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The Church of Individualism

September 8th, 2020 | 11 min read

By Brad Edwards

Mark Sayers defines secularism as the pursuit of “the fruits of the Kingdom without the King.” It’s a beautifully succinct summary of a culture with a historical amnesia of it’s once-upon-a-time countercultural Christian foundations built to support the social virtues of justice, mercy, dignity, and beauty – all under the umbrella of the 2nd Greatest Commandment to “Love Thy Neighbor.” Tolerance, diversity, inclusion… all are deeply and undeniably historic Christian values that have been divorced from the King who defined their cosmic depth, direction, meaning, and scope.

In their podcast, This Cultural Moment, Sayers and co-host John Mark Comer surgically tease out the cultural implications of secularism and build a comprehensive framework for understanding its evolution through compelling explanatory narrative. They weave a rich tapestry from interdisciplinary threads of church history, globalism, sociology, current events, and theology so seamlessly that it’s easy to see the validity of Sayers’ argument that Secularism is, functionally and historically, a Christian heresy.

This Cultural Moment is helpful, in part, because it promises to provide a missing link in the oft-cited “Rise of the Nones” that evangelical churches are frantically trying to craft new methodologies for reaching – and that was before a third of practicing Christians just gave up attending church during the pandemic. If we could just crack the secular “code” and recontextualize our ministry accordingly, then we’d have a shot at reversing the church-emptying exodus caused by an increasingly secular, post-Christian culture. Secularism, we assume, is the attractive mistress luring the prodigally-minded away from the flourishing and spiritually healthy alternative Bride that is the church. Evangelicalism is thus in competition with secular alternatives, so we just need to figure out how to make the church more relevant and we can solve the evangelistic equation, discover the next megachurch growth strategy, and spark widespread renewal in the West.

To their credit, Sayers and Comer deliver that missing link for understanding secularism on a far deeper level. But rather than being the silver bullet we’d hoped for, it introduces more concerning questions: If secularism is “the pursuit of the Kingdom without the King,” why do King-loving evangelicals have such a hard time demonstrating the Good News of His Kingdom? If secularism is evangelicalism’s prodigal son, why have evangelicals not made significantly more progress reconciling and resonating through shared (if distant) family traits? Rebellion and refusal to give allegiance to King Jesus, alone, does not explain this ongoing tension and our willingness to question why the church no longer resonates with younger generations does not go nearly deep enough.

If secularism is the pursuit of the Kingdom without the King, Evangelicalism has come to worship the King without the Kingdom.

My church (The Table) is largely made up of a group of people I’ve come to refer to as “post-evangelical” – or those whose experience in the evangelical church has left them unsatisfied (at best), alienated (at least), or wounded (at worst). Unlike “exvangelicals,” who have explicitly left the Church and orthodoxy due to their experience in evangelicalism, post-evangelicals don’t want to give up on Jesus or his church, but they have this nagging intuition that if Christianity is true, then they should be able to find a home in it’s truth somewhere… shouldn’t they? Many can’t stop looking over their shoulder at the plethora of more seemingly satisfying alternatives to an institution that seems to reduce “kingdom” to voting pro-life. For entirely too many of them, The Table is the community they’re just barely able to muster up the courage to “give the church one last chance.” Often, they say so verbatim.

If The Table didn’t exist, it’s likely they’d have become another data point in the aforementioned “Rise of the Nones.” If we’re willing to listen, post-evangelicals paint a very different picture than dissonance with church methodology… one that requires a quick lesson in fruit trees.

In an interview on the podcast I co-host, Everything Just Changed, Brandon Washington, the founding pastor of The Embassy Church in Denver, CO, tells of how his HOA recently hired a tree trimming service for their neighborhood, but they refused to prune one particular tree in his front yard because it was a pear tree and fruit trees weren’t included in their fees. Confused, Brandon explained to the arborist that this tree hasn’t borne any fruit in the 7 years he’d lived there, at all. Not a single pear.

“That’s because it’s a domesticated pear tree.”

Come again?

Some fruit trees (e.g. pear) are both pleasing to the eye and easy to maintain, and would be ideal decorative species if not for the messy and inconvenient fruit that regularly falls to the ground, clutters neat suburban lawns and, if neglected, will rot where they lay. Thus, “domesticated” fruit trees had the fruit-bearing genes bred out of their DNA so they could be visually pleasing and conveniently maintained with little effort. Domesticated suburbanites wanted a fruit tree (King) without the fruit (Kingdom), and literally remade it in their own image.

Where a Domesticated Evangelical Church does not bear Kingdom Fruit, we remake the King in our image.

The post-evangelical complaint I’ve heard time and again is that genuine curiosity and desire to love their neighbors (especially in areas of social, economic, and racial justice) is “too much” or implicitly threatening to domesticated evangelical churches. Our ecclesial-historical amnesia is so acute, our Old Testament literacy so anemic, and our cultural intelligence so low, that we associate social justice with Karl Marx rather than the Prophet Isaiah. And so post-evangelicals take a page out of the evangelical playbook they’ve been discipled by: they combine Jesus’ teachings on the Kingdom with a King remade in their own (more progressive) image, and follow him or her right out of evangelicalism. In exchanging “King-without-the-Kingdom” for a “spiritual-but-not-religious” secularism that pursues Kingdom fruit without roots and branches to nourish it. Add that lack of institutional attachment to the common perception (shared by both Neighbors and Nones) that “evangelical” is synonymous with “Christian,” and you have a recipe for exvangelical deconstruction hardened to anything resembling orthodox Christianity.

