the week in their careers and personal circumstances, becomes a place where people feel guilty for not being able or willing to use their free time to serve according to a leader's vision or agenda. I think this is a huge problem in many parts of the Body of Christ, and in that sense, it is hurting us all.
Though I understand from a ministry perspective how hard it can be when only some decide to serve with their local church, I would still advocate for acceptance and encouragement of individualism as good for the Church, bearing in mind that Jesus had a Zealot among his twelve disciples, Paul and Barnabas disagreed yet agreed in the Lord, and both Jews and Gentiles built up the early church. To pastors and those in ministry I say can we not leave room for God to do things over and above what our limited vision can see? Do we not trust Him to be far more powerful than our plans or agendas whether or not He chooses to use them as we expect?
Otherwise I am concerned we are creating a near-fascist church system not entirely unlike Animal Farm where the collective agrees to serve under some who are "more equal" than others. By checking their brains at the door, many in the Church have surrendered themselves, not to Christ, but to damaging mind control and ultimately destructive cult-like situations where abusive leaders have all the power while the priesthood of every believer is denied by default.
As an individual, I cannot stand by and not speak up when I see this happening in front of me. I think we have all seen, based on the example of a certain mega church in the news lately, what direction such thinking leads.
I am glad God created me to be exactly who I am and puts me exactly where I need to be to do what He has for me right now and day by day, individually tailored to who I am and what my limitations are, letting me be free.
"When absolute control and rigid obedience pose as love within the family and the local faith-community
, we produce trained cowards rather than Christian persons.” -Brennan Manning
Further information: groupthink vs. individualism:
Defining and discussing groupthink: