By / Mar 12

In this episode, Josh, Lindsay, and Meagan reflect on the past year since the Coronavirus lockdown and Beth Moore’s announcement of her departure from Lifeway and the SBC. Lindsay gives a rundown of this week’s ERLC content including Andrew Bertodatti with “3 Ways Church Membership Challenges our Individualism,” the Policy Staff with “Explainer: The Supreme Court sides with former student on religious free speech,” ERLC Staff with “Explainer: Removal of EEOC General Counsel Creates Concern for Religious Liberty Protections,” and Catherine Parks with “How vaccines protect the vulnerable.” Also in this episode, the hosts are joined by Dr. Scott James for a conversation about life and ministry. 

About Dr. James

Scott James serves as an Elder at The Church at Brook Hills. He and his wife, Jaime, have four children and live in Birmingham, Alabama, where he works as a pediatric physician. He is the author of The Expected One: Anticipating All of Jesus in the Advent, Mission Accomplished: A Two-Week Family Easter Devotional, The Littlest Watchman, Where Is Wisdom?, and his latest book God Cares for Me: Helping Children Trust God When They’re Sick. You can connect with him on Twitter: @scott_h_james

ERLC Content

Culture

  1. Coronavirus dashboard
  2. The sports shutdown of 2020: One year later
  3. Fauci says COVID death toll would have “shocked” him a year ago
  4. Many vulnerable Americans have received the coronavirus vaccine
  5. Bible teacher Beth Moore, splitting with Lifeway, says, ‘I am no longer a Southern Baptist’
  6. Beth Moore announces departure from Lifeway, SBC

Lunchroom

  • Lindsay: Murder Among the Mormons
  • Josh: Deepfake
  • Meagan: Daylight Savings Time

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By / Mar 8

In a recent docu-series entitled Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World, Adam Curtis says, “In the age of the individual, what you felt, what you wanted, and what you dreamed of were going to become the driving force across the world.” Being a Christian in this “age of the individual” can be challenging. Our culture prioritizes self-expression, self-assertion, and the realization of our internal dreams and desires. Often, this vision for living conflicts with the call of our cross-bearing Savior.

Yet Christ has offered us a resource to combat the temptation to exalt our self-fulfillment above all: church membership. According to Jonathan Leeman, church membership is “a formal relationship between a church and a Christian characterized by the church’s oversight of a Christian’s discipleship and the Christian’s submission to living out his or her discipleship in the care of the church.” God has designed our reconciliation to Him in such a way that it grafts us into a community with others. Our faith journey is a communal project.

By committing to a local expression of God’s Church, we confront the idols of individualism. By faithfully committing to a local church, we are bound and rooted in a received community. While this commitment can be challenging, the practice of church membership counter-culturally forms us as disciples of Christ.

Here are three ways that church membership challenges the individualism of our culture.

  1. Church membership means we can’t choose our community.

By exalting self-fulfillment as a supreme good, individualism communicates that our relationships are contractual, contingent upon their ability to meet our needs. As a result, our social groups are typically chosen, made up of people we intentionally select to associate with.

To paraphrase Harper Lee, you can choose your friends, but you sho’ can’t choose your church family. Church membership binds us to a community that is received rather than chosen. While we can determine the church we join, membership places us in proximity to people we wouldn’t necessarily spend our time with freely. Thus, church membership offers a countercultural experience. 

By committing to a local expression of God’s Church, we confront the idols of individualism.

Chosen relationships are prone to land us with friends who share our experiences, opinions, and affinities. Like the lunch tables in high school, our table fellowship is exclusive to our clique. In contrast, church membership leads us to share the Lord’s Supper with varying age groups, ethnicities, cultural backgrounds, and political convictions. If we experience conflict or disagreement with a fellow church member, we are encouraged to pursue reconciliation and bear with one another in love (Col. 3:13). Covenant relationships like these brush up against the conditional view of relationships offered by our individualistic culture.

