People are important and valuable just because they are people whom God has made. Individuals matter. However, when too much emphasis is placed on the individual over and above the group (society), and the interests of others are not allowed to interfere with the interests of the individual, then we have a problem.
The first threat to our corporate witness is individualism, an ideology that is prominent in our society.
The problem with individualism
Our emphasis on personal salvation almost invites individualism into our midst. While we welcome new believers into the church, not much is said about what it means to be part of the church. New believers are left with the idea that “Me and God, we’re tight!”
This “Me and God” way of thinking can quickly work its way into your ministry’s corporate life, so that you focus only on what your ministry is doing and its interests. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that your organization is part of a community of ministries in which there are community interests in addition to individual organizational interests.
It wasn’t always this way. Canada was founded on the principles of peace, order, and good government; which are all communal values designed to achieve the greatest collective good so that all people could have a good life. However, the goal of a great community has been replaced over time, both in the general population and in the courts, with the mythic of the independent heroic individual who is free to do whatever can be dreamed. This is what has made our southern neighbours such a dynamic country. But think about what this way of thinking believes:
- You rise or fall on your own efforts
- You are what you are today because of your previous choices
- You are responsible for yourself
- You can’t blame society for your problems
- Nor should you expect help from me
There is some truth in each of these except the last one. Individual effort, wise choices, and personal responsibility are all important factors in how well a person does in life. But it is not the whole truth. This way of thinking ignores systemic injustice, the nature of the human family, and the virtues of compassion and caring.
Individualism is about maintaining or expanding individual rights. Your right to decide. Your right to do or be anything you want. Your right to be free of obligation to anyone else. Employees who espouse these rights can make them part of your organizational thinking too.
Individualism is the very antithesis of Christian faith. Christianity is all about redeemed relationships, caring for others with the same compassion that God cares for us. There is a big difference between caring for individuals and helping them be the person God made them to be, and the philosophy of individualism.
Individualism hurts your ministry’s corporate life in several ways. All of these negatives can apply to both your staff and your organization:
- Instead of having an identity that includes both self and group, individualists have identities that include only self. The low value placed on the group makes it
- less likely they will develop meaningful relationships within the group, and
- less likely to contribute or volunteer for the group’s benefit.
- Individualists will be quick to leave when they don’t like the way things are because they don’t value the group enough to do the hard work of making it better. They never really learn how to get along with others, so their growth to Christ-likeness is stunted. (These are the same people who hop churches at a whim.)
- Individualism creates separation and distance between people. They don’t want anyone to get too close to them because then they may have to be accountable to them or accommodate them, at the cost of fulfilling their own desires.
- Division and strife between group members may increase because individualists are not inclined to seek the greater good or to see the benefits of alternative perspectives. Collaboration and cooperation are less effective among individualists.
- They have a utilitarian view of people. If you are useful to them, they have a place for you. If not, they pass you by. People are simply tools to be used for their benefit.
- Individualism fosters a “What’s in it for me” attitude that sabotages the common good.
The truth that will overcome individualism is that we are the body of Christ and our ministry workplaces are the body of Christ at work, which means we are a community!
I discovered the richness of the body of Christ on my sabbatical trip. I visited sixty-six ministries in 13 countries and saw not only an indication of the breadth of our work, but most of these ministries are in partnership with ministries in other countries and in their own. A number of them had two or three partner ministries in Canada, such as the Urwego Bank in Rwanda which partners with Opportunity International Canada and World Relief Canada.
I worshipped in churches in Australia, Thailand, India, Kenya, Rwanda, England and Scotland. There were some cultural differences, but they paled in comparison to the multitude of similarities. I really felt like I was with brothers and sisters in Christ. We are truly a community, one family, one body.
It is because we are one body, a real living community, that we can demonstrate how God wants humanity to live. God intends that, through our church and ministry communities, we will testify to the power of Christ to transform lives and redeem relationships.
Benefits of being a community
Because we work in a community with shared mission, shared values, and shared core identity, our community should be a mutually supportive environment. It should be marked by collegiality and friendship between people and between ministries.
We should be able to celebrate one another’s successes and encourage each other with no sense of competition or fear of diminishing ourselves, because we are all on the same team. Last week I was with a group of fourteen executive directors of ministries across Canada that are all doing the same thing. They were freely sharing all their success tips. I don’t know if this happens all the time, but I was told that it is not unusual that when one ministry has a surplus and another has a need, the one who has shares with the one who lacks. They believe God will direct people (beneficiaries and donors) to the ministry he wants them to be involved with, and he will provide for all, so they can generously share with each other rather than fearfully compete against each other.
Being parts of one body, communication between ministries should be excellent, and cooperation should be superb. Creativity will flourish as ideas are shared and we spur each other on to do good deeds.
Above all, our workplaces should be highly relational and relationships with other ministries should be great. When this is the case:
- People will resolve the issues in troubled relationships.
- Leaders will consider the effect their decisions might have on people and other ministries.
- Employees will consider the impact that the quality and quantity of their work has on their workmates and the good of the organization.
Because we are a community it should be true that:
- We expect the best of each other.
- We listen to each other.
- We respect each other.
What a great witness this would be to the power of God’s reconciling love! This is an achievable ideal for a Christian workplace that promotes itself as part of the body of Christ, as long as the people working in the ministry allow it to be achieved!
As a leader, you should do everything you can to help your team see themselves as the body of Christ at work.
- Use your staff devotionals to help the team learn about the body of Christ and God’s plan for it. I can think of no better resource for developing devotionals on this topic than Being the Body by Chuck Colson and Ellen Vaughn. It’s been many years since I read it, but it really shaped how I see the church today.
- Depending on whether you have the DVD or the book, use the module or chapter in Serving as a Board Member titled “Board Deliberation” to teach your team how to debate a topic in a way that encourages creativity and a willingness to consider all options. Although the title says “Board,” this module or chapter applies to any meeting that makes decisions.
- If your ministry has a streak of individualism, then I highly recommend my own book for study and inspiration, The Church at Work. The first half is about how Christians organize themselves to get work done. The second half is based on research I did on Canadian church-agency relationships and what makes it work really well for both parties. The lessons can be used for all types of ministry relationships, including agencies working with each other.
- Pray about what your own role might be in modeling the ideal workplace I described above.
- There are lots of books (secular and Christian) with good ideas for creating the kind of workplace that attracts and retains great people.
I’m very, very interested in anything you have to contribute to this topic. Please comment so I can learn from you.