Individualism, subjectivism, and consumerism threaten the communal nature of church life. Church community and fellowship does not destroy the individual; rather, it is through the community that the individual experiences himself and his potential. Diversity in the body of Christ points to the relationship of the individual to the community.

Source: Diakonia, 1999. 6 pages.

Every One for Himself?

Does the church have a message in the current uncertainty? That question was the subject of a series of articles that appeared in the "Centraal Weekblad" during the Fall of 1994. They were later published in a booklet entitled "The story of the church". In it the sociologist Dr. G. Dekker lucidly describes a number of trends that characterize the culture we live in. According to him, people, much more so than in the past, see them¬selves as distinct individuals. They, therefore, do not want to have their thoughts and actions dictated by a group or community mentality. They want to do their own thinking and choose their own path. This increasing individualization Dekker sketches with three catchwords: individualism, subjectivism, and consumerism. 

We will first listen to what he has to say.


More and more individuals set themselves apart from society and less and less let their lives be dictated by traditional, societal struc­tures, such as the neighbourhood, family, trade unions and the church. In other words, indi­vidual man increasingly frees himself from these ties. He becomes much more critical of the handed-down order, tradition and estab­lished authority, and more and more deter­mines for himself how he will lead his own life. In doing so he views the existing institutions — such as government, family and church — less and less as given frameworks, within which he must arrange his life. His life is no longer characterized by the fact that he is part of those structures and, therefore, he no longer wants to be addressed by them.

Dekker considers it a positive development that people have gained greater freedom of choice; that they can be more themselves and give form to their lives themselves. Over against it, however, stands the fact that many people are not that independent and mature and, therefore, are in need of assistance and frameworks to conduct their own lives also today. The possibility that people will lead a life that has little or no concern for others is another minus. Also over against the church a certain obligation free attitude has come about: people will no longer let their lives — their religious life as well — be determined by the church. They, however, may "make use" of the church in arranging their own lives.


Contemporary man's subjective experience becomes more important than that which has been objectively (scientifically) established, for what has been prescribed and given á priori. Over time a change has occurred in the way people perceive things. For that reason they see things around them differently and deal differently with values and truths. That which is generally seen as truth, for them only be­comes truth when it agrees with their own experience. This not only creates great differ­ences in values and truths, but also the sense that, even if they are valuable and truthful to them, it does not necessarily follow that this is also the case for others. Man himself deter­mines how he will arrange his life. That is to say, he denies that there is an objectively established order for life. An order that has not been decided by man, but one that has objec­tive validity. Dekker sees this as a positive as well, for that way people's ideas are lived better and experienced more fully. The disad­vantage, however, is that it also creates a great deal of uncertainty. And certainly not every­body will and can live with that uncertainty.


Individualization and subjectivism is often accompanied by an attitude of consumption. An attitude that emphasizes taking (consump­tion) at the cost of giving (production). Such consumption can even kill production and creativity. You then get a culture that is only interested in bread and circuses. "Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we shall die." People do not have such a disposition towards material goods but also to societal ties and structures. We no longer help support traditional organi­zations and relationships, we only take from them what we think is useful to us. We deter­mine what we want and take it. Self interest takes precedence over common interest and even outstrips it.

The church and religious life is affected by this consumptive habit as well. Many people do not join a church in order to support and main­tain it. They do so, however, because, and in so far as they think they may find something there to their taste. On the world view market people "buy" what appeals to them. They select their own world view package. That is to say, they do not eat from the prescribed ecclesiastical menu, but they believe 'á la carte.'


Thus far the typifications that Dekker gives of some of the trends in our contemporary culture. Do you recognize it? Do you see this more or less around you? Do you also recog­nize traces of it in yourself? And, as reformed people, must we completely condemn this development? Or do some of these things have a right to exist? Perhaps in another framework than in which we meet it?

Before we begin to look for answers to these questions, we will pay attention to the criti­cism of these trends. In the first place, we will look at a view that proposes a more differenti­ated approach and next at one that opposes these developments and tries to overcome them.

The Individual without Ties?🔗

Does individualization simply mean that individuals have no or little concern for the community? That they, in their thoughts and actions, do not assign the correct place to the community? According to some writers that does not automatically need to be the outcome. Individualization for them means that you have the potential for optimal development without this needing to be contrary to a sense of responsibility, community and care for others.

They expect that the present trend of individu­alization will continue, but that it — more so than up to now — will be combined with a search for regulations that will take care of the various connections and connective tissues. Increasingly attention is paid to emotion, affection and attachment. Questions about meaning, values and norms that are hidden behind human behaviour will more and more be asked: is there any connection between the actions taken by human beings, is there a structure that can integrate matters?

In this view it is, indeed, true t at people no longer let themselves be annexed by pre­existing social structures as a matter-of-course. That, however, does not mean that individuali­zation must lead to a disintegration of all social structures and fabrics. Individualization does not mean that the individual stands apart from his environment. He remains connected with it, but in another way than was the case in the past: he has a different understanding of his own significance and, therefore, is imbedded differently in the social context of his existence.