As people made in the image of a Trinitarian God, covenant community and committed relationships are good for our soul. We are social beings who flourish only while living alongside others through the ups-and-downs of life (Eccl. 4:19-12). The commitments we have to our church family deepen our discipleship by forcing us to de-center our preferences and priorities in community with others.

  1. Church membership means we are rooted rather than detached.

American culture fosters transience. We are encouraged to chase lucrative salaries, comfortable conditions, or adventurous experiences to new locations without being rooted in a community. Each new place exists to give us what we want. As such, we often lack connection to our neighbors or physical community.

Church membership is a resistance against the flighty tendencies our culture encourages. “For people who have been discipled by our society,” notes David Swanson, “to imagine themselves removed from creation, able to move here and there with little thought about the consequences, the decision to prioritize rootedness and presence will not come easily.” Church membership encourages us to build our lives around relationships in our church and take an interest in the community surrounding our congregational meeting place. While this can challenge our deep desires for autonomy and flexibility, it also grants us a rich experience of the body of Christ and forms us towards faithfulness.

A recent study (pre-COVID) reports that more than 3 out of 5 American adults are lonely. In an age of loneliness, church membership opens the door to loving relationships that can combat alienation and offer us a lifeline as we navigate the rocky seasons of life.

In an age of consumerism, rootedness calls us to reject viewing our church and community exclusively by what we can receive from it. We are encouraged to ask questions about how we can contribute to and bless our church family and neighbors (1 John 3:17).

  1. Church membership means we can’t curate the opinions around us.

Technology feeds our individualism. We curate the information, opinions, and ideas that we encounter daily, conveniently selecting our news sources, social media follows, podcasts and commentators. When we disapprove of what we see or hear, we can block or unfollow. And if we miss a spot, our feed picks up the slack by giving us more of what we liked yesterday.

Self-selecting our information consumption is no new phenomenon. Scripture warns against the temptation to exclusively pursue voices that “tickle our ears” (2 Timothy 4:3). Without covenant commitment to a church, we are free to curate a chorus of voices that reaffirm what we already believe. Healthy church membership, then, is a resistance against this deceptive habit, a reminder that we share a common faith and practice with those in our church body. 

But beyond core doctrines, committing to a community means we will often encounter opinions and ideas with which we disagree. Proximity to diverse opinions will often challenge us to reconsider deeply held assumptions. Moreover, we are encouraged to open our lives up to the input of our brothers and sisters (Hebrews 3:13). As such, church membership is a bulwark against the social media silos and internet algorithms that simply reaffirm what we already know and believe. It is countercultural for dissenting voices to coexist. It is even more so for those dissenting voices to love one another as family. Within the church, we are called to precisely that.

Last year, amidst the political tensions our nation experienced, it was jarring and often difficult to share a church with various social and political perspectives. I witnessed outbursts, awkward silences, and tense follow-up conversations as we discussed sensitive issues with one another. Yet, I treasured this experience, as it reflected the unity we have in Christ. While our culture is eager to cut off and defriend one another over tense disagreements, our unity in Christ is strong enough to bear the freight of our dissent.

Practicing church membership

Christ presents us a thrilling alternative to the exclusively conditional, chosen, and curated bonds offered by our society. Challenging our deeply held desires for autonomy and self-exaltation, church membership forms us into more faithful Jesus-followers. Moreover, when we commit to a local church body, we are granted a church family to bear our burdens in an isolated and unstable world. In this “age of the individual,” faithful church membership is one of the most countercultural offers the church has, and an invaluable resource to every Christian.

By / Jan 13

Editor’s Note: This interview is part of a series engaging the authors of new or notable books. Because discipleship and spiritual formation go hand in hand, the goal of this series is to introduce you to beneficial and enriching works in order to better equip you to love God with your mind as well as your heart and strength. Find the entire series here.

