to combat individualism — practical advice

This is a series (of sorts) in which I’m seeking to address a few harmful tendencies in the American church.  Past posts in the series are here:
Tendencies of an American Church
Practical Advice for Incarnational Ministry — Part Moja
Practical Advice for Incarnational Ministry — Part Mbili
We’re a Bunch of Scheming Swindlers


Americans, in general, place a great deal of value on the notion of the individual.  We worship independence, glory in self-reliance, and concern ourselves chiefly with our own personal profit and pleasure. Following are just a few practical suggestions towards combatting our culture of individualism:

  • When making decisions, try to think about others involved or affected.  You’re not the only one with feelings; nor are you an island.  An ability to grasp what others might be feeling is enough to begin the process of becoming a less selfish person.  If it’s difficult in the beginning, start with this phrase or one like it: “What do you think?” In time, you might need to ask less often.
  • Don’t always insist on your way — actually, rarely insist on your way.  Going out to dinner?  Is it your birthday or a celebration of your retirement?  Choose the restaurant.  If not, take pleasure in letting others have what they want.  If you get into one of those situations where no one will say, don’t hesitate to give your opinion — but that’s a far cry from pushing your own desires.  The key, I think, is finding pleasure in others getting what they want.
  • Think about how much time and money you spend making yourself comfortable.  Match even a percentage of that in making others comfortable — namely the poor in your community.  You spend $25 going out to dinner?  Automatically put $5 (20%) in a fund to buy food for the homeless.  You dropped $40 for your family to go to a movie?  $8 goes into an envelope to take someone else’s kids to a ball game — kids who don’t get to go to ballgames, that is.  [I hear people say things like, “If you don’t have enough money to tip the waitstaff, you don’t have enough money to eat out.”  And I agree.  But I wish we would say, “If you don’t have enough money to tip the waitstaff and give an additional 20% of the total bill to a homeless shelter or a poor family, you don’t have enough money to eat out.”]
  • Do the same with your time.  You spend 8 hours one day mowing your lawn, carefully manicuring your yard, or putting up Christmas decorations?  Spend one hour trimming a neighbor’s hedges, or planting flowers at a housing project in town.  You allot an hour per night for watching TV?  Spend 10 minutes talking to an employee at Wal-mart who is often overlooked and rarely spoken to.
  • Share with others that which brings you pleasure.  If you go fishing every Saturday in your bass boat, take a father and son with you that wouldn’t have the chance otherwise — and pay for their fishing licenses.  Running relaxes you and keeps you healthy?  Offer to train a couple of neighbors for their first 5k, and then pay their entry fees.
  • Pledging to spend on others a fraction of the time and money we spend on pleasuring ourselves will make us ever mindful of just how many of our resources are used in the name of “relaxing” or “entertainment.”  Because now it will cost something; not that it doesn’t already cost something, but we’ll start to take notice of just what it costs.  We’ll begin to understand how much good is not being done because we enjoy our movies, nice clothes, bass boats, and manicured lawns.
  • Do without something, just to know what it’s like. Give up sleeping in a bed for week.  Go without hot water for two.  Don’t turn on your television this month.  Walk, ride a bike, or take a bus everywhere you go for a couple of days.  You going without will not in itself help others.  But you learning empathy will.  When you understand the difficulties others have, you’ll desire more to help.
  • Think about church in terms of 1) what you can give to other Christians and 2) what your church can do for the community.  Don’t choose a church by how it makes you feel, or what you “get from it.”
  • Choose a church by the community in which you live.  Your church should be an outreach to your community. Does it make sense for me to drive 45 minutes to be a part of a group that is supposed to exist in order to reach those in its community?  Do I live or work in that community?  Can I realistically help in expanding the kingdom in that area of town?  Is it the wisest use of my membership?
  • When choosing a church, consider how you can use the gifts the Spirit has given you to build up the body of Christ in that location.  You were given your gifts in order to bring the church to maturity — so that it can accomplish God’s goals in the community. Go somewhere you can contribute to church unity and maturity.
  • I don’t think it’s practical to ask people not to buy new clothes.  But we could commit to give away one of whatever we buy new.  If you buy a pair of shoes, give away an old pair.  If you buy a new jacket, your old one goes to Goodwill.  This may not prevent us from spending money to keep up with fashion, but it will ensure we’re not hoarding more than we can (or do) use.
  • Turn all the coat hangers in your closet backwards.  After you wear an article, return it to the closet with the hanger facing the right way.  At the end of a year, give away every item on a backwards-facing hanger.
  • Ask others for help. Yes, maybe you can do it yourself.  But there’s a lot to be said for learning not to be self-reliant.  Don’t take pride in your own power and resources — or your own ability to meet your needs.  People need one another, and we ought to practice asking for help.
  • Reject that which you hear in church which is predominantly self-help and only such.  There’s nothing wrong with getting out of debt or having children who make good grades.  But the gospel is so much more than that.  I’m afraid many of us are missing out on God’s mission because we’re too busy trying to live socially well-adjusted, stress-free, and not-addicted-to-nicotine lives.
  • Think about all you do in terms of God’s glory. My life is not a thing in and of itself.  Rather it is a tool through which God can be glorified.  And my life is not my own, but is merely a member of a larger life — the body of Christ.  My actions reflect on more than me, and they affect more than me.
  • Above all, pray that God will make you a selfless person. Pray that he will bless you with an ability to think of others’ needs — and an ability to meet those needs.  Pray that God will grant you joy in giving to others, and contentment in what you already have.
  • Oh, and take care of your baby daughter so Chri — eh, your wife — can get some sleep.
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15 Comments

Filed under how to..., practical advice

15 responses to “to combat individualism — practical advice

  1. Excellent suggestions! Surely individualism is one of Satan’s great tools against the Western church.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

    • thanks for coming by, tim. i can check off a visit from one more of the church of Christ blogger heavyweights.

      as for individualism, i’m with you. but it’s interesting, because concern for community is just as effective a tool in other parts of the world. i’m pretty quick to say it’s selfishness, plain and simple. it’s just that some of us are selfish on the level of the individual. while others of us give our family, neighborhood, tribe, or country the label of most important.