Individualization is somewhat ambiguous. On the one hand you see greater freedom and emancipation. On the other, there is also a significant loss of normative support that in turn forces you to choose for yourself anew. In order to make a well founded choice, you must think critically about the norms that guide you in your actions. It is a good thing that people no longer blindly submit themselves to what others prescribe. But in the present pluralism of ideas, it is necessary to stimulate a critical decision making process in people, so that they can shoulder their responsibility. From an individual freedom it is, indeed, possible to arrive at a voluntary solidarity.

Past the Individual🔗

The trends of individualism, subjectivism, and consumerism, as described by Dekker, seem to engender strained relations with the interests and solidarity of the community. In the view outlined above this is differentiated: individu­alization can really go hand in hand with a sense of community. That means that you say no to individualism but at the same time say yes to individualization. You recognize the value of the subject without falling into subjectivism.

Another view of these modern developments is more critical and tries to rise above it. We must go past individualism. We must pass that station. So Wily Wielemans, professor of pedagogy at Leuven, argues in his book Voorbij het individu (Past the individual).

He wrote this book as a reminder of a forgot­ten, cultural dimension: solidarity. The motto of his book is: 'to be' is 'to-be-in-relationships!' Wielemans criticizes and puts the predomi­nant view of man in the Western society in perspective. The opinion of 'man-as-indi­vidual' must be replaced by a 'past-the ­individual' view of man. Man is the nodal point of relationships. And that has important consequences for the up-bringing of children and their education, and for thinking about norms and meanings.

More than an Individual🔗

Man is more than an individual. Wielemans sees this insight breaking through in the newer developments in various sciences.

  • In the new biology the world is seen as a web of dynamic interactions. The antith­esis between object and subject can no longer be maintained. The image of an independent individual is more and more empirically incorrect. Man increasingly discovers that he is part of a greater whole.
  • Newer ideas in psychology are character­ized by a dynamic and relational view of man. Body and soul are not separated, neither are the individual and his environ­ment. Man is even fundamentally charac­terized by the community. It is essential for him to be involved with others.
  • Sociology shows that man is not only determined by being an individual, but also by the community in which he grew up and lives. According to the latest insights, you cannot speak of an 'or', or an 'either-or', but of a simultaneous 'and-and'. They are two components of one and the same reality.
  • In the current view of planet Earth, as going through an unprecedented development process, the idea of an autonomous indi­vidual is just not in the cards. For its ongoing evolution the connection with others and with the environment are of essential importance.
  • All and all these developments show that we must view man as 'a nodal point of relationships.' In this we must weave autonomy and dependence together in a positive way. That with Wielemans, how­ever, is something quite different than dependence on God. His god is a dynamica that is imminent in the world. The mean­ing that is provided by the Christian faith must be seen more as an 'inspiring source' than a prescribed revelation.

For the professor this means that in education we must pay more attention to the ties be­tween the various disciplines, and to thinking in terms of a greater whole. The school must not only teach knowledge but also work on an awareness of moral responsibility. Thus we will rise above separation and disintegration, ambiguity, and domination by economics. Then we go beyond the individual and see man as woven into and tied to a greater whole.


It is Wieleman's intention to remind us of a forgotten, cultural dimension: connectiveness. His argumentation from various sciences seem to be somewhat biased. When he pleads that man must be seen as a part of a great evolu­tionary process, we cannot follow him. His story is nevertheless an excellent plea for the experience of connectiveness and a reduction of an out-of-control individualism. He wants to weave autonomy and dependence together in a positive way: indeed, a fascinating under­taking.

His thoughts can be fruitful for our own reflections. We do suffer from a separation between subject and object, between ourselves and the outside world. According to Jean Paul Sartre man experiences himself as a stranger in the world around him. That problem cannot easily and readily be solved, but his experience is, however, not in agreement with what we read in the Bible.

  • Man is created from the dust of the earth; i.e. the building blocks and structures of the whole creation can be found back in man. We, therefore, are altogether part of this earth. It is our world, we are dependent on this finely balanced abode. Here we are at home, and by it we are connected.
  • Man is created as male and female; i.e. is dependent on his fellow man. In the experience of the connectiveness with him, he steps outside the small circle of his own existence. That way he can rise above himself, and in doing so becomes at the same time more himself.
  • Man is created with a directedness to God; when he does not focus on himself and his own interests, but steps outside of himself and gives himself to God his life will experience expansion and development.
  • Viewed biblically, connectiveness does not mean a set back or restriction of man's uniqueness, but precisely develops this individual identity.
  • Also after the Fall this structural connectiveness in which we were created remained, even though it is constantly under attack from all sides.

    God does not accept that we broke the bonds with Him, but began to work at restoring them. We continue to live in God's world, a world wherein thorns and thistles spring up, but also a world in which God's glory can be seen — Psalm 104 — and wherein heaven and earth praise the Lord — Psalm 148. The Creator and Maintainer of this world is not a distant God, but the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, also my Father: we then live in the world of our Father! — Lord's Day 10.