You do you. Follow your heart. Be true. These are a few of our society’s favorite slogans when it comes to identity. All of them are connected because at their core each one is about seeing yourself as an individual. Each one, in other words, is about you as a me. And this kind of atomized outlook about identity and how to live is a defining aspect of our time. But what does the Bible have to say to Christians in the age of self help? Recently, we had the opportunity to interview Trevin Wax about his new book Rethink Your Self: The Power of Looking Up Before Looking In, which explores this very topic. 

You have spent a lot of time analyzing how cultural narratives impact Christians and the church. What prompted you to write Rethink Your Self, and what audiences were you hoping to engage?

I love asking questions about why people think the way they think and do the things they do. What are the hidden assumptions that people don’t question? 

In looking at what passes for “common sense” in our society, you can see one overarching message in music, TV shows, books, and movies: the purpose of life is to look inside and discover yourself and then express yourself to the world. I wanted to peel back the layers of some of our best-loved slogans like “Be true to yourself” or “Follow your heart” and interrogate them. Does this way of life work? Does it deliver what it promises? Why do other societies reject this way of thinking? 

I had three people in mind as I wrote:

  1. The 20-something college student at the start of their life and preparing for their career, who has some big life decisions ahead and doesn’t want to mess up,
  2. The 30-something Christian who wants to grow as a follower of Jesus, who wonders if they’re following the common sense of our society more than the countercultural way that Jesus lays out and
  3. The person who’s a little older and has experienced setbacks and disappointment in life, who wonders if all the talk about “chasing your dreams” and taking charge of your destiny is good advice after all and who is ready to rethink their assumptions.

Rethink Your Self explores a concept that you’ve written about extensively: expressive individualism. What is expressive individualism, and why is it vital for individuals in our culture to be aware of this belief?

Robert Bellah and the sociologists who wrote Habits of the Heart are the ones to first use this descriptor, and they trace the origins of expressive individualism back into the 1800s. 

The Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor calls it “the age of authenticity”—in a way that pits authenticity against conformity. Taylor describes it as the idea “that each one of us has his/her own way of realizing our humanity, and that it is important to find and live out one’s own, as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from outside, by society, or the previous generation, or religious or political authority.”

The key here is that the purpose of life is to find one’s deepest self and then express that to the world, forging that identity in ways that counter whatever family, friends, political affiliations, previous generations, or religious authorities might say. 

The book presents three elements to identity formation: “Look In,” “Look Around,” and “Look Up.” Can you explain these concepts? Why is the order in which we prioritize these impulses vital to how we form our sense of being? 

These three approaches to life are determined by what gets priority. How do you determine who you are and what your purpose in life is?

The “Look In” approach says to start with yourself. You do the hard work of looking in, to discover who you are and what you want to do with your life. You then look around for friends and colleagues who will support the version of yourself you choose. And then, if you feel like you need a spiritual dimension to your life, you may look up to God or a higher power in order to have something more transcendent to add to your life. This is the dominant way of thinking in our society today.

The “Look Around” approach says to start with the people around you. You look around to your community to tell you who you are and what your purpose of life is. Then, you look up to the sacred order that connects you to the people around you and the ancestors who have gone before you. Finally, you look inside as you come to terms with the person you are, in relation to the community you belong to. This is the dominant way of thinking in other parts of the world and has been dominant for most people throughout history.

The “Look Up” approach says to start with God. You look up first in order to see what God says about you and to better understand his divine design. Looking up prioritizes the transcendent. God is the one who defines you and your purpose, not you and not your community. Next, you look around to the community of faith that is called to cheer you on, to correct you, to love you as part of the family that looks up as its starting point, not ending point. Finally, you look inside and see how God loves you just as you are, while still planning to make you the best possible version of who you are, as he conforms you into the image of his Son. This is the biblical way of seeing life—God first, others second, yourself third.

What challenges does a culture that prioritizes “looking in” for identity formation pose to the church? What challenges does it pose to Christian leaders? 