  2. JMF

    Bro!! You flat tore it up this week. Give me your thoughts on something: The first two points involve something with which I struggle. Well, it goes a little deeper than that.

    Anything you read about leadership (secular), etc. will require that you take the alpha role in whatever you are doing. Take it a step further…you wanna make sure girls are really un-attracted to you? Ask them what they want, and always do it. Or don’t be a strong decision maker. Man leading the woman is the natural fit for *most* people. It seems counterintuitive, but taking charge and telling people the way things are going to be is attractive to others (male and fem).

    I know with biz, if I go in and constantly ask for opinions, say things like, “well, what do you guys think we should do?”, etc., the people lose faith in me as a leader.

    **Obviously, I am making some nice fat sweeping generalizations. Sure, some women like to be the decision-maker. Sure, I must listen to my people at work and get their input. I’m more talking about, at the end of the day, somebody has to lead and call the shots.

    Back to my question. I’m really struggling with this. I’ve spend a good portion of my adulthood not living for Christ, and of course, I’ve taken on these characteristics as they make me more effective. Now that I am trying to pattern my life after Christ, I look at what is effective, and it sure doesn’t seem like how Jesus would handle things.

    Alas, I am challenged. Great, great series. Have a great weekend, bro!

    • yo jmf, i’m not ignoring your comment. i’m thinking. answer in the morning — my morning… your late evening.

      [secrets of a blogger #1: i stop typing now, hoping someone else will answer your questions well between now and morning — so that i can write that i was going to say the exact same thing…]

    • i’ve got some thoughts, though they may not be well-informed. first, i should admit this: i’ve never read a book about leadership. i have read the occasional blog post on the subject (usually by michael hyatt and seeming to pertain more to time management than leadership). i’ve done 20ish-passage 3-column study on leadership from the life of Jesus (can send you a copy by email if you want). i’ve tried my hand at offering leadership concepts on my blog (see ‘a tale of 3 soccer coaches’). but i’m not well-versed in popular methods and styles of leadership. that said, my thoughts follow.

      i’ve been out of the dating loop for some time now, but i don’t remember women being so attracted to a man that picks the restaurant every time. i do remember and know that women seem to be drawn to certainty and conviction — a man who is sure of a plan and is able to carry it out. but what if that plan, of which he speaks with such confidence, involves going to her favorite coffee shop, or playing a game instead of going to one? i’m just running at the mouth here, but it seems to me what is most attractive is a man who puts the woman first, but is able to do so without asking her what she wants to do. he just knows. which requires that he’s practiced making others happy

    • as for examples with employees, i’m not so much thinking a boss should make sure every person gets equal time and say in every decision or anything like that. i’m more thinking the employer offers a better insurance plan (even though the cash comes out of his pocket) because he wants to put others before himself. now i don’t own a business (though i want to one day), so you might tell me this could never work. but i really believe that, if an employer will sacrifice himself for his employees, they will be better, harder working, more loyal, happier, and more fun employees. i don’t know how a business doesn’t benefit from that. i recently read a book called ‘the Search for God and guinness’ (still need to post a review on here) — it was about how a christian business owner treats his employees and helps his community — and benefits from it.

      i mean Jesus didn’t ask the apostles whether he ought to tell the people a story, or go up on the mountain to pray. it sure seems like he sometimes said, “this is the way it’s going to be.” and it was. but he also died for those guys.

      for the record, i think the Christian way to be a leader is to be a good follower. if someone is not being mentored by another, i’ll never be on board with his mentoring me. and i don’t just mean a good leader needs to follow God. i think every Christian leader should have a mentor and should be mentoring someone else. if they don’t have a mentor, they’re not accountable to anyone for reaching their highest potential in Christ and in life. and if they are not themselves mentoring someone else, it means 1) no one’s asked them, which means they probably have little to offer, 2) they’re selfish and want a title of leadership without actually effecting change in the lives of others, 3) they’re ignorant of the fact that they ought to be giving to others from what they’ve been given.

  3. And when you are in a book shop, check to see if you spend too much time browsing the self-help books, even the “Christian” ones. How many of the last 20 books you bought were of that genre?

  4. JMF

    Great thoughts as usual, Brett.

    “Search for God And Guinness”. I’ll def get that…sounds like the kind of book I need to read.

    • i should tell you, though, (because i like to be clear when recommending books) that it’s not the best book i’ve ever read. the point of the book is great. and there are some really good insights into how to treat employees and affect change in your community. but it’s written kind of like a history book — and can be a bit dry.

      my advice: if you’re just looking for an interesting book to read, it might be worth grabbing. if you’re torn 50/50, let the deciding factor be whether or not you like beer.

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