I once heard a friend of mine claim that he believed in “individual Christianity.” He was not talking to me, so I do not know if he offered any elaboration of what he meant. however, I suspect that his meaning was clear enough: He was a Christian, but not particularly invested in any particular church, nor did he see any real need for such an investment.
Belief in individual Christianity must be extremely widespread, given the vast disparity in America between belief in Christianity and church attendance. Based on those numbers, anywhere from 30% to 60% of Americans could be considered individual Christians – people who believe in Jesus Christ but sleep in on Sunday mornings.
The problem is that individual Christianity is a contradiction in terms.
The motivations underlying the popularity of individual Christianity are clear enough. Spirituality is personal; organized religion has left a bad taste in many people’s mouths; churchgoers can be pretty annoying; sermons can be pretty boring; late Saturday nights don’t work well with early Sunday mornings.
Some of these excuses are more legitimate than others. A difficult experience with a church can be emotionally and spiritually crippling, and the guilt often lies with the church, whose love is supposed to be proof of discipleship (John 13.35). There certainly is a personal (and individual) component to faith; Jesus, after all, prayed by himself (Matthew 14.23).
Yet the solution to a problem with a church is not abandoning the Church, just like the solution to a problem with a school would not be abandoning one’s education altogether. Jesus did indeed pray by himself – but he also prayed that “[believers] may all be one, just as You, Father, are in me and I in You” (John 17.21). Jesus calls us to a unity comparable to the unity of the Trinity – a unity that transcends race, culture, wealth, and age.
For the earliest Christians, this was not just a unity “in spirit.” On the contrary: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts” (Acts 2.44-46; emphasis added). Indeed, the writer of Hebrews exhorts us to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10.24-25).
The clear implication is that it is virtually impossible to do any of the things that we are supposed to do for our brothers and sisters – encouraging them, rebuking them, confessing to them, and so on – without meeting together with them. Likewise, our walks with God will be completely stunted without the advice and perspective of other Christians: “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27.17). Sin, by nature, deceives us, and we cannot un-deceive ourselves; only our fellow disciples can do that.
This is hardly a uniquely Christian concept. Sports teams that are successful practice together. Committees that are unified and effective meet together. The writer of Hebrews is advocating the will of God, but he is also advocating common sense. We need each other, plain and simple.
The Church is a Body – an organism, if you will – and, like any body, She will not survive if She is dismembered:
“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. […] If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.
The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor…. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12.12-26).
The fact of the matter is this: Individual Christianity is not Christianity at all. A Christian who is not committed to the Body of Christ is a Christian in name only.
This does not mean that the ultimate objective is 100% attendance on Sunday mornings. The ultimate objective is deep relationships that allow us to change those around us and to be changed by those around us. The ultimate objective is openness, accountability, honesty, and repentance. The ultimate objective is spiritual unity.
I could say a lot more about the importance of fellowship with other Christians. (I have said next to nothing, for example, about the centrality of communal worship to Christianity.) I will end, however, with a plea to “individual Christendom”:
I need you. The Body needs you. Christians need you, and the world needs you. Within the Church, there are worship ministries, youth ministries, campus ministries, and other ministries that need your support and wisdom. There are new Christians who need strong examples, old Christians who need zeal, congregations who need elders, evangelists, teachers, and deacons. Outside the Church, there are the hungry to be fed, the sick to be healed, the sinners to be saved. I have been given a mission, and I cannot complete it alone; you have been given a mission, and you cannot complete it alone.
Please come back.