Happiest About the New Year

Michael Metzger

This has been a tough two weeks for American churches. With Christmas and New Years Day falling on successive Sundays, attendance was way off. Some even cancelled Sunday services. Churches may be happy that Christmas only falls on Sunday every few years, but cancelling or scaling back services might be reinforcing a troubling tendency.

Nearly 10 percent of Protestant churches were closed on Christmas Sunday according to LifeWay Research. Many churches that did hold services on Christmas and New Years Day scaled them back in anticipation of fewer worshipers. This might seem like a sensible thing to do but it plays into the hand of an American idol – individualism.

Don’t confuse individualism with individuality. Individuality is God making people as unique individuals. Individualism is idolatry, making the individual the final authority over right and wrong. It is the basis today for “the American Dream,” writes Andrew Delbanco of Columbia University. Delbanco says Americans first looked to Protestant Christianity to understand human flourishing. Then the nation-state became the authority for right and wrong in the 1700s. Finally, in the 1800s, the individual replaced God and Nation as the final judge of what it means to live “the American Dream.”1

For instance, individualism shaped how American Protestants approached scripture, writes Roger Lundin, a professor at Wheaton College. They broke dramatically from the European Reformers’ understanding of sola scriptura – “scripture alone.” It came to be understood as “the Bible removed from all historical and ecclesiastical contexts.”2 For Protestants, reading the Bible became “a private encounter between a God… and a reader removed from history.” Christian formation became an individualistic enterprise no longer requiring church involvement. Evangelism soon followed suit.

The 19th century revivalist Charles Finney introduced the idea of revival as a personal decision. He “put all the weight on an individual’s personal, subjective experience,” writes Tim Keller, senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. This “undermined the more traditional way of doing Christian formation, when Christian growth was gradual – whole family catechetical instruction – and church-centric.” Simultaneous to Finney’s revivals was de Tocqueville’s travels through America. He concluded that to be an American was to be an “individualist,” a term he coined.

Individualism “lies at the very core of American culture,” writes sociologist Robert Bellah in his influential book, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. It is “basic to American identity.”3 Tim Keller believes American individualism “is one of the reasons (though not the only reason) that we have the highly individualistic, consumerist evangelicalism of today.”4 Evangelicals assume faith can flourish without a faith community – a point made by George Barna in Revolution: Finding Vibrant Faith Beyond the Walls of the Sanctuary. He calls evangelicals to a new movement that “entails drawing people away from reliance upon a local church into a deeper connection with and reliance upon God.” Discipleship will become a matter of “choosing from a proliferation of options, weaving together a set of favored alternatives into a unique tapestry that constitutes the personal ‘church’ of the individual.”

This is “nowhere in the Great Tradition of Christianity,” writes Roger E. Olson in The Mosaic of Christian Belief. Individualism is however in American evangelicalism, where church attendance is sporadic. Many claim to attend about every other week but studies show actual churchgoing is half the professed rate.5 Some find church services to be shallow so they don’t show up very often. Others find a headache, hangnail, or hangover is sufficient reason to skip church – obstacles that don’t prevent the same people from getting to work on Monday morning. These Christians are essentially saying faith can flourish without a faith community. I know – I tried to do this for many years.

When I was a senior pastor, we cancelled services when Christmas fell on Sunday. A lot of the congregation was out of town, so it didn’t seem worth it to me to do all the work of pulling together a Sunday service. After the pastorate, I went through a period when I claimed to get more out of staying home on Sunday than going to church. I believed my faith was flourishing without any meaningful connection to a faith community. All I needed was a small group of believing friends. I was kidding myself. The thrust of Lucifer’s work is to break the meaningful connection between words and reality. I was breaking the meaningful connection between faith and flourishing. I was being an individualist, making myself the final judge as to whether I was flourishing. But in reality I was living more like an American than a follower of Christ. I was wrong.

Several years ago Amy Welborn, a high school teacher in a Christian school, grew tired of her students complaining they didn’t “get anything” out of church. So she began taking them on a field trip to a Benedictine monastery. Students participate in noon Mass. At the end of the day they gather to talk. Over the years, students say the most moving part of the day is discovering the monks don’t cancel or scale back the Mass if no one shows up. Students felt drawn to a service that “wasn’t all about them.”

When churches cancel or scale back services, they tell believers “it’s all about them.” In a few years Christmas and New Years Day will once again fall on successive Sundays. It could also be an opportunity for some churches to push back against the prevailing trend of an individualistic faith.

_______________________

1 Andrew Delbanco, The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).
2 Roger Lundin, From Nature to Experience: The American Search for Cultural Authority (New York, NY: Bowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005), pp. 26-27.
3 Robert Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley, CA: University of California, 1996), p. 142.
4 http://redeemercitytocity.com/blog/view.jsp?Blog_param=238
5 John G. Stackhouse, Jr., “Where Religion Matters.” American Outlook. Fall 2002. pp. 40-44.

