Do 9Marks Churches Foster Expressive Individualism?
Few demographic tribes are more likely to “amen!” a critique of attractional church methodology than 9Marks readers. When attractionalism says, “We’re offering the experience of worship that you’re looking for,” we 9Marksy types sniff danger. We believe congregations gather not to be offered a passive experience, but instead to offer worship as active participants.
“God, we thank thee, that we are not as other men.”
WE’RE ALL ATTRACTIONALISTS NOW
Carl Trueman teaches us how culture subtly shapes us. Five hundred years ago, everyone was a theist. Europe was overwhelmingly Christian, at least by nominal conviction. And to be Christian was to be Roman Catholic.
Today, within our array of denominational options, we find tribal subdivisions. There are “a host of other subjective variables—where we feel comfortable, welcomed, supported. We can choose our churches as we choose a house or car” (385). We then use the car we chose to drive past a dozen or more churches we didn’t choose. Urbanization and modernization weakened our ties to close-knit communities and, then, handed us technology to sever those ties.
Can we assume that our tribe is immune to subtle influences from our cultural context? Is it possible that we anti-attractional types have unknowingly carved out an attractional niche of our own? What about our flocks?
Like many of you, I’ve heard more often than I care to remember the parting words from beloved members: “We love you and the church, but there just isn’t enough X for me/my spouse/my kids.” Sure, we try to learn from their feedback and make corrections as we’re able. But have those parting words really exposed major misfires on basic biblical principles? Or are they often merely expressions of our departing members’ personal feelings and desires—what makes them feel at home and comfortable?
To search for meaning by expressing our own feelings and desires, which Trueman calls expressive individualism, he also argues “is the very essence of the culture of which we are all a part” (25).
All of this crystallized for me recently when I read the resignation letter from “Jackson.” He’d hate being identified with attractionalism. But his letter said, “As you know, I’ve been a supporter of [church-growth-critic pastor]’s ministry for some time. Over the years I’ve visited all the [church-growth-critic pastor] churches around town. We will be joining [names one of them].”
I realized that he was irresistibly attracted to a particular posture on complex cultural issues, a particular interpretation of difficult texts, and a particular emphasis in the pulpit ministry. And he knew where to find a church that expressed those preferences.
So I can’t blame this brother for instinctively wanting a church that aligned with his preferred expression. And I can’t really blame myself for not convincing him to agree with me.
But I do blame myself for missing the gravitational pull of expressive individualism on the hearts of serious Christians. They may not know it, but they’re powerfully drawn to what makes them comfortable. That goes for me too.
WHERE TO LOOK FOR YOUR CHURCH’S EXPRESSIVE INDIVIDUALISM
Ask yourself: Excluding the biblical essentials, what draws your church members in? What keeps them around?
It could be the location, accessibility, or design of your meeting place. It could be your church’s size—whether large or small. Or your “vibe”—your musical style, how people dress, your staging, your use of technology. It might be your posture toward government health guidelines or how exactly you respond to the latest story on cable news. And the children. Oh, the children—the number of kids, the age of kids, the space for kids, and the programs for kids. It could even be your distinctive style of expositional preaching.
Did you notice how many of those factors are closely tied to a church’s expression of worship? Even those factors that don’t show up on Sunday morning likely do show up in the life of our covenant community throughout the week. We may even leverage them to advance our disciple-making mission. But the specific expressions themselves are non-essential.
HOW EXPRESSIVE INDIVIDUALISM IS DAMAGING YOUR CHURCH
- It undermines missions. We should be sending mature believers. But often those mature believers rarely go overseas. Who knows why? Perhaps their affection for healthy church principles has become an obstacle that stifles our mission to send and go.
- It harms church planting. We plant churches because we perceive a need—often related to population growth, or the dearth of healthy churches in a particular area. That new church may not yet have many of the healthy planting church’s attractive “options.” Believers who should covenant with the new church may be disinclined if they don’t find their preferred expression of corporate life and worship.
