Individualism: A Community Killer

In my blog, A Culture of Isolation,” we talked about how Americans are ranked amongst the loneliest people in the world. This may seem rather shocking at first, but it really comes as no surprise considering our culture’s values.

This week, we’re diving into one of the first characteristics of our isolated culture that is feeding the loneliness epidemic:

Individualism.

There are two types of cultures people can live in this world. There are individualist cultures, like the U.S. and most European countries. But then there are collectivist cultures—which happens to be the vast majority of the world.

Collectivist Cultures

In collectivist cultures, there is a heavy emphasis on relationships. When you look at Latino, African, and Asian cultures, you’ll see that a hierarchy exists across the board for all one’s relationships. Every individual is seen as someone who is connected to a greater web of relationships, and each person has a social obligation to honor, respect, and commit to everyone that is found within that hierarchy of relationships.

What’s most important, though, is those who live in collectivist cultures define the self by how connected they are to the social context. The individual will literally adjust his or her personal desires and actions for whatever will best benefit the whole group. And this isn’t just how the vast majority of the world views their commitment to relationships—this was the common view for nearly all of history. In his bookWhen The Church Was a Family, Joseph H. Hellerman says:

“Most persons who have lived on planet earth have simply assumed that the good of the individual should take a back seat to the good of the group, whether that group is a family, a village, or a religious community. People who have been socialized to embrace this “group comes first” mentality are convinced that such an arrangement is in their best interest even at the individual level. So they stay the course when the going gets tough.” (When The Church Was A Family, 4-5)

This beautiful cultural value of committing to the good of the group was the predominant view pervaded the ancient world, and particularly the New Testament Church. They stuck together through thick and thin, with no ounce of persecution or individual preference having the slightest chance of splitting them up. They defined themselves by how connected they were to the group.

Individualist Cultures

And then… you have individualist cultures.

People in individualist cultures value self-reliance, independence, and personal freedom to choose whatever is best for them. Individualists cringe whenever they hear the word “obligation.” They hate the idea of being obligated to anything that goes outside their preferences, because it eliminates the possibility of personal freedom. They want the freedom to do whatever it is they want to do. (Ask your kids to do their chores and you’ll see exactly what I mean.)

Therefore, instead of defining the self by how connected someone is to the social context, individualist cultures define the self by separating from the social context to express or expand upon his or her personal uniqueness. Life isn’t about the people you’re with—life is about you. It’s about you do, what you get, what you wear, what you eat, how you express yourself.  Even our relationships are more often focused on forming our individual uniqueness or meeting our preferences or making us feel good.

If life for the individualist is all about furthering one’s self, then life becomes one brutal competition of either one upping someone around you or always being beaten out by somebody else. Author and theologian Andy Root says,

“Individualism, in the end, kills relationship because it does not see the human being as bound to others in mutuality and love. Individualism sees all your interactions as the playing field of some competitive game. Others become objects because I only know and engage them as functions. My coworker and a broom are essentially the same; they both support or assist me in getting what I want.” (“Stop Calling Them That,” 23)

Individualists don’t adjust their desires for whatever benefits the whole group. Their desires and actions are adjusted to whatever benefits them. 

But wait—it gets better.

The United States isn’t just considered an “individualist” culture. In fact, sociologists call our culture’s value radical individualism. Not only do we focus on the self above commitment to the group, we say you don’t even need anyone else. You should be independent and self-reliant. If no one else can do it right, then get up and do it yourself. It’s a sign of weakness to depend on anyone.

But if that advice is taken literally, then you’re left with no friends. And we all know how degrading a friendless life can be.

• • •

Clearly, there’s a problem here. Our individualist culture encourages separation from relationships in order to better express the self. And the product is a people who don’t value interpersonal obligations and long-lasting social commitments. As soon as things get difficult, they abandon the friendship and get out (we particularly see this in our marriages). But if this way of life continues for too long, then it’s only a matter of time before they experience the side effects of the loneliness epidemic.

Discipleship requires community. Yet it’s remarkably difficult to disciple people through community in a culture that doesn’t value community.

But do we have to be satisfied with that?

Could we as a BFFs Church be a people who go against the grain of American individualism and catalyze a new culture that puts deeply committed spiritual friendship at the top of our culture’s priority list, just as it was for the early church? Just as it is for collectivist cultures?

I absolutely think we can. It only requires a complete shift in our worldviews.

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