Expressive individualism poses a challenge because we’ve been commissioned to proclaim a message that is radically God-centered. The gospel challenges the “Me” with “I Am”—the One who created and sustains us. Expressive individualism would have us look deep into our hearts to discover our inner essence and express that to the world. But the gospel shows how the depths of our hearts are steeped in sin; it claims that what we need most is not expression, but redemption.

The world says we should look inward, while the gospel says to look upward. In an expressive individualist society, that message is countercultural. 

Also, in a culture like ours, it’s not that suddenly all the sanctuaries are emptied and the church gets rejected. Instead, the people who continue to attend church do so because they believe the church can help them find and express themselves. Religiosity doesn’t disappear; it morphs into something adaptable, something you embrace on your own terms. Faith is no longer focused on reality or something true; it’s a therapeutic choice intended to aid you in your pursuit of self-exaltation and self-fulfillment.

The book posits that the optimal way to think about yourself is the “Look Up” approach. How did Jesus model this in his life?

Jesus constantly turned our attention upward. The primary thrust of all his preaching was that the kingdom of God has drawn near. The first three petitions in the prayer he gave his disciples are all oriented to God’s glory and God’s kingdom purposes. He relativizes the importance of “looking around” first in terms of priority when he calls for allegiance that supersedes love for family members. He demotes the importance of “looking in” first when he says that to find your life you must lose it, and that his path is one of self-denial. Jesus is constantly pointing up—to God’s design, to his ultimate purposes, and to our need to look up for redemption through him. 

You refer to sociologists like Robert Bellah and Charles Taylor in your book. For many readers, this may be their first encounter with these influential thinkers’ ideas. How can social theorists like Bellah and Taylor help Christian leaders understand trends in their churches and communities? 

I pushed almost all the sociological references to the endnotes because I wanted the book to be as accessible as possible, without academic terms and concepts. But for the church leader who picks up this book, I hope the books and thinkers quoted in the endnotes will be a resource for further reading and reflecting. It’s important for us to know something about the world we’re called to do ministry in. Social theorists can help us understand the context and culture, so that our evangelistic and discipleship strategies can become more effective. Good missionaries learn about the countries and communities they’re called to serve. Why should it be any different for those of us “on mission” here in the U.S.?

The book counsels that to “Rethink Your Self” you will need to go beyond thinking and reevaluate your habits and spiritual disciplines. What are some suggestions for spiritual formation you present in the book?

The reason one of the later chapters in this book is focused on spiritual disciplines like Bible reading and prayer and churchgoing is because we will not be able to counter the “Look In” approach unless we are constantly bringing ourselves back in line with the “Look Up” approach. The problem is, even these spiritual disciplines can drift toward the “Look In” approach; you read the Bible merely for inspiration in your quest to define yourself, or you pray to God as just a helper when you need him or you go to church to be affirmed by others in whatever life you decide to pursue for yourself. What we need are disciplines that are intentionally directed toward keeping our primary focus and priority on God at the center of all things. My goal with that chapter was to get us “rethinking our habits” so that we can reinforce biblical truth in a world that will often lead us to drift.

The conversation you begin about the struggle of identity formation transitions into a presentation of the gospel narrative. Was this book intended to be evangelistic? How can Christians enter into conversations about self-discovery to present the gospel to their neighbors?

I was careful not to use Christianese or to assume Bible knowledge on the part of the reader because I wanted people who are not believers to pick up the book and be able to understand it. So, yes, I wrote the book with non-Christians in mind. And one of my prayers throughout the writing process is that someone would come to faith after having read the book.

But I also was thinking about the Christian who may be a churchgoer and yet has fallen for the “be true to yourself” message because it’s so prevalent. My hope is that they will begin to recognize the “be true to yourself” message in all sorts of media and entertainment and politics whenever they see it. I also hope they will better understand how the Bible challenges this perspective with something so much better and more soul-satisfying. I hope readers will see Jesus for who he is, come to love him for being so much better than what the world has to offer, and follow him with increasing passion and devotion.