What do the following have in common? (And the answer, "They are all frequently seen in the American church" does not count.)
A. A new church is launching in town, and they mail oversized postcards that read something like this: "Finally—a church where the sermons aren't boring. Where you can come as you are …"
B. We preach a sermon in which we argue, "It's not religion but relationship," or make the point, "Some Christians may have let you down, but Jesus isn't like that."
C. We say to ourselves, especially on adrenaline-depleted Mondays, If things get really hard here, I can take my gifts elsewhere.
What's in common?
In each case, the needs of the individual are being elevated above the needs of the church. Sometimes it's the individual person above the local congregation (B & C), sometimes it's the individual congregation above the wider church (A), but the individual has gotten too big, and the church too small.
The lie in our drinking water
In America, individualism, like fluoride, flows in the drinking water. So it's not easy for us to discern what's necessarily wrong with the opening scenarios. They're just business as usual. But they fall meters short of the biblical picture of the church, that grand and awesome unity.
Take, for example, the new-church postcards. I live in a town that, according to the lofty authority Trivial Pursuit, boasts more churches per capita than any other town in America. Therefore, such cards arrive frequently, and most new churches follow the marketing dictum, "Differentiate yourself from other product offerings." But implied in their copy is this belief: "Whatever God may have been doing in those other congregations, He has finally shown up, right here, in our new church." Individual church wins, wider church loses.
Or consider when we all preach, "It's not religion [corporate, negative] but relationship [individual, good]." True as far as it goes, but can any relationship with Jesus be maintained apart from corporate religious practices such as worship, preaching, prayer, and baptism?
I know I have said, in an attempt to win over seekers, "Some Christians may have let you down, but Jesus isn't like that." Again, true, but how much daylight can be inserted between Jesus and his followers, when He told Saul, who was persecuting Christians, "Why are you persecuting Me?" (Acts 9:4). Wouldn't it be more honest to say, "Yes, such-and-such fraudulent televangelist or pedophile priest is part of our Christian family, too," and bear the shame of their actions, the way Jesus bore the shame of being spit on? Emphasizing "just you and Jesus" allows us to sidestep the pain of being in a messy, sinful family.
Even the Monday-morning musing, "I can take my gifts to another church, where they'll be more appreciated," betrays our individualism. Gifts have no meaning apart from their being at the service of others, and therefore, others must help determine their use.
During my years at Leadership Journal, I interviewed pastors whose gifts brought them constant invitations to speak at conferences. In my observation, the people who could handle this acclaim yet keep their pride subdued and family relationships intact held one thing in common: they surrendered their right to decide whether to accept a speaking invitation. Instead, each invitation was accepted or declined by a small group, which intentionally excluded the pastor. The group usually included the pastor's wife, and a close elder from the church, and a longtime friend who knew the pastor before notoriety struck. Not surprisingly, such groups accepted far fewer invitations than the pastor would have. Sometimes, shockingly, the group would send the famous pastor to a struggling church of 23 people who couldn't afford to pay a cent: the usual speaking fee would have taken half the church's yearly budget.