From Consumerist Religion to Spiritual Commitmentcomment (0)
August 9, 2012
By Bob Terry
Americans point to their individualism with a sense of pride. This nation is the most individualistic in the world. A study by Craig Shorti published by Intercultural Press places the U.S. on the far end of individualism and China on the far end of group identity. All other nations fall somewhere between these two poles.
Americans focus on the uniqueness of each individual and urge everyone to “be all that you can be.” That ideal is carried into the church with the emphasis for each believer to discover his or her personal calling. Churches stress spiritual gifts inventories, personality tests and the like.
An unintended consequence of this national commitment to individualism is the emergence of a “What’s in it for me?” culture. Commitment to organizations, institutions and even families wanes as people seek personal fulfillment with little or no thought about commitment to anything beyond their own sense of well-being. Satisfying the whims of the consumer seems to be a dominant goal for individuals and for institutions.
In the church, individualism is exhibited as people come to observe what transpires at the church but seldom, if ever, participate. Commitment to churches through membership is dying, even for some longtime participants. And many members are marginal in their participation and service.
A commitment to individualism also plays out in conflict as members battle for personal preferences. It is expressed in “my way or the highway” attitudes, either from leaders who manipulate people who disagree with them out of a church or members who hop from church to church seeking a congregation that will satisfy their personal desires. Frequently church members fail to find that perfect place and stop participating in the community of faith altogether.
Evangelical churches have contributed to this individualistic mindset through preaching that calls people to make decisions rather than become disciples of Jesus Christ. While a time of personal commitment to Jesus Christ is clearly taught in the Bible, debate at the recent meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) correctly pointed out that nowhere in Scripture is there a “sinner’s prayer” to be repeated by the penitent. Instead Jesus used a variety of ways to call people to a life of discipleship.
One result of preaching for decisions and the individualistic culture of America was illustrated in the recent report on SBC statistics. Cooperating churches boast of nearly 16 million members, but only 6.1 million of those members participate in worship on an average Sunday. That is 38.5 percent. Where is the other 61.5 percent?
Southern Baptists are not alone in this situation. A study by Scott Thumma and William Bird reported the percentage of Sunday morning participants per membership for other major denominations: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — 28 percent; Episcopal Church — 36 percent; United Methodist Church — 42 percent; Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — 47 percent.
When all churches were grouped by size the result was similar. Churches reporting between 50–99 members average 43 percent in attendance on Sunday morning; 100–249 members — 40 percent; 250–499 members — 36 percent; 500–999 members — 34 percent; 1,000–2,499 members — 29 percent; 2,500 members and up — 28 percent.
In other parts of the world the picture is very different. When traveling in the country of Belarus I visited a large Baptist church in the town of Kobrin. My first surprise was to see such a large Baptist church building sitting in a prominent place. The second surprise was learning that Baptists comprised the largest religious body in the southern region of this former Soviet Union nation.
When I asked the pastor how many members made up the church he quickly answered about 1,100. When I asked him how many attended each Sunday he replied, “All of them.” I must have looked startled because he then asked me, “Don’t all of your members attend in the United States?”
In most of the world participation in the body of Christ is more similar to the church in Kobrin than the typical Southern Baptist Church in the U.S. For most of the world identification with the gospel makes a difference. To become a Christian is not only to identify with the Risen Lord, it is to identify with the community of faith — the church. And it is to identify with a life of service — through the church and to others.
Among Southern Baptists the doctrinal commitment to the priesthood of all believers is frequently used as justification for a Lone Ranger-type religion reflecting the cultural commitment to individualism. A more biblical understanding is that all believers are to find a place of service within the body of Christ through which they demonstrate God’s love and compassion.
Baptists understand the impact of service. How many times have we witnessed a marginal member transformed by participation in a missions trip? The ministries of the trip were generally the kinds of things that could be done at home. The difference was the intentional approach to service.
When that intentional approach is applied through the local church, it can be just as transforming as serving in a distant setting. Thumma and Bird found, “There are very strong relationships between those who say they are spiritually fulfilled and growing spiritually and those who are highly committed and involved (in the local church).”
Yet they add, “Only around 20 percent of the typical congregation both attends regularly and produces … marks as a person spiritually growing, engaged and (a) committed follower of Jesus Christ.”
If personal spiritual growth and service to others are so closely tied then perhaps it is time to rethink our traditional approaches. Perhaps it is time to emphasize that a decision for Christ is not the end of a spiritual journey, but the first step in a life of discipleship. Perhaps it is time to raise the bar of church membership and find creative ways to blend mission and calling with volunteer service.
Perhaps a missions field that needs immediate attention by churches of all denominations is the 80 percent of church members stuck in the consumerist religion of individualism who need to experience the spiritual commitment of Christian discipleship.