Expressive Individualism and the Church


There is a real danger for Christians as they assess many modern developments regarding the human person—whether matters of sex and sexuality, abortion, euthanasia, or simply what we might call the generally self-centered nature of modern consumerist life. That danger is the one committed by the Pharisee in the Temple, the one who uttered the words, “I thank you, Lord, that I am not like other men.” That prayer immediately set him apart from his contemporaries and exempted him, at least in his own eyes, from the moral problems of his age.


If expressive individualism is the typical way in which people think of themselves and their relationship to the world, then Christians must understand that they too are deeply implicated. We can no more abstract ourselves from our social and cultural context, and the intuitions that our context cultivates, than we can leave our bodies and float to the moon. Indeed, our first thought must not be that of the Pharisee but rather that of the disciples when Jesus told them that one of them would betray him, “Is it I, Lord?” Such an approach will not only reflect and reinforce appropriate humility; it may also help to free us just a little from the culture that surrounds us. To know how the world encourages us to think and live will equip us to resist it.

Simply put, expressive individualism pervades modern Christian life. Those of us who attend churches with a traditionalist worship aesthetic would likely point to modern praise songs and worship styles as evidence for this. Many Christians view worship as a time to “express themselves”; in doing so, they highlight the benefits of “spontaneity,” or musical arrangements that play to the emotions, or lyrics that focus on first-person-singular feelings. This is low-hanging fruit to make the case that modern Christianity is deeply shaped by expressive individualism.

While the expression of feelings in worship is certainly not wrong—the Psalms are replete with such—the focus on emotions too often becomes an end in itself rather than a stage on the road to bringing those feelings into conformity with God’s Word. The inner psychological state of the psalmist is always ultimately to be interpreted through the grid of God’s revelation. Even Psalm 88, the bleakest psalm with the most painful expressions of desolation, addresses God at the start by his covenant name. The despair is still to be set within the context of God’s covenant commitment to his people. In the world of expressive individualism, however, the truth of emotions is found not in their conformity to God’s revelation but in the sincerity of their expression. When that characterizes a worship song, whether in terms of lyrics or music, it is highly problematic.

So there are legitimate grounds for seeing expressive individualism in contemporary worship.

But the situation is more subtle than that, and worship traditionalists do not have legitimate cause to reach for the words of the pharisee’s prayer simply because they are traditionalists. If one of the central elements of expressive individualism is the notion that the individual makes choices about life based upon personal preference, there is no reason why the traditionalist choice of, say, The Book of Common Prayer liturgy over modern praise songs is in itself irrefutable evidence that expressive individualism is not at work. The words may be superior and more theologically substantial but that does not mean that my choice is not driven primarily by personal aesthetic preference rather than truly objective value.

Here’s the key question to ask: “Why do we worship?” Not “we” as in some abstracted notion of the people of God but “we” as individuals. Do we worship to be made to feel good or do we worship as a response to the being and work of a holy God, and thereby conform ourselves (and understand our experiences and feelings) in light of that God? Unless it is the latter then we are allowing our own complicity in expressive individualism to drive our worship.


But expressive individualism affects more than just worship. It also shapes how we think of church commitment. This problem is even trickier to parse. Freedom of religion is a social good. Who of us wants to live in a country where we would face prosecution and perhaps imprisonment for practicing our Christian faith? Yet here is the rub: when a country enjoys religious freedom, power tilts toward the congregant and individual churches become competitors in the religious marketplace. Unlike the Middle Ages in Europe, or even the Reformation world before travel over distances became swift and easy, today’s Christian cannot avoid having to choose a church. After all, there’s almost always more than one option. We may not all use the obnoxious phrase “church shopping,” but none of us can actually avoid doing it. Freedom of religion, rather like democracy itself, is not an unmitigated virtue, albeit preferable to any of the other options.

And this applies not simply to the initial choice of congregation but to continued commitment to that congregation. Membership vows ought to be solemn and serious. And yet how many are routinely broken as people move from one church to the next for the most trivial of reasons? Again, this is expressive individualism, manifesting itself as a form of religious consumerism. If there’s something I don’t like in church—maybe it’s the pastor’s choice of tie (or his lack of tie), maybe it’s the hymnbook or the order of worship, or maybe it’s just the fact that the initial buzz of being a new member has faded away—I can move on to somewhere else that suits my tastes better.

This perhaps finds its most dramatic outworking in church government and discipleship. The expressive individual is the sovereign individual. All other relationships—to other people, to institutions, to those who hold office in such institutions—is subordinate to the personal needs and feelings of me as an individual. Thus, I can choose whether to acknowledge their authority. I can choose what my commitment to them should involve, and how I should treat any counsel they give me. I decide how I should respond to any attempt to rebuke or discipline me. I am the sovereign arbiter of what is good for me. Everybody else can practically give me nothing more than pious advice based upon their opinion.


Given that expressive individualism defines our cultural atmosphere at this time, and that we Christians are no more exempt than anyone else, there’s perhaps a temptation here to despair. How can we escape from that which we cannot escape? Like our sinful natures, expressive individualism is something that will inform our intuitions and our understanding until the day we die. Yet as with our sinful natures, there are things we can do.

First, simply being aware of the reality of our situation is important, for that allows us to engage in self-examination. Second, we should consciously reflect upon our real motives for some of our most intuitive beliefs and behavior. For example, why do we go to the church we go to? Why do we enjoy its worship? Of course, such reflection must be shaped by what Martin Luther called “the Word that comes from outside,” that is, the regular preaching of God’s Word which, as applied by the Spirit, makes such self-examination possible. And finally, we must repent of our expressive individualism not just in general but in those specific areas that the Spirit brings to our attention.

Is this a perfect approach? Far from it. As with all areas of sanctification, it is one that will never be perfected in this life. But that does not mean there cannot be Spirit-empowered growth. And that is what we must pray for.

Carl Trueman

Carl Trueman is a Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania.

9Marks articles are made possible by readers like you. Donate Today.