In the past few months, I’ve come to a realization about the United States: We’re a culture of obsessive bean counters. For example, consider how most church denominations measure successful ministries. Number of baptisms. People in pews. Amount of tithes and offering. There are now church consultants who will show up to your Sunday meeting place and tell your pastor how he (or she) can get more visitors in the door. They talk about marketing, events, branding, website SEO–terms more commonly heard in the corporate offices of Apple and McDonald’s.
Rarely do we realize how much corporate culture affects our thinking and worldview. But it does. It permeates everything–including how we view ourselves and how we live our lives.
Individualism is one of those “gifts” from America’s corporate culture. One person can make a difference, we say, if they try hard enough. The poor immigrant can become a CEO. We can be “an Army of one.” We measure our lives–and our success, and our value as people–by stats and checklists. “Today, I was productive. I ran eight errands, paid three bills, and washed two loads of laundry. And I did it all by myself. Yay me!” It’s as if we’re being tracked by a magical task ticker in the sky. How many accolades can I list on my resume? How many cars can I fit in the driveway? How many widgets can I make in an hour? How much poverty can I survive without accepting charity or welfare?
I’ve seen the kind of anxiety this thinking produces in people. I hear it in the statements they make everyday. I feel it myself–the drive to accomplish something, to prove my skill and worth in the public sphere.
But what if that’s the worst way of evaluating one’s life?
I’ve been in a bit of an identity crisis for a while, especially as I’ve struggled with chronic pain and falling energy levels over the past year. I’ve dropped several volunteer activities, and last fall I cut my hours at work to be more available to my children. I’ve spent many days (and therapy sessions) asking where I belong in the wider world. Who am I? What do I want to achieve? And when or where will I find the time and strength to achieve it?
Then one day, a couple of weeks ago, it hit me: What if, instead, I think of my life in relation to my community? What if I measure success by the roles I occupy and my reputation with others?
Suddenly, I experienced a significant shift in my perspective. I realized that I already have a role in my community and a reputation within it. It’s not a big, visible role. I’m not a celebrity, standing in spotlight. My name doesn’t get mentioned from the pulpit at church. But I am known by others. And to those people, I have importance. I am appreciated and loved. I have an identity.
It’s an identity that I like. The goal now is to continue in that identity, nurture it, make it stronger.
I think the problem with our churches today is that we’re not encouraging community. Oh, we talk a lot about community; it’s the buzzword of the decade. It’s why we have teams of greeters and coffee shops in church lobbies. But most pastors–and people in general–are still stuck in individualistic, corporate-style thinking. Success is still measured in numbers of visitors invited and bodies dunked in tanks. We can’t just say we’re interested in community; we have to believe it already exists and start operating in it.
In Western culture, people are valued by what they achieve. In community, people are valued because they exist. In Western culture, the person with the biggest title or the biggest paycheck is the most important. In community, people realize that even menial tasks are vital to living. Western culture attempts to turn out cookie-cutter followers that dress, talk, and think alike. Community embraces diversity, teaching that each person has their unique place in the world.
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. ~ 1 Corinthians 12:21-26
Sadly, I don’t think the majority of our churches are giving honor to the parts that lack it. We’re constantly focused on the head, the head, the head–the person on stage and at the top of the hierarchy–when Jesus said the greatest among us would be a servant.
Not a servant leader. Just a servant. Doing good deeds in secret.
Individualism is at odds with a gospel that calls us to honor the lowly. Individualism stands in opposition to a gospel that commands us to bear one another’s burdens. You can have celebrity culture, or you can have community. Not both.
In community, you don’t have to make yourself known. You are known by those you personally touch. Instead of counting beans (or conversations, or baptisms, or visitors), I have another suggestion. Think about the people you were able to serve this week: their names, their faces, their circumstances. Did someone experience Christ’s love through your smile, your kindness, your charity?
For me, this has been an affirming shift. When I evaluate my life and purpose through the lens of community, all that old anxiety over achievement begins to melt away. The yolk becomes easy and the burden is lightened. See if it works for you.