By Sam McKeen
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
– John 15:1-15
American culture is very individualistic. Individual rights and self-reliance are exalted. We celebrate and honor personal achievements, often assuming that success comes chiefly to those who wanted and worked harder for it than others. Unfortunately, individualistic thinking has crept into the church. Think about it, most Christian books have an individualistic approach. Even the way we most often approach the Bible is individualistic. What does God want me to do? How can I better live the Christian life?” Also consider popular worship song lyrics and how many of them use individualistic language such as, “my”, “mine”, and “me”. These songs are frequently sung in corporate worship and yet the language focuses on the individual and not the community of believers.
This individualistic approach that many believers take when reading the Bible is in stark contrast to what we see in the New Testament. The New Testament was written primarily to groups of believers in various cities and regions. Part of the issue could be the fact that the word “you” in the Greek can be singular or plural and yet in english translations it is almost always singular. For example, in Colossians 1:27 we read “which is Christ in you, the hope of glory”. The “you” in this passage is plural, and has in view, the church, the body of Christ.
The New Testament epistles were written and distributed to churches or ekklesias (assemblies). Even the letter sent to Philemon was an open letter as Paul greeted other individuals and the church that gathered in Philemon’s house. God intended the Christian life to be lived in community, not in isolation. The New Testament contains at least fifty-eight “one-anothers” that are pointless without the reality of close, deep relationships. The call to love, be patient, and bear with others implies regular involvement that cannot take place by only seeing one another for an hour or two a week at a church service.
Unfortunately, most churches are structured in a way that suppresses the life of Christ being expressed through the “one-anothers” that are taught in the New Testament. The structure of most churches results in the church functionally living the Christian life as individuals.
Consider the Sunday morning experience of most churches. Individuals come together who haven’t seen each other since at least the previous Sunday. They sing a few songs, listen to a prayer, hear a sermon, and then quickly depart so they can get home for lunch and an afternoon football game. Please don’t misunderstand me as I recognize that many believers do have a meaningful worship experience on Sunday mornings. My point is that people can go through a worship service and simply consume and not develop a deeper relationship or commitment to their church family. In most churches an individual or family that is in the midst of turmoil could be sitting in the worship service week after week and their troubles and needs would never be known.
The New Testament church functioned in a way in which all the parts of the body were an expression of Christ. It functioned in a way that fostered an interdependence on one another as Christ flowed in and through His people.
Another example of individualism in the church is the matter of repentance. For the most part repentance is approached individualistically, “What do I need to repent of in my Christian life?” However, in Revelation chapters 2 and 3 Christ calls the whole body of believers to repent. It is a “we repentance” and not a “me repentance”. How often do we see or even hear of an entire church corporately repenting for anything?
It seems that many Christians have completely missed the community dimension of the New Testament church. Sadly, it is not just due to outside cultural influence. The church is guilty for creating traditions that have emphasized the individual and not the community. The “us” has been replaced by “me” because over the years the traditions of men have emphasized the functioning of the church as an organization and have neglected the natural functioning of the life of Christ within a Kingdom community. An individualistic view within the church has impeded the church’s mission. The church needs to awaken to the truth of what it means to be the body of Christ and start functioning as He designed it to.
The church consists of unique individuals. These individuals will only find purposeful existence together in a community and not apart. When each member of the body is connected to the vine (Christ) and thus to one another, the church is healthy, vibrant, and able to accomplish its mission effectively.