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11 Comments

  1. Nice Piece, Mike. In support of your point about Christianity in historical context, I am currently enjoying Eusebius’s History of Christianity. I was able to get it free through my Kindle as well as many of the other Church founder’s work.

    I would invite everyone to read their viewpoint of our religion. It is a part of our tradition.

  2. Great writing Mike. Your writing a real gift. Thank you for graciously sharing it with us so often in such a fresh, relevant way. You bless me.

  3. Happy new year Mike,

    I believe the Sunday worship service became irrelevant to some who tired of feeling like a number in a lottery. The Big Box churches of yesteryear lost touch with the individual forcing people to get connected with smaller groups. Some churches have done good work by encouraging church plants that have 20-50 people where each person feels a little more connected to Faith and their church goers. With the huge churches of the past, people searched for ways to feel related to their Faith and that may have forced some to go it alone, at home on Sundays watching TV evangelists and studying solely alone.
    While some big box chuches are still thriving, the key is to have people connected in smaller settings without discarding worship on Sundays.

  4. Heh!

    I never published the article I wrote some years back – (I guess it was the last time Christmas feel on a Sunday) – expressing my amazement (and critique) that “church” would be “closed” for Christmas.

    You have highlighted a point I was missing: that of services that are all about the congregants. Instead of about God. Because a service that is about God will go on whether or not there are congregant-spectators. That means that churches “closing” on Christmas is a critique not only of the church leadership, but also of those of us who do [or do not] attend. We continue to live down-side-up. . . .

    Thanks for your musings and confessions. I, too, have struggled with the organized church/faith community equation. As you know.

    I have recently started experimentally attending a small local church of a traditional denomination. Evangelicals might question their salvation because they don’t express themselves in the evangelically-accepted manner: but they were “open” both Christmas and New Year’s. . . . It’s a bit of a paradigm-shift.

    I enjoyed the story of Amy Welborn. It’s a point we tend to miss, isn’t it, when we try to appeal to the congregation as our “audience” instead of a transcendent audience of One. In addition, when we turn our worship service back onto ourselves in this way, we limit ourselves to ourselves. The transcendent and the mysterious (not to mention the supernatural/metaphysical) are shut out – or intrude only by accident. It’s that feeling of awe-filled hush that I experience when I walk into the ruined remains of a cathedral or monastery that reminds me that the true worship of God goes on whether a “congregation” is there or not. That is the worship that we most wish to join, I think.

    Meanwhile, we live in a fallen world and have to do the best we can as we go from one [mistaken] extreme to another. . . .

    Thank God for His mercy to us all!

    Best wishes for God’s blessings to you this New Year.

  5. Great, great piece, Mike.

    In a book called “After Darkness Light” (essays in honor of R.C. Sproul) Keith Mathison has a great chapter on various shifts in church history about the role of the Bible, and makes a big deal out of what you noted about an unfortunate idea that reading the Bible alone and devoid of creedal tradition was proper. He calls it the shift from sola scriptura, to solo scriptura. It’s a line so clever that you could have come up with.

    Some nearly emergent guys, Tim Conder & Daniel Rhodes, wrote a book a few years ago about how they work at reading the Bible as community. It is provocatively called “Free for All: Rediscovering the Bible in Community.” Pretty fascinating. I guess this is somewhat what Christian Smith tried to raise in his less than conclusive “The Bible Made Impossible.”

    Anyway, linking weak discipleship and public witness to “thin” church life, based on individualism (and how that individualism may in part have been caused by oddities in our use of “sola scriptura”) is an important way to start the new year.

    Thanks for bringing big, insightful questions to us in well written essays. Keep our doggie’s heads tilting in 2012!

  6. Your point about the application/meaning of “Sola Scriptura” is a great example of how meaning is found in the frame, not the term itself.

    But doesn’t this seem like an example of how one can separate of words and their reality?

    The importance of frames is clear to me. It’s why the statement “to break the meaningful connection between words and reality” is so confusing. Is the frame the connection?

    Thanks,
    brody

  7. Brody:

    If I understand your question correctly, the answer is to put the emphasis on “meaningful.” In other words, I can say anything (such as “I am Hispanic”) but those words have no meaningful connection with reality. This is particularly difficult for Christians to see themselves doing, since they tend to assume everything they say about their faith is faithful to scripture or church history. But in fact, the way we describe “fellowship,” or “spiritual growth,” or “evangelism” might indeed be fairly distant from how God actually defines it. Hence, we – perhaps inadvertently – break the meaningful connection between words and reality. Throughout history, God’s solution was prophets who performed the role of crap detectors. But as Jesus pointed out, prophets are routinely given short shrift in established religious communities because they point out these disconnections – not to wound religious leaders but to redeem our words.

  8. Posted a question on my blog (http://thoughtsandchristianity.wordpress.com/) in response to your article – would love some thoughts! Here’s the question: what must a “small group of believing friends” have to become a “faith community” in the proper sense? (Just FYI – I’m an active member at my non-denominational church – I just want to understand the issue better). Thanks! 🙂

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