Preaching in the Age of Expressive Individualism: Telling the Story of Our New Identity
A few weeks ago, in a Sunday school class discussion, an older member of my church described evangelism as “sharing my truth.” I was taken aback when I heard it, as this was no Millennial or Gen Z “woke” culture warrior, but an older Boomer. It’s quite possible they didn’t understand what the phrase meant in modern parlance, but it brought home to me how far our culture has moved when it did not even register to this dear older saint that the significance of the gospel is found precisely in the fact that it is not “my truth,” but “the truth.”
Like it or not, we’re all swimming in the cultural waters of expressive individualism. This is more than simply radical moral relativism. It’s the rejection of essential human nature for untethered subjective sentiment. It’s the replacement of ethics with personal preference and the meaning of life with the self-creation of identity. Its most extreme expressions are seen in transgenderism and modern identity politics, but its impact is far more subtle and insidious, as the opening example shows. If even our older, more mature church members are affected by the habits of thought of expressive individualism, what’s a pastor to do?
Preach the Word.
In our weekly sermons, expositing God’s Word for God’s people, we have been given everything we need to make disciples in the age of expressive individualism. I want to highlight two points of application in our preaching that can help combat the corrosive and corrupting influence of the spirit of our age.
IDENTITY “R” US
While the emphasis on our identity in Christ in modern evangelicalism is relatively recent, there’s no question that Scripture has much to say on the topic. From Israel’s call to be distinct and holy among the nations (Ex. 19:6), to Paul’s emphasis on the new creation (2 Cor. 5:17), to Jesus’ declaration, “You are the light of the world,” (Matt. 5:14), the Scriptures are replete with language that defines who we are, both individually and corporately. And in this language, we have an opportunity to push back against the foundation of expressive individualism, and not just its outworking.
So often in our sermon application, we tend to focus on moral imperatives or ethical implications. So, for example, in a few weeks I’ll be preaching from Esther 1. It would be very easy for me to exclusively focus my application on the ethical imperative of godly submission to authority in the home and the state. And I wouldn’t be wrong to do so. But in the context of this cultural moment, many in our congregations will intuitively feel that such authority is arbitrary, and maybe even oppressive. If I’m going to apply my text effectively, I’ll need to take a step back from the ethical imperative and address the foundational question of human and Christian identity that gives the imperative moral force. That might mean addressing our identity as gendered beings. That might mean addressing our identity as image bearers of God, created to both exercise and submit to authority. It will certainly mean explaining that our submission to human authority is always, “as to the Lord” (Col 3:18). Therefore, far from a demeaning experience of subjugation, respect for authority is an act of worship that flows from our identity as servants of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Never miss an opportunity in whatever text you’re in to define your people’s identity according to the Scriptures. What does it mean to be a man or woman? What does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean to be the body and bride of Christ? Don’t simply tell your people what to do. Remind them who they are, by dint of creation and new creation, because identity, not behavior, is where the battle is being fought, and either won or lost.
If you ask me who I am, I’ll tell you a story: I’m the adopted, first-born son of a prosperous southern family whose world got turned upside down when I met the Lord in college. I’m the husband of a beautiful New England Yankee and the father of five who won’t be an empty nester until close to retirement. I’m the pastor of a west coast church who doesn’t have any family east of the Appalachians. Those look like three propositional statements, but if you look closely, each of them tells a story, and those stories define who I am.
We make sense of our lives through narratives. Expressive individualism is no different. Building on the base of consumerism, “I am what I own,” and modern psychology, “I am what I desire,” expressive individualism defines the individual through the heroic arc of self-creation against the oppressive forces of bigotry, conventional morality, and even biology. It’s an intoxicating story, but hardly a new one.
It began in the garden of Eden, when Satan lied to the woman and said, “In fact, God knows that when you eat it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God” (Gen 3:5). It continued at Babel, when humanity determined to “make a name for ourselves” (Gen 11:4) through their grandiose building plans. And it continues today.
We have a better story. It’s the story of God’s creation of this world, our place in it, its fall into corruption, and his determination to rescue us from it and bring us to a better place through the life, death, resurrection, and second coming of his Son. It’s a better story because it’s true. But it’s also a better story because of its power to explain our present experience and its ability to provide us a future hope.
We often think of Scripture as an ancient book we look back upon, to mine for insight, instruction, or inspiration. But that’s to misunderstand what we’re dealing with. The Bible is telling the grand story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. It begins at the beginning and ends at the end. And since we’re not at the end yet, it’s a story that contains us. We don’t look back it. We’re caught up in it. And therefore, the story of Scripture is our story, the story that defines who we are, where we came from, and where we’re going. If we’re going to push back against the false narrative of expressive individualism, we need to do more than simply show the absurdity of heroic self-creation. We must help people see themselves inside the identity-forming narrative that is the history of redemption.
To return to Esther 1, it would be easy to give my congregation a history lesson on the Persian empire. But what they need to see is that God’s providential rule over an ancient Persian king in order to rescue his people from destruction was a picture and foreshadowing of his providential rule over both a Roman ruler and Satan himself in order to deliver his Son to the cross and so deliver his people from death and hell forever. And therefore, they can be certain that whatever the kingdoms and cultures of this world bring against them, “the kingdom of the world [will] become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ and he will reign forever and ever.” (Rev. 11:15) The strength to persevere in faith against the allurements of expressive individualism does not come simply from the hope of heaven, but from the confidence that what God has done in the past he will do again in the future.
ONE LITTLE WORD
For hundreds of years in the West, we have had the blessing of a culture that in many ways reinforced and even affirmed our message. Those days are increasingly behind us. Our culture, which has for so long drawn on its Christian heritage even while denying it, is now finding that account empty, even overdrawn. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that our culture is (re)turning to paganism. And there’s no reason to think that such a turn can be reversed.
But that doesn’t mean that our task has changed. Ours were never the culture wars to begin with. Our fight is not against flesh and blood, but “against the cosmic powers of this darkness” (Eph. 6:12). And for that battle, our weapons have not changed. As Martin Luther penned long ago, “the prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him. His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure. One little word shall fell him.”
Preach the Word. Apply it to your people’s lives. Tell them who they are in Christ. Remind them where they are in his story. The Word will do the rest.