Perhaps the most oft repeated cry of angst when I discuss church planting in the United States with other students at Fuller is, “But we’re SO individualistic!” Usually this criticism of American society is in reference to the American proclivity to go our own way, excel, and rise in authority and standing among our peers.
This is troublesome to church planters because many of us have no desire to be part of a top down leadership structure. We dream of a “leaderless” group where we all work together, humbly filling roles and serving to promote Christ and not ourselves. Many of us have also been part of more authoritarian churches where the man at the top dictated policy and practice to the peons below. Instead of a system which hold up one man as god-like, we’d prefer an organizational structure that holds up the God Who humbled Himself and became a man.
American culture is individualistic. Our individualism is a mixed bag though. While it does make us prone to celebrity worship and self aggrandizement, it also instills in us a belief that we each can build new things and better the world. Europeans I know describe Americans as curiously and endearingly optimistic. We each believe we can do whatever we want to do, and by golly we’re going to try. We may fail, but failure is just a sign we tried to do something difficult worth doing. There is little shame in failure. There is only shame in inaction.
Actually, I always smirk to myself when my church planting friends rail against individualism, because the church planting inclination is one ripe with individualism. We are people who say, “This church thing can be done better and in places it hasn’t been done yet, and we’re going to break away from the rest and do it.” I admire people who desire to create more communal leadership structures without strict hierarchies, but I think we need to admit that the “go out on one’s own” mentality isn’t complimentary to such structures. We need to be communal not just in what we build, but also in how we think, submitting both our ideas and our wills to one another and working to advance each other’s ideas and wills instead of our own.
French culture is also extraordinarily individualistic. After all, the individualism that permeates American society came from the French. America’s founders, like Jefferson, Franklin, and Washington, studied French philosophers like Descartes, Voltaire, and Rousseau who extolled the value and autonomy of the individual above all else. Descartes famous, “I think, therefore I am,” centers the human identity in the individual’s experience of the world rather than in the community (as is more common in African and Asian societies). Individualism, the French would argue, is French.
American individualism differs from the French in that American individualism was birthed in an environment of new possibility. We had an untamed (we thought) wilderness to settle, and so our individualism adopted that forward thinking, forward moving attitude I described previously. French individualism, on the other hand, found its inception in an already cultivated and cared for country. The French people rebelled against their ruling powers not because they wanted to make something of the bounty around them but because they wanted the bounty for themselves, and they wanted to be left alone. They were being oppressed by their priests and kings, and so they killed them and asserted their right to live their own lives free from interference from above.
As a result, French individualism is a withdrawn individualism. Almost every person here pulls into themselves, and, if they have one, into their immediate family. As I wrote in my first post from France, “Legs,” French individualism isn’t about standing out. It is about disappearing, strange as that may seem to an American understanding of the word.
This introverted individualism has its positive points as well. For instance, though private, the French are extremely genuine. They may be hesitant to say what they think and feel, but when they do reveal themselves to you, they are candid and honest. They also think and feel deeply and with conviction. Americans, in an attempt to impress, may be more prone to say what they think and feel, but often what they say is very superficial and sometimes an outright lie. The French aren’t trying to impress anyone, and frankly, they often find American triumphalism threatening and intrusive.
Of course, neither expression of individualism is a particularly healthy “Kingdom of God” attitude. Americans may be eager to join churches but only because connections are important for personal advancement, and spirituality is another arena in which to excel. The French may shun authoritarian leadership and value equality, but they are also terribly suspicious of and sometimes hostile towards even loosely organized groups. Church planters face a difficult task in both cultures.
Though this should not surprise us. The Kingdom of God is and always has been counter-cultural. The way of Jesus is a way of life different than the way offered to us by the world.
“If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus…” (Philippians 2:1-5)
There is no individualism in Christ. We give that up when we give our lives to Him. Christ strips Descartes’ self-reflexive, “I think, therefore I am,” of meaning, and for Christ’s followers, “He is, therefore we are.” Putting flesh to that truth requires us, like Christ, to sacrifice for others, and that includes sacrificing our individual wills. We must die as Christ died – full of faith in glorified resurrection into a Kingdom coming, our faith the proof that it is already here.
Gene Kelly Was Here
These blog posts were all written in the summer of 2011. They chronicle my time in Paris completing an internship as part of my studies at Fuller Seminary. I worked at an art gallery run by missionary-artists ministering to other Parisian artists and got to know the missionary-artists working there.
I am including them here for you to read because I think they work well together as a series. I wrote them as a kind of narrative collage about what it means to be a practicing artist whose first commitment is to Christ and who seeks to share the love of Christ with other artists.