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Individualism - making the connection  

How an emphasis on individual reform at the heart of evangelical convictions mirrors modern life - and blinds us to the injustice hardwired into our structures.

The second of Baptist minister Trevor Neill's reflections. Read the first here  


In his 2012 book Baptist Theology, Steve Holmes notes that ours is a model of church where:


… God deals directly with each particular human being… Believer’s baptism is an expression of this intensely individualist strain within Baptist theology: the faith of the church or the family is of no moment in the story of a person’s journey to faith; only his or her own response counts…[1]

My guess is that most people in our churches would probably take it as a given that this emphasis on individual belief is one of our strengths, providing a check and balance against the threat of nominalism and ensuring a level of commitment which underpins the vitality of congregational life.

But the self-aware among us will also realise that our greatest weaknesses often turn out to be the opposite of our strengths. We’ve all met the well-organised person who also happens to be overly-controlling or the blue-sky thinker who struggles with attention to detail. Could the same thing be said of our Baptist family? Might we have reached the stage where this emphasis on the individual is proving more of a hindrance than a help?

Frances Fitzgerald’s wonderful recent book, The Evangelicals, includes a fascinating account of the tentative dialogue which took place in the 1960s between Billy Graham and Martin Luther King. King was frustrated that Graham didn’t speak out more forcefully about the racism and injustice which were endemic in American society. Graham’s approach was shaped by his conviction that problems in society shouldn’t be addressed head on, but that the focus should be on changing one person at a time.

This emphasis on the reform of individual lives has long been a mainstay of evangelical conviction, but the danger is that it blinds us to the injustice which is hardwired into systems and structures. We help at foodbanks and regret the increase of in-work poverty while buying goods and services from companies who fail to pay tax and keep their staff on zero hours contracts. We offer the services of a job club at a church in a deprived community, but we choose to live in the neighbouring ward so that our children can attend the school with superior Ofsted ratings.

Good News for the PoorA 2015 survey by the Evangelical Alliance appears to confirm these suspicions.[2] 11 per cent agreed with the statement that, ‘if we are faithful we will prosper materially.’

In the same survey, evangelicals were asked about what they considered to be the top causes of poverty in the UK. Only 33 per cent saw ‘educational inequality’ as an issue, and only 37 per cent believed ‘inequality or social justice’ to be a factor.

However, 75 per cent of evangelicals considered ‘laziness’ to be a problem, and 84 per cent cited ‘welfare dependency.’

Perhaps, we see the blindness of privilege speaking in these responses, but I suspect that they also bear witness to a deeper set of assumptions which underpin evangelical attitudes: the belief that God has a plan for me and my life; that he leads me to the one he predestined me to marry; that he opens the doors to the job he wants me to do; that my rewards for working hard and going along with his purposes come in the form of financial and material comfort, given by the One who is ordering the world to work on terms which are favourable to his chosen ones.

A further problem with this atomised view of Christianity is the extent to which it reflects so much of the individualism of modern life. These days, we’re less disposed to go to the pub because we prefer a glass of wine at home, less inclined to socialise because we’re watching TV, less likely to know the people next door because we prefer the networked world of Facebook.

This increase in individualism was exacerbated by an economic model which has been taken as writ since the 1980s, and places a heavy emphasis on the responsibility of the individual to make the best of themselves. It’s hardly a surprise that the triumph of this economic perspective was delivered by Margaret Thatcher, whose view of the world was shaped in the home of a shopkeeper and nonconformist preacher.

Is there room in our churches for an understanding of the Gospel which is big enough to address the needs of both the individual and society?

This is the question we’ll address soon, in the final of these three reflections.


[1] Stephen Holmes, Baptist Theology, T&T Clark, 2012, 95
[2] Evangelical Alliance, Good news for the poor? A snapshot of the beliefs and habits of evangelical Christians in the UK – Summer 2015

Image | Providence Doucet | Unsplash

The Revd Trevor Neill is minister of Yardley Wood Baptist Church, Birmingham. This is the second in a series of three reflections. 

Read the first here: 
After the action, a time for reflection? Churches are increasingly defined by their social action. It's time our thinking caught up, argues a Baptist minister

Baptist Times, 09/03/2018
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