The Bible calls the church to be an agent of influence and change to the culture around it. Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5) that we are to be the “salt of the earth and the light of the world.” Our love for God and love for neighbor is to be a transformative agent where the people we encounter every day see the beauty and worth of the Kingdom of God. Unfortunately, influence is a two-way street.
Erwin McManus, a pastor in L.A., says that influence is like breathing. Just like we breath in and breath out unconsciously as we go about our day, we are constantly influencing those around us as well as being influenced by those same people. And the church is not immune from this reality.
One of the ways the church has been influenced by the culture around us is with our American rugged individualism. Our country was founded on the rights of the individual and how the government has been established to protect those rights. Currently, we are seeing a major upheaval in our social climate because many feel that these fundamental rights are under attack, and we may be in danger of losing them. We, as a society, place a high premium on our rights.
This rugged individualism, as important as it is to our civil life (and I affirm that it is) has influenced the church in negative ways. As we read through the Bible, the rights of the individual never supersede the plans and purposes of God ordained through the local church. In other words, the biblical ethic is that the group, and the function of the group, takes priority over the individual.
Now, before we go on, please don’t hear me say that the individual doesn’t matter. That idea is contrary to the Bible as well. The individual has immense value in the biblical world view. The Bible teaches that every individual was created in the image of God, and as an image bearer every person is sacred and deserves love and dignity. The Bible also teaches that Jesus died to save individuals. God desires that every person be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. And a primary function of the church, the group, is to share our faith with every individual. The individual matters.
However, as much as the Bible emphasizes individual salvation, I don’t think it is as concerned with our own life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness as we are. And the way this individualism has negatively influenced our churches is that many of us see the church as a tool or a vehicle for me to obtain my best life. The programs are supposed to be set up to maximize my spiritual journey and minister to my needs, and the sermons are supposed to speak to my struggles in life and offer tangible solutions for me to get ahead or find success. One of the dangers of living in a fierce individual focused culture is that we can begin to buy into the false notion that the church is built by me and for me.
But, as we are studying in our series in Colossians, Paul tells us: “15 He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Italics mine).
When we make our church experience about us and our own self-fulfillment, we miss the whole point of our faith. We have been saved to be worshipers and servants of Jesus Christ. And the more we learn to lose sight of our self and focus our attention on Jesus, the more we will find what we are actually looking for. The created purpose for our lives, as image bearers, is to reflect the glory of God to the whole world. And as Paul says that all of God’s glory dwells in Jesus. We finally achieve our purpose when our lives focus on Jesus and reflect Him to the world. So, when we think about our church experience, we need to make sure we put the emphasis where it belongs. We come to worship and celebrate and remember the mighty works of God completed through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Costi Hinn said it well in a recent tweet: “I don’t come to church to hear about me. I’m sick of myself. I come to worship to hear about Him. ‘He must increase, and I must decrease.’”
Let’s not let the individualism of our culture deprive us of what the church is supposed to be and do for us. Let it magnify the glory and beauty of Christ in our hearts.