- It weakens rural churches. Our cars make it easy for us to drive from the country town of 5,000 to the suburb and its accompanying ecclesiological smorgasbord. As a result, small-town churches are weaker, less healthy, and less prepared to make disciples in their communities. Their unconverted residents are unlikely to visit healthy but distant suburban churches.
- It dilutes neighborhood presence. Inside a city, it’s easy to travel through multiple neighborhoods to the church that matches our preferred expressions. A dozen faithful Christians in the same neighborhood might attend a dozen different faithful churches. And it’s less likely that they’ll partner to make disciples in their neighborhood.
- It undermines multi-generational and multi-ethnic churches. Since different demographic groups often prefer different ministry programs or expressions of style, they often sort into churches that reflect those preferences. We lose the energy, the wisdom, the maturity, the experiences, the long-term stability, and even the friction that a diverse congregation possesses. Perhaps more importantly, we limit our ability to reflect the heavenly image of all nations worshiping at the throne of Jesus.
- It intensifies ideological imbalance. We watched churches sort during our recent pandemic. We saw churches market themselves to capitalize on the moment. Many churches are now more dispositionally homogeneous. Sadly, many Christians found the group of people who saw things the way they saw them. When the next crisis breaks up our new coalition, we can always re-sort.
As Jonathan Leeman puts it in One Assembly, there are unintended consequences to our churches’ expressions both of our members’ individual preferences and our pastoral preferences. He writes, “The devices of the marketplace aren’t exactly conducive to encouraging people to eat in another guy’s restaurant. You’ll never see a McDonald’s commercial celebrating their common cause with Burger King in solving the problem of hunger” (113). We’ve unintentionally undermined our partnerships with our sister churches and with the mission Jesus entrusted to us.
HOW TO FIGHT EXPRESSIVE INDIVIDUALISM IN OUR CHURCHES
Imagine one of your church’s families moves to the exurbs 45 minutes away. Perhaps to their surprise, they find a pretty healthy church. Good preaching—expositional—but not polished. Plural elder leadership. Clear proclamation of the gospel. In the ballpark on, say, seven of the nine marks.
Now imagine the family doesn’t like the vibe. Not many young couples. Almost no kids. An outdated nursery. Painful special music. Harmonicas make an occasional appearance.
Or imagine you pastor a rural church, and one of your families moves into the nearby city. The most 9Marksy church there talks about problems in its community like mental health and inequities in the criminal justice system. The family isn’t used to this, and so they wonder if the church is progressive. If they’re honest, both families would rather keep driving 45 minutes to your church.
Do you want them to?
My question for us is this: Are we shepherding our congregations now to make that decision well? Are we discipling the military family or the petroleum industry family to thrive in an English-speaking international church? Are we preparing them to use their gifts to build up a local church that’s less mature than ours? Or are we unintentionally reinforcing their natural preferences—in other words, their expressive individualism?
Beware of whatever draws people to your church that’s not biblically essential. What’s trendy now will change. The demographics of your community will shift. If you’re not careful, your members will be a shrinking pool of people who are committed to a particular set of antiquated preferences because you never discipled them not to be.
The better you nail a “vibe” that draws people, the harder you’ll need to work to teach them that’s not what they need most. The more your church’s expressions of worship line up with what people instinctively like, the more you’ll need to clarify that those non-essentials really are non-essential.
So, no—even if they’ve become essentials to some of your members—my solution is not to dump AWANA or the senior saints’ excursions.
During the 1864 siege of Petersburg, Virginia, Union forces tunneled under one section of Confederate fortifications and blew them up. We call that episode the “Battle of the Crater”, which the Union still lost.
You probably don’t want a crater where AWANA used to be. You’re not a general at war; no, you’re an oncologist. You want to shrink the cancer, preserve healthy tissue, deftly separate the tumor from vital organs, and then remove it. The cancer is the tendency in your people—and yourself—to think we need our church to express what we prefer, what makes us comfortable.
When our comfort undermines our mission, it’s an idol. Kill that idol. But save the body.