Post-evangelicals are asking the same question Brandon asked his arborist: at what point can a fruit tree that bears no fruit be considered, in any meaningful way, a fruit tree? The vast majority of the dissonance, frustration, and alienation they experience is not due to evangelical churches taking their King too seriously, but because we’ve taken our (individual) selves so seriously, we’ve reduced Jesus to a mascot. To many, the very public implosion of Liberty University President, Jerry Fallwell Jr., is just one in a long line of examples that cross the line from merely hypocritical to outright toxic. And between recent statements from John MacArthur and Vice President Pence, how can we be even remotely surprised that anyone would see our movement as a Republican-flavored civil religion?

While most post-evangelicals balk at any moral constraint to their individual autonomy required in fidelity to the King (e.g. sexual ethics), many would be significantly more open if evangelicals had more of the not-of-this-world credibility that comes from bearing the uniquely satisfying fruit of obedience. Instead, our captivity to individualism has grown into full-fledged stockholm syndrome, a spiritual complacency that domesticates the breadth and depth of God’s Kingdom and remakes King Jesus into our own comfortably affluent, suburban image.

Welcome to the Church of Individualism, where it’s BYO(Identity) through whatever community, meaning, purpose, or ritual you prefer – Secular, Evangelical, or Otherwise.

Secularism is a growing cultural influence as more people are rejecting the King, but they’re rejecting a King we’ve remade into our own white, conservative, and evangelical image.

And they’re right to do so because it goes even deeper than that.

In Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, Tara Isabella Burton makes the disturbing point that it is largely evangelicalism’s historical precedent that is fueling the Rise of the Nones. The experiential fulfillment and personal spirituality of the Jesus Movement was the Baby Boomers’ take on a recurring intuitionist spirituality stretching at least as far back as Charles Finney’s emotionalism of the Second Great Awakening, but its individualistic bent had a profound (albeit unintended) impact on their children:

Today’s Nones have grown up seeing religion as a social or communal institution – a ‘nice to have’ teaching ‘good values’ or solidifying family bonds – but not necessarily as a core part of their meaning or purpose. They’re the kids who saw their parents attend church, or who went to Sunday school, but were nevertheless acutely conscious that their parents didn’t actually believe all that stuff… On the one hand, they’re disillusioned with what is, in most cases, their parents’ religious tradition, which has failed to provide them with a coherent account of meaning and purpose in the world. (emphasis added)

The evangelical church provided our parents community and ritual (King), but not meaning or purpose (Kingdom) outside of missionary tourism or idolatrous “Christian” Nationalism. We (evangelicals) have become compromised by an opposite trajectory of the same individualism that fuels secularism. And as we reject building God’s Kingdom for building our own (whether cultural, political, ethnic, or otherwise), we are no less upon the throne than those who have consciously rejected the King. If anything, they’re just more aware and honest about their picking and choosing.

Burton continues, describing the existential crossroads facing Millennials…

On the other hand, they’re alienated from the political conservatism of more hardline denominations, with stances on LGBTQ issues or sexuality that an increasingly progressive generation sees as at odds with their core values… (which) see the self as an autonomous being, the self’s desires as fundamentally good, and societal and sexual repression as not just undesirable but actively evil. (emphasis mine)

A domesticated evangelicalism compromised by its own (traditional/conservative) individualism has no ability to offer a satisfying alternative to progressive autonomy. Instead, it lobs grenades from behind the safety of the pulpit, and hopes caricatures are enough to dissuade the next generation. Sniffing hypocrisy rather than the aroma of Christ, many Millennials began following the intuitionist example of their evangelical parents, remade the King in their own (far more culturally and socially progressive) image, and pursued that kingdom with themselves as king.

Individualism, not Secularism, is fueling the Culture Wars.

Two “kings” remade into the image of followers who increasingly define themselves against each other are potent spiritual anchors guaranteed to create a feedback loop of negative polarization. This isn’t a completely new dynamic, but social media’s megaphone and the pandemic’s crucible, combined, are a potent catalyst for a fear of the “other” that traditional guardrails to individualism (i.e. institutions) are still desperately trying to catch up with. As both evangelicalism and secularism escalate toward fundamentalist revivals and slide into a strange kind of spiritual populism reinforced by political liturgies, the culture wars promise to further erode the institutional fabric of the church and burn out pastors trying to shepherd flocks increasingly tempted by teaching that suits their own passions.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

Evangelicals have had it all wrong. Secularism isn’t the root of the problem, but the inevitable fruit of an individualism cultivated within a domesticated church more interested in maintaining manicured lifestyles than exploring the messy inconvenience of the Kingdom. The threat isn’t lurking out there somewhere, but in here fueling the culture wars we claim to be victims of.

Secularism is not the prodigal son who fled a good and loving home, it’s the estranged spouse of evangelicalism’s extramarital affair with individualism.

A patient love that searches the horizon is, alone, not enough because prodigal Nones are not initially fleeing the perfect love of God-the-Father, but the criminal neglect of an adulterous Mother Church. Reconciliation will only happen on the other side of meaningful repentance through the self-giving, Kingdom-building love of neighbor and spurning the toxic mistress of individualism who first led us away from fidelity to King Jesus.

For a younger generation sincerely longing to “taste and see that the Lord is good,” Evangelicalism had better be able to offer the sweet fruit of the Kingdom. And if we’re not even willing to do that, then we shouldn’t be surprised if God refuses to enable our fruit-less, domesticated ministry, but instead allows us to lose the culture wars, and enter a cultural exile that mirrors our spiritual captivity to Individualism.

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