By Brandon Unverferth
Hyper individuality is corroding the church. It’s no secret that all across the United States, churches are shrinking. While in some parts of the country the church is thriving, in most areas churches are failing to bring in new members, young people are leaving congregations and not joining new ones, and church populations are growing steadily older.
My home church at Bethlehem Lutheran in Davey, NE is a great example; I’m 21 years old, and while attending worship services there over the summer, I was regularly the youngest member in attendance. The next youngest attendee was often more than a decade or two older than me. My church has known about this problem for a long time. When I was a kid, our Sunday school thrived. We would often have more than a dozen children participate in Sunday school each week, and for Christmas pageants there were often 30-40 children in the play. Even just a few years ago, my high school youth group had 5-10 members each week. Now, the Sunday school has just a few members, and youth group activities are almost nonexistent.
If churches don’t make drastic changes to their practices, this problem will persist until those churches are dead.
Much of the problem is that church communities are not communities at all. The American church has always overemphasized individuality, and with waning religious interest over past decades, fewer people see a reason to go to church. Many people, myself included, are not eager to go to church just to sing some hymns, listen to a sermon, and recite the Lord’s Prayer for the millionth monotonous time. We want to participate in a faith community, not just listen to a pastor tell us what to do. Sadly, many sermons focus on individual practices: praying alone, reading the bible alone, perhaps even engaging in meditative practices or keeping a journal at more “progressive” churches. Rarely is the word “community” even mentioned.
Christianity was never meant to be an individual religion. If we learn nothing else from Jesus’ life and teachings, it’s pretty clear that he was deeply interested in communal practices. Apart from his temptation in the desert, Jesus didn’t spend much time alone. His very first act in his ministry was to call disciples, to form a community that he not only led but actively participated in. Jesus and his followers ate meals together, traveled together, and prayed together. Jesus washed his disciples feet, an act of service entirely about connection with another person.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus specifically asked three of his disciples to stay awake and pray with him. He didn’t do this for no reason, or simply to teach them some lesson about prayer. Jesus understood the importance of community, and in his darkest hour, when he struggled with the temptation to resist God’s will that he be crucified, he asked for others to be with him.
In general, the modern church has no understanding of community, and that is driving away prospective members, especially young people. The question of individuality or community is one of survival for the church. More than that, the church must take a hard look at itself and ask: Do our practices reflect the communal practices of Jesus? In many places they do not, and if that does not change, I and others like me will have no reason to go to church.