DMINLGP

DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Is Individualism Killing America?

Written by: on January 26, 2017

For several months I have been contemplating the question, “Is individualism killing America?” This question arises from studying various cultures for our D Min essays. It has become clear that America is very individualistic, while many world cultures are collectivistic, wherein the community matters more than the individual.

As I read Networked Theology: Negotiating Faith In Digital Culture by Drs. Heidi Campbell and Stephen Garner, my question began to deepen to become a matter of profound concern. The question may be refined to ask, “Is individualism killing the Church in America?”

Networked Theology provokes good and broad theological thinking and provides practical helps for processing an engagement with new media. In this brief blog I am highlighting passages and thoughts related to issues of individualism and isolation

To set a context for this concern we must remember the metaphor given by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 12: that the Church may be understood as the Body of Christ. We know that a body is a fabulously coordinated whole, comprised of significantly different parts that always live and function in concert.

My theological concern is the individualism and isolation fostered by electronic networking that draws us into a way of life contrary to our design as humans, created in the image of God, and intended to be fully engaged members of the Body of Christ. New media causes us to consider the manifestation and tangible experience of community. Christians are citizens of the Kingdom of God, where dying to self for others is the key value. Network community has the potential to foster and facilitate too much individualistic decision making and personal priority.

This concern within an American context is demonstrated by the reality that one could do all Christmas shopping, including the delivery of gifts, without ever leaving home. What once was an engagement with community in the downtown-purchasing and personal-delivery of presents may now be an activity in isolation. One may order from Amazon, who will deliver to a provided address. This process “saves time and energy,” but at what cost?

The authors write about a television add for on line banking. “…a man walks into a bank. A little while later he leaves in a distressed state…he has just signed up for the bank’s internet banking service and will never need to come to the bank again. On the one hand, the customer now has access to a range of online banking services that the bank claims will make his life better. On the other hand, the human relationships the customer has developed at his local bank are now in jeopardy.” [1]

In his book The Road Ahead, Bill Gates “stated, ‘The network will draw us together, if that’s what we choose, or let us scatter ourselves into a million mediated communities.’” [2]

The ease with which a person can unwittingly choose to be isolated is concerning. I continue theological engagement with this concern with a reminder that humans are created in the image of a Three-Yet-One God Who eternally exists as community. To be created in the image of God is be created to live in community. Theologically, we must sound a warning not to allow media to draw us away from our original design. It is hard to imagine God the Father sending Jesus an e mail. Even when Jesus was on earth and away from the Throne, the Gospels teach an intimacy between the members of the Trinity. Jesus said that He did what He saw the Father doing, not what the Father e mailed to Him.

But being networked is not bad. The leaders of George Fox University Portland Seminary obviously believe the network can be a place both of community and of promoting the work of the Kingdom of God. Without the internet we would not exist as a D. Min. cohort.

Campbell and Garner wrote, “The network both unites people and fragments them into specialized groups; it promotes both collaboration and individualism. The network is a social environment that builds a new space that both draws together and excludes.” [3]

We do collaborate in our cohort, and this form of engagement is a version of iron sharpening iron (Proverbs 27:17) as we respond to one another synchronously and asynchronously. As such we exist as a kind of community different from a geographically connected church or mission. (From start to finish, LGP6 will actively exist for about 972 days. Of that time, we will be physically in one another’s presence only 28-30 days. In that regard perhaps we all sensed the difference in our relationships once we were physically together in Hong Kong.)

This thought points to a phenomenon written about by Alan Hirsch in The Forgotten Ways. He references the work of the anthropologist Victor Turner and states, “Communitas…happens in situations where individuals are driven to find each other through a common experience of ordeal, humbling, transition, and marginalization.” [4] Communitas is a community dynamic created in groups through shared experiences, often in a geographical place away from home. The intensity of the group experience contributes to the sense of community. It’s hard to imagine communitas arising from group interaction online. If LGP6 wasn’t together in Hong Kong, UK, and South Africa our sense of community would be lacking.

Campbell and Garner write, “Finally, many individuals respond [to new media] with considered ambiguity, in which the intentions and consequences of technology and media form an ever-shifting evaluation of their worth and effects.” [5] They also tell us, “Thus, new media culture becomes a double-edged sword; it is a place of both empowerment and control. It is a space for new social engagement and community building and one that can promote the individual above the group.” [6]

One might be tempted not to take seriously a discussion on technology and its relationship to culture and theology. This would be a mistake because of the powerful and continually dynamic mutual effect between culture and technology. We must give serious consideration to technology’s influence in and on culture, and the potential influence of Kingdom culture on and in new media.

It would be folly to attempt to reverse the trend toward being a networked world. Our attempts, therefore, should be focused on (1) how best to use the realities of the network to Kingdom advantage and (2) how to guard against the potential down-side of isolation and individualism, in order to help the Church be alive and vibrant.

 

[1] Heidi A. Campbell and Stephen Garner, Networked Theology: Negotiating Faith in Digital Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016) 33.
[2] Ibid., 5.
[3] Ibid., 8.
[4] Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007), 220-221.
[5] Campbell and Garner, 37.
[6] Ibid., 51.

About the Author

mm

Marc Andresen

I have a B. A. in Music from San Diego State University and received an M. Div. from Fuller Theological Seminary in 1977. July 1 2015 I retired after 38 years in pastoral ministry. The passion and calling that developed in the last 20 years is leadership training in cross-cultural contexts, as my wife and I have had many opportunities to teach in Eastern Europe and Africa. I have been married for 38 years and have two adult children, one daughter-in-law and a beautiful granddaughter. My hobbies are photography and British sports cars.

10 responses to “Is Individualism Killing America?”

