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.
5 John G. Stackhouse, Jr., “Where Religion Matters.” American Outlook. Fall 2002. pp. 40-44.