by John McLean
It was a sunny day. In the outside lane on the busy freeway, an expensive sports car, top down, raced along the road, passing everything in sight. The driver was busy. In his extended arm, he held a “selfie” stick out in front of him, taking photos of himself and his car, apparently oblivious to the rest of the road users and the potential danger he might cause to himself and others.
“Hyper-individualism.” It’s the word used by researcher, author and well known social commentator Hugh Mackay to describe the state of Australian society and the loss of community. Not just a focus on the self, but an active promotion of, even obsession with, “me” – my wants, thoughts, desires. My world. My life. What I had for breakfast, what I think of the coffee I am currently drinking. And a growing assumption that everyone else must be as interested in me as I am.
Yet deep down, we know there is something seriously flawed with this. Deep in the human psyche, we know we need meaningful friendships, lasting relationships and deep connections. We know we need human contact, to love and be loved. At the abiding core of what it means to be human, we know we need one another.
This is why philosopher and author Alain de Botton writes that “one of the losses modern society feels most keenly is the loss of community”. As our society becomes increasingly technocratic, mobile, secularised, densely populated but increasingly fractured, “social isolation” – loneliness – is one of the biggest social problems in our nation. What an irony. An increasing focus on the self, and an accompanying increase in isolation and loneliness.
Theologian James Torrance is fond of reminding us that our view of God determines our view of ourselves, and indeed, of everything else. God dwells, in his very Being, in fellowship, communion. He has never been a lonely, isolated, solitary, aloof and separate being. God’s very existence is relational.
There is nothing mechanical, abstract, or impersonal about God. God, John tells us, is love. We were created for communion by the God whose very being is communion.
This is so fundamental we can’t afford to miss it, gloss over it, forget it, or move on to something else. Good theology starts with God, not with ourselves. When we start with ourselves, we get a skewed view of the gospel, and of life. Such an approach can leave us with a distorted theology that actually feeds hyper-individualism, rather than answering it. You may have come across the line that runs like this: I know God loves me. I am his beloved. I have the Holy Spirit! So I don’t really need you, or anybody else. I certainly don’t need church. All those difficult people! It’s all about me, and I’m okay in God.
This is partly true – you are beloved by God. But when we start with God, we see the obvious, unavoidable, ineluctable truth is that this means we share in the life and love of God – a love that is inclusive, that reaches out to others in grace and kindness. A love that indeed is self-emptying, service focused and other-centred. Nothing could run more against hyper-individualism than the other-centredness of God revealed in the Incarnation, in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and brought to communal life in the creation of the church.
Easter and Pentecost
At Pentecost, God breathes life into the new creation of the church through the Spirit. The good news of Easter is followed by the good news of Pentecost. Pentecost is in fact the culmination of a season of celebration that begins with Easter. The two go together. The Spirit of the Risen Christ brings the church to life. This Holy Spirit creates the church, a communion of people in fellowship with God – and one another.
Jesus came from the inner life of God to show us who God is, and to save us – not just from sin, but for fellowship. God’s purpose is sharing his life and love with humanity – with creating communion. And the church is part of this plan – “a long range plan, in which everything would be brought together and summed up in him, everything in deepest heaven, everything on planet earth” (Ephesians 1:6-10 The Message).
Mere-Church, Me-Church, or Deep Church
It’s easy – fashionable, even – to dismiss church. After all, church is made up of other very imperfect people. And people are messy, have their faults and idiosyncrasies, and, let’s be honest, are often difficult, complicated and hard to love. Why put up with that? In any given congregation there’s usually a lot of diversity. People are different, think differently, have different opinions, are not necessarily “my” crowd.
So it’s easy to condescend to church – Mere-Church – as a dysfunctional group of people who are sometimes judgmental, frequently boring and often apparently hypocritical. The church clearly has lots of weaknesses, faults and problems. It often fails to live up to its high calling. So, why bother?
Much easier to do Me-Church. Just me and God. With no one else to spoil it. No one else to put up with, be patient with, serve, be gracious to, or just plain tolerate. Just me and God, who loves me in spite of everything I do (or don’t do). I can just sing the hymns I want to. Or not sing at all, if that is my prejudice. Sorry, preference.
Clearly, the Pentecost notion of church flies in the face of individualism, let alone hyper-individualism. C.S. Lewis coined the phrase Deep Church, which gets at understanding church from the inside, at the often hidden spiritual structures beneath the surface of things. There is always more going on than we see. We never see the church whole and complete. Deep church captures the concept of the Trinitarian realities at work from which the church is formed, from which your congregation draws life.
The Holy Spirit brings us into fellowship. Pentecost draws us out of isolation, separation, and into communion with the Father, Son and Spirit – and with one another. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of adoption, whereby we call God Father, Jesus Brother, and one another sisters and brothers. The Holy Spirit is always in relationship, creatively animating life and fellowship. So our life is life together, not life in isolation.
The church is not an accident of history, to be confined to an unenlightened past, but part of the divine plan of God. The church is not a wish-dream, a utopian society, or the Kingdom of God. Nor is it God’s “Policeman” on earth to judge and punish sinners.
The Holy Spirit opens us up to be other-centred, as God is. That is, the Holy Spirit doesn’t create a closed community of the church, but opens the church up to the whole world, in love and genuine care for all others. In the Spirit, the church’s mission functions so that all may have access to the Father through Jesus (Ephesians 2:18).
Church is made up of congregations of ordinary people, with all their human faults and flaws, in and through whom Christ chooses to be present to the world. Church takes place in worship, baptism, Eucharist, but also in the ordinary stuff of everyday life – love, service, kindness, compassion. A smile to those who need it. Food for the needy. Help for the marginalised. Being a comfort, encouragement and edification to others.
Church gives expression to the nature of God. It is participating in his mission, his ministry, his work on earth. It is the place we learn to love one another, and all mankind, the way the Father, Son and Spirit love one another. It is the very antidote to hyper-individualism, loneliness and isolation.
At Pentecost we celebrate the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit’s creation of Deep Church – of other-centred communion, participating in the life of the Triune God. So celebrate the life of your congregation, and the other congregations that make up the Body of Christ. And share the Spirit of communion, grace and love when and wherever you can.