Problem One: The Word Christian
“I am a Christian.” I was asking some questions to find out where this man was spiritually and those words slipped off his tongue as if he had said it thousands of times before. Like an experienced salesman there was assurance and conviction behind his words which made me a believer too. That is until the rest of the conversation happened. Upon exploring exactly how he cashed out the term “Christian” it became clear that there was a mismatch between what it means to be a Christian in reality and what he meant by the word “Christian.” He was not trying to be dishonest. He believed his words. But he did not fully understand what it meant to be a follower of Christ.
I live in the South. Nearly everyone I know says they are a Christian when asked. Further, it is not uncommon to be asked “where do you go to church?” upon first meeting. Yet, for all the religiosity in the South, I regularly notice a gap between what it means to be a Christian and how people live out Christianity. This may be stating the obvious, but calling yourself a Christian does not mean a lot these days.
The first problem: When someone says they are a Christian (at least in America), it does not always match what it actually means to follow Christ.
Problem Two: Individualism
“A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook used those words to explain that a person’s individual interest is the standard for how the social media site determines your newsfeed. The assumption is that you are more interested in news that is oriented to you personally than to anything else (the world for example).
There was a research study which showed that among the highest and most deeply held values of Americans, individualism is the greatest value. There are many characteristics that influence a high rating. In an individualistic culture, most people focus on taking care of themselves (and likely their immediate family) above all else. Most people interpret and understand the world through the lens of a self-orientation. In other words, how does this affect me? The basis for identity or self-understanding is cast in individual terms rather than group or collective terms. The right to a private life is fiercely expected and protected. Additionally, there is an emphasis on personal achievement and initiative. One may not enjoy an organizational achievement as much unless they receive personal recognition.
I would imagine that if you talk to most Christians, they would say that individualism in faith is a good thing. In America, we express this value of individualism in the way we appropriate our faith. Christians and churches tend to focus on one’s own personal belief in God above all else. Churches focus on your response rather than our response to Christ. Countless studies have shown that many young adults are drifting from and/or abandoning the church, but maintaining that they have a personal relationship with Jesus. This can only be understood if one has an individual faith that is regardless of a corporate identity with other Christians. Further, it is considered taboo discuss “religion” (and politics) in social situations. In general, most Americans would prefer to relegate faith to one’s personal, private life where others have no authority.
While I do not wish to de-emphasize the need for an individual approach to faith in Christ, I refuse to accept the idea that faith should stay merely an individual, private affair. Jesus’ death has implications on my individualism. 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 says, “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, and therefore all have died; and He died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for Him who for their sake died and was raised.” When we live, we do not live unto ourselves. Following Christ mandates that we live unto Him. And, to live unto Him means we must live for others. This brings me to the second problem.
The second problem: When we approach our Christian faith through the lens of individualism, we lose much of what it means to be a Christian.
Diagnosing the Illness
So, we are left with two problems that I believe are intimately related. When people misunderstand what it means to be a Christian (problem one), it is usually because they have adopted an individualistic approach to following Christ (problem two). The root problem, I believe is individualism. Individualism is an illness like malnourishment. It is not that someone is dead, but grossly deprived of what they need to be healthy. The disease of individualism needs to be diagnosed and treated. If I were diagnosing someone for an individualistic faith, here are some symptoms. Certainly there are more symptoms, but this gives us a good start.
Symptoms of an Individualistic Christian
- Church is not a priority. And, even if I go to church, I do not have people who know me beyond a superficial level.
- My personal conviction rules all (what I think or feel negates any other information or perspectives).
- I gravitate toward non-relational means to connect with God (a podcast, author or worship track).
- Discipleship feels like exercise (I know it is important, but I struggle to have a clear plan that I follow through on doing).
- My faith is not integrated with the rest of my life (I struggle to see a meaningful connection between Jesus and things like my money, my career, or my physical health).
- I don’t tend to talk about my faith because it is private (I am hesitant to persuade people of other faiths to believe in Christ because I should not impose my beliefs on others).
Even if these symptoms do not describe you, you no doubt get the sense that these are cultural norms related to faith. While having an individual expression of the Christian faith is foundational and important, when the “ism” of individualism is attached it becomes an idol. Individualism shrinks the gospel and makes God in my image at worst, or puts my faith almost entirely in my control at best. A me-size faith is a small gospel.
If the gospel is shrunk down to me it becomes privatized. The gospel will be confined to the world of my inner experience only. It can never rise to the level of the all-encompassing, Jesus-is-Lord-of-all, big, big gospel Jesus described.
Here is the bad news: the small gospel is not fully the gospel.
Here is the good news: The small, individualistic gospel is still enough of a gospel to save sinners like me.
The One Solution: Jesus
Though individualism is a spiritual sickness that is unhealthy, anemic and woefully short of all God has for us, God does not require us to think and believe in all the right ways to enter into a love relationship with Him. Yes, Americans, with their idolatrous commitment to individualism, are still offered the free grace of Jesus Christ. However, in order to grow in Christ, we need a healthier love relationship with Jesus. We need His bigger gospel.
The Small Gospel
Dallas Willard said, “the question of the small gospel is this: If you were to die tonight, why should God let you into Heaven?” This makes the gospel small for many reasons. It casts the faith purely in terms of my own personal salvation and neglects God redemptive plan for the whole universe. God is not just redeeming me personally, but redeeming all of creation to His Lordship. This question focuses our attention on life after death and fails to show the relevance of life here and now.
I do not think it is a bad question. In fact, I have asked this very question to hundreds of people in hopes of having an opportunity to share the gospel. I still think it is a useful question. However, if the whole of my faith is about what happens when I die, I will struggle to see how or why my life should change now. Life-change is neither required nor does it naturally flow from the answer to that question. The question is only concerned with securing a place after death, not living a life with Christ now.
The Big Gospel
Willard continues, “The question of the big gospel is this: If you do NOT die tonight, how will your life be different tomorrow because of a relationship with Jesus?” This question places the focus on how Christ’s gospel impacts me now. If the gospel does not spill out into every aspect of my life and all of reality, is it not too small of a gospel? The gospel is nothing if it is not life-changing let alone world-changing.
I am not suggesting a works-based faith here. Faith in Jesus is secured only and completely by His merit and His work on the cross; and nothing of our ability to earn or evoke God’s grace. However, what does it mean when Jesus says no one can truly be a follower of Him unless they deny themselves, take up their cross and follow Him? To be a follower of Jesus changes everything.
What should it mean when someone says they are a Christian? To use Christianease: I don’t simply “accept Jesus into my heart” so I can go to heaven when I die (it does mean that, but it means much more than that). Instead, I need to recognize in my heart that Jesus is the gracious, loving, sovereign ruler of ALL. The big, true, God-sized gospel is one where Jesus reigns over all of the universe, not just my heart. So, when I say I am a “Christian,” it must not be like a hobby (I am a gardener) nor even a profession (I am a chef). Being a “Christian” means every aspect of my life (my hobbies, my profession, etc) are ruled by King Jesus.