  1. Marc you point out some of the conundrums inherent with technology…collaboration and isolation, empowerment and control…What has been your experience working with international students and the use of new media?
    In 2012 during one of my visits to Uganda, I went to an internet cafe and observed young people spending what little money they had on internet time so they could connect with people on Facebook. I was in awe because these teens could have used their coins on eating a meal but instead were spending them on new media.

    • mm Marc Andresen says:

      Aaron,

      I think all of the international students I’ve met have smart phones and seem capable of connecting with local folks and people in their home countries. I have already had e mail exchanges with the Iranian student I am friends with, who has returned home. He has sent me pictures of him with his fiancé. There are a couple of data points. I see no difference in their use of new media and our own young people.

      Your Uganda story is stunning: that people would be so “addicted” to connecting with friends on line that they would forego food. Amazing.

  2. mm Garfield Harvey says:

    Marc,
    Great blog. I also agree that we lose the relational piece with poor management of technology. The leaders at George Fox understands this relational part, and I believe that’s why we shifted from chat to zoom and the yearly advances. It’s impossible to speak of the incarnational Christ without physical relationships. There’s no doubt that our country has shifted or is shifting towards individualism. As global leaders, I’m still not sure what that means for us, but I do believe networked theology will become necessary for global impact.

    Garfield

    • mm Marc Andresen says:

      Garfield,

      I am really glad that we have shifted to zoom. Actual conversation, seeing faces, etc, is a totally different game. I didn’t know if it is just how I’m wired that this seems to be a preferable way. You have answered that question.

      I appreciate what you said about incarnation and physical relationships (which I would state as ‘physical presence’). It would be virtually impossible to convince me that relationships on line can be regarded in the same way as relationships where we look each other in the eye and talk.

      What I have considered regarding individualism is that collectivist cultures are far closer to Biblical culture and values than our individualist Western culture. We have more work to do to understand many fine points in Scripture because of our culture.

  3. Jason Kennedy says:

    Marc,
    Great blog. You said:
    My theological concern is the individualism and isolation fostered by electronic networking that draws us into a way of life contrary to our design as humans, created in the image of God, and intended to be fully engaged members of the Body of Christ. New media causes us to consider the manifestation and tangible experience of community. Christians are citizens of the Kingdom of God, where dying to self for others is the key value. Network community has the potential to foster and facilitate too much individualistic decision making and personal priority.

    I think you are right. How do we guard against this?
    Jason

    • mm Marc Andresen says:

      Jason,

      How to guard against the individualistic tendencies? The short answer is: find the fuller answer in a book yet to be written.

      I think Campbell and Garner have begun or furthered the guarding process by making us aware of the subtleties and complexities in “Networked Theology.”

      My fear is that the ship has already sailed, and that accomplishing any kind of reversal of the hyper-individualistic trend is virtually impossible. But, as in so many other arenas, faithful teaching from the pulpit about the nature of the Body of Christ is a major piece. I am encouraged having our own Kevin continuing in youth ministry with his level of awareness. He can significantly affect upcoming generations.

      I also think that modeling a rich Body-Life ourselves is key: to be in accountability groups and talking about that a lot with others.

  4. Pablo Morales says:

    Marc, good reflection. I was reminded of my personal experience when my parents visit us from their mission work in Mexico. We do not see them very often, maybe once every two years, but we try to stay connected through FaceTime. Even though I enjoy having them visit us, I find the use of technology intrusive. When they are with us, they need access to our home WiFi so Dad can access Facebook and FaceTime and Whatsup. We are constantly interrupted by video calls from some of the other children, grandchildren, or friends from around the world. Sometimes I wish we did not have internet so that we can enjoy their visit without those interruptions. So here I am enjoying FaceTime when I am away so I can stay connected with them, but at the same time FaceTime becomes an obstacle to stay connected when they are here. As you pointed out, that is the existing tension of use of technology. It can create community or it can fragment community. May we be wise in how we discern the use of media in our own lives. Thank you for a good blog.
    Pablo

    • mm Marc Andresen says:

      Pablo,

      Yes – the culture seems to have said it’s ok to let media interrupt. Of course the telephone seems to always have assumed the right to interrupt. I have attempted through the years never to call people’s homes during the dinner hours. (Caller I.D. has helped us ignore the phone.)

      Before cell phones, I always told my secretaries that no matter what I was doing or whom I was with, if my family called they were always to be put through. This was, in part, to balance the interruptions that would come to family life at home.

      I really do have a love-hate relationship with new media. It is such a great tool (evidenced by this very blog-interaction) but it can be so invasive and addictive. I am so glad I don’t have to figure out how and when to allow children today to have phones and use the internet.

  5. mm Rose Anding says:

    Thanks Marc, that is a great question to give consideration . “Is individualism killing the Church in America?

    Most of us do not understand how written, print, visual, and audio-visual media affects our relationship with other people, and the church. Sometimes we communicate with other people without considering the role of ethics in communication. Church attendance has declined,less family communication and
    we talk much through phones end emails, don’t you think we will talk less when we meet?
    I think it would be wise if we could learn to user the media for promoting the gospel in a more positive manner.
    It great sharing with you! Rose Maria

    • mm Marc Andresen says:

      Rose,

      I am sure that the ways we communicate when not in each others’ presence will affect how we communicate in person. Communication must be comprised of language, things we have in common, shared values, vision, and goals. If we communicate little of our souls through other means, when it is often easier to open up when not looking someone in the eye, it must diminish what we say face to face.

      And, yes, we need to be more thoughtful, as Campbell and Garner tell us. Otherwise we have Christians saying hurtful things about politics on facebook and in other media. It would be good if Christian used facebook (as one example) to promote the Gospel more, and their political agenda less.
      Thanks for your thoughts.

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