    God wants to connect Himself again with our life. Above us, with us, and in us He works at the redemption and renewal of our existence. So we may live in the Cov­enant. And that is a reality that is so essentially determinative for our lives, that we may not let that word become a cliché, but constantly experience its tremendous significance.
  • So we may see ourselves as connected with God and His work in this world, in creation and re-creation. Taking a some­what freer position in this relationship, or over against it, or follow your own prefer­ence — is contrary to it. That is why we must look beyond individualism. Does that, however, also mean past the individual?

Appreciation of the Individual🔗

The Bible sees people as part of a nation, as members of the church. The believer is a sheep of the flock, a building block of the temple, a member of the body. Besides that, the Bible also pays a great deal of attention to the indi­vidual. People are not just interchangeable parts, but play their own unique roles in Bible stories. The Psalms show us a strong attention to personal feelings and reactions of poets in various circumstances of life. Jesus calls Zacheus out of the tree and speaks with him in private for a whole afternoon. He approaches the rich young man in a very personal way. And it is very intriguing, that we, when victorious, will receive from God a stone engraved with a new name; a name that no one knows except its recipient. God does com­plete justice to our individuality! Each person is unique, has a distinctive personality, with singular characteristics and capacities. Bishop Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 315-86) had an eye for it, when he told his catechumens how the Holy Spirit works. The Spirit, according to him, comes down like rain water, but that water becomes white in lilies, red in roses, purple in violets and hyacinths. It works differently in palm trees and grapevines. It is the same rain, but it has different effects.

The believers all have received the same faith, but the bond that we have with Christ has for everyone its own accents and colour, that is in keeping with their own individual make up. In the body of the church we are not all eyes or hands. With his own activities each person renders service to the welfare and growth of the whole, according to the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 4: 16.

Biblically, connectiveness does not mean a subordination or restriction of a person's uniqueness, but it precisely promotes the development of an individual's identity, as we have said above. Conversely attention to the individual in the Bible does not come at the cost of what is beyond a person: the body, the flock, the total building. Also in the re-creation it holds true: man is only done justice when he does not lock himself inside of himself, but when he steps outside of himself and with all his individual 'peculiarities' places himself at God's service.

Individual in the Community🔗

When we summarize all this, it can be said that in the Biblical view attention for the commu­nity is not achieved at the cost of the indi­vidual, no more than the attention for the individual is achieved by a reduction of the community. Both are done justice in the Bible, but in relation to each other. That is why we concluded: individualization 'yes', but individual­ism 'no.' Recognition of the value of the subject is excellent, but definitely no subjectiv­ism! Individualization then means that the personal uniqueness of each believer is done justice more and more, but also that in voluntary connectiveness he more and more uses that unique­ness in the community in which he may live.

He sings his own part with his own unique voice, but as a member of the choir and in keeping with the score.

Points of Attention for a Course of Action🔗

Our society is going through a dangerous development. How do we as church interact with it? We do not have a central bureau that produces policies for the Reformed churches, Thus far we do not discuss these questions at major assemblies. Would it not be advisable that we do so on local consistory meetings?

  • In doing so we should first look at the situation of the congregation. To what degree is she influenced by the trends in the modern culture in which she lives? Are younger people more threatened than others? Is there among us also evidence that people see things differently? And deal differently with values and truths?
  • From that investigation, in the second place, we could draw consequences for preaching and house visits, pastorate and catechism instruction. I think that there are two necessary things.

    a.) To begin with a strong attention for the personal faith of each church member. What is the significance of God's salvation in your life? How is that shown in your concrete, everyday existence? How does it colour your life and what form do you give to your life with the Lord? Does it become more and more a living reality for you? In our faith we surely do more than merely repeating that which the church teaches us? When things are what they are sup­posed to be, we know that we are ad­dressed by God. And feel ourselves compelled to give an answer in His pres­ence. So that we also experience an in­spired motivation for His service from a heartfelt dedication to God.

    b.) Next, a no less strong attention for the connectiveness with the church. How do you, in your personal life, serve the greater whole: your family, the church as a whole, the Kingdom of God? How do you give form to your responsibility in these mat­ters? Are these greater bonds also determi­native in setting your priorities? Do you participate in these connections, or are you inclined to keep your distance? Do you in deed contribute to the welfare of the congregation and the church? Is your position characterized by connectiveness and faithfulness?

Clear Choices needed🔗

When we finally take a look back at the three trends as described by Dekker — individualism, subjectivism, and consumerism — then I would, after what we discussed further, state the following:

  • In light of the extensive biblical evidence, we must say radically no to any kind of consumerism in spiritual matters.
  • We recognize the value of the subject, but say a heartfelt no to any kind of subjectiv­ism, because it reduces truth to a matter of personal taste. Something that is contrary to the biblical approach.
  • We say yes to an individualization which means that more and more justice is done to the uniqueness of each believer, but then also that a person voluntarily enlists that uniqueness more and more in the community in which he may live.
  • We say no to any kind of individualism which, seen correctly, distorts things and dislocates our very existence.

It seems to me that it is very important that we say no to the spirit of our age, both for the sake of our ecclesiastical life as well as for the life of faith of each one of us. And that we are pre­pared to oppose its influence.

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