The Church and Culture
One of the most pervasive aspects of North American culture is its individualism. We make heroes out of “rugged individualists” who are self-made men and women. Even the “American Dream” is a highly individualized idea, when contrasted to the family and community centered values in some other societies.
Despite the affluence it has produced in North American society, this individualism represents a significant social liability, and it extends deep into the way we do spirituality as well. As far back as the 1830′s, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that in America “Each man is forever thrown back on himself alone, and there is danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart.”
Many of us have have created our own custom individual religion, avoiding the conflict that comes up when we are in community. Michael Jinkins observes, however, that “When we are left to worship by ourselves, what we usually worship is ourselves. Solitary religion tends toward idolatry, the worship of false gods made in our own image.” This individualized perspective on spirituality is a natural building block for an understanding of church as a group of people who think similarly enough to get along.
What does community look like in a society of individuals? The following excerpt from Michael Jinkins explains how centuries-old philosophical ideas have shaped our idea of what church means, using the idea of church as a “voluntary society.”
Voluntary religion is pretty much solitary religion exercised in groups. It is the religion of choice (literally!) for most people today in Western Europe and North America. It owes its formal development, at least in part, to the seventeenth-century British philosopher, John Locke, the founder of what we call Empiricism. Locke, in his famous essay, Letter Concerning Toleration, provided the classic statement of voluntary religion. He described the church as “a voluntary society of men, joining themselves of their own accord to the public worshipping of God.”
Locke’s concept of the church as a religious society of like-minded individuals has, in the centuries since Locke, become so common in many circles, especially in the United States, that it is accepted virtually as self-evident. In voluntary religion, the individual tries to find other individuals who share tolerably similar private conceptions of God. And, having found others who share the similar private religious views, a religious society is founded (a “church”) to which these individuals voluntarily commit themselves until their ideas change or they find that the ideas of others have become so greatly at variance with their own that they must move on to another religious society.
In contrast, suggests Jinkins,our perception of church should be inspired by the following image from Karl Barth.
Imagine citizens called by the trumpet and rushing from everywhere. They are present, they form a company, the company of the faithful, of those who, called by God’s faithfulness, have responded with their faithfulness. It is God who has convoked them. It is important to note that the Church is not formed by a human gathering of people who would have the same opinions, but by a divine convocation that constitutes into a [body] individuals until then scattered at the mercy of their own opinions.
It makes a big difference where the identity of the church is formed. If it is just an expression of the human instinct to form herds (“birds of a feather flock together”) then the whole thing rests on a shaky foundation. If, on the other hand, the church is formed by obedient followers responding to God’s call to community, then the changing opinions and preferences that make a “voluntary society” unstable are less prominent. In practical terms, this means that the kind of safe interdependent community described in section one is only possible when a local church understands itself as “the people of God” in a particular setting. This makes true unity possible–which is the subject of the final lesson below.