A popular slogan in the world of sports claims, “Players win games. Teams win championships.” Of course, even non-sports-lovers can agree that some things require the contribution of more than one person.
Westerners struggle to think and act in step with this truth, however. That’s because certain thoughts, habits, and societal incentives have permeated our culture with imbalanced tendencies toward autonomy, self-sufficiency, and (perceived) uniqueness—an unholy trinity of individualism.
At Home in the Waters of Individualism
The trouble is that, like fish in water, we struggle to notice our own environment. When individualism is all we know, we filter everything we see or think through this lens.
“Cultural blindness is harmful to the church’s witness in the world.”
Consider something as basic as how we choose to describe ourselves. The typical Westerner draws on a cocktail of adjectives aimed at describing a unique self. “Creative, analytical, spontaneous,” and so forth. Very few of us are inclined to answer a question about our identity with a response such as, “I’m a faithful husband, a loving father, and a loyal friend.”
But don’t give modesty any credit for that. For even in cases when the latter descriptions are true, they are still not the main way Westerners view themselves. In an individualistic culture, relationships are simply not the primary lens for understanding identity. And that’s a problem because individualism negatively impacts three areas critical to the Great Commission.
1. Individualism Removes Evangelism from Its Most Fruitful Context
Before his ascension, Jesus left his followers with several sets of instructions for continuing the work he had entrusted to them (cf. Matt. 28:18–20; Luke 24:44–48; John 20:21–23). Each facet of that work centrally revolves around this command: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15 CSB).
The trouble is that when Westerners read biblical commands—like the one above—we tend to read them as instructions for individual fulfillment rather than commands given to communities. Remarkably, this assumption persists despite the fact that the majority of New Testament authors addressed their writings to churches, not individuals.
When we remove the communal facet of the Great Commission, we often pursue evangelism (and related apologetic work) primarily as a rational discussion between individuals. This individualistic conception of evangelism severs the gospel from the power of the church’s life together. Yet this is a feature the Scriptures show to be central in the conversion of most people after Pentecost (Acts 2:42–47).
All this is why missionary Lesslie Newbigin said, “[T]he only hermeneutic of the gospel is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it.” Or as someone greater than Newbigin said, “In the same way, let your [plural] light shine before others, so that they may see your [plural] good works and give glory to your [plural] Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16 CSB). Evangelism—even pioneering work among the unreached—ought not be a solo effort.
2. Individualism Makes (Planting) Churches Optional
Church planting is not an optional add-on to the Great Commission. Jesus’s words implicitly require a church for their fulfillment. For as disciples are being made, they are to be baptized (Matt. 28:18), and they can only be baptized into an identifiable community of Jesus’s followers who are self-consciously organized for the purpose of carrying out the church’s mission—in other words, into a church.
“Jesus did not die to rescue isolated individuals; he died to create the church.”
Individualistic approaches to mission, however, are prone to lose sight of the centrality of the church (Eph. 3:7–10). Instead of seeing church planting as the necessary end of faithful evangelism (cf. Acts 14:21–23), such pursuits reduce the church to an optional facet of the life of Jesus’s people. This also tragically reduces salvation to an individual “ticket” to heaven. In contrast, Paul explicitly says of Jesus, “He gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawless and to cleanse for himself a people for his own possession, eager to do good works” (Titus 2:14 CSB, emphasis added).
Simply put, Jesus did not die to rescue isolated individuals; he died to create the church. Thus, any approach to the Great Commission that leaves out the absolute necessity of church planting among unreached peoples minimizes the glory for which Christ died.
3. Individualism Fundamentally Redefines Discipleship
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul applies Jesus’s command regarding the need for “teaching [new believers] to observe everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20 CSB). Paul explains that this task is the responsibility of the whole church and that only by working together will the church see the growth and maturity of its members (Eph. 4:12–16).
This corporate responsibility does not eviscerate the unique contributions of individuals, of course (Eph. 4:7–11). Rather, it emphasizes the primary purpose for the expression of gifts. As Paul says elsewhere, “A manifestation of the Spirit is given to each person for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7 CSB, emphasis added). This communal focus also makes sense of the many “one another” commands in the New Testament. Indeed, these commands are all but impossible to fulfill apart from regular interaction in the communal life of the church (Gal. 6:10).
All this is by design, of course, for discipleship is not merely a matter of growing in knowledge about Christ. Rather, discipleship is growing in likeness to Christ (Rom. 8:29), and such growth entails an others-centeredness hostile to individualism. Indeed, any approach to discipleship that does not stress the need to share life with God’s people fails to understand the most basic aspect of the law of Christ (Gal. 5:14; 6:2).
I Once Was Blind . . .
It’s hard to root out all the ways the individualism of the West has clouded our understanding of Scripture. Yet it’s imperative that we try, for cultural blindness is harmful to the church’s witness in the world. At the very least, it increases the risk of cultural imperialism. But in this particular case, it increases the risk that we export individualism along with the gospel, like a deadly package deal, inadvertently training new believers to think in sub-biblical ways about their identity and mission as followers of Jesus Christ.
Doug Ponder is a content editor for the International Mission Board. Find him on Twitter @DougPonder.