One of the key issues that we must address in the church is how individualism relates to community. Around the world the church is growing in unprecedented rates. For the most part, this growth is occurring in cultures where individuals define the self according to their relationships with others. They live as groups, they remain in groups and they stay connected in groups.
In the West, we define the self according to our autonomy. As Descartes said, "I think therefore I am." Now, the thought is "I feel, therefore I am." We view ourselves in terms of "me", "myself" and "I" (the great trinity of individualism) and then we get to pick and choose those with whom we will relate. In addition, because many churches are being built on a steroid-induced view of the "priesthood of all believers" the individual is being taught that we really don't need each other. As a result, community is extra. Church is extra. What really matters is the salvation of the individual. "I'm saved, therefore I am."
"I" is at the center.
We have a great theology of individualism in the church. And this bleeds over into the small group. We use groups to meet individual needs. We use groups to help individuals reach their potential. And as soon as the individual does not like his current group, there is another one that he can join.
So what do we do about this? Preaching against individualism will be about as effective as telling someone who lives in New York to quit using the taxi to get around. Individualism is the air we breath. The first thing to do as leaders in the church is to recognize this reality. And then we must be honest about the kinds of small groups that we are actually developing in our churches. This is the reason I differentiate between connecting small groups (also called "regular" or "normal" groups) and those that are living out missional community. (See MissioRelate for more on this.)
Then we must begin to equip and empower those who really want to live in community and break the hold of individualism. The way forward is to start with one or two groups and then build on those successes. Breaking individualism is a lived experience that grows organically, life on life.