Deranged Age (Part 2): Individualism

By Scott Hughes

Under a Naked Sky - skywatcher

“I don’t believe in Jesus…I don’t believe in Yoga…I don’t believe in Beatles…I just believe in me…” John Lennon1

“Religious leaders and institutions, which traditionally provided the framework within which religious meaning was constructed, have become increasingly peripheral to the spirituality and ‘lived religion’ of private personal enterprise.” John Roberto2

One of the major voices of our culture is individualism. This voice asserts that a fully functional person is autonomous, and our identity is a concept of our own making (a “private personal enterprise,” as Roberto notes). This voice pronounces rather loudly that dependence should be viewed as a weakness; or even in some circles as a vice that is draining our economy.

The voice of individualism places emerging adults and older adults in a difficult predicament. Many college graduates are moving back home following college graduation. They do so not from a “failure-to-launch,” but due to the realities of the economy. On the other end of the spectrum, older adults can struggle mightily with keeping their dignity in the face of becoming more dependent on the care of others. Neither circumstance should be seen as a character defect or shortcoming invoking shame.

I had a conversation with my grandmother just days before she passed away. She talked about feeling useless, and she was worried about being a burden to others. Our cultural values of autonomy and production led her to conclude that her presence was a problem instead of a treasure to her family and friends.

As the process of identity formation has changed from pre-modern, past the modern age, and into the post-modern age, people supposedly have new freedom to become who they desire to be. The shackles of earlier eras brought about by institutional religion or overbearing political ideologies don’t carry the authority they once held. Thus unencumbered, an individual’s chief concern becomes discerning his or her most “authentic” self.

The problem, though, is that in the absence of these “shackles” and in the presence of all this liberty, the choice has often not led to life-giving freedom, but to a new bondage -- of narcissism. In this case, the individual has become the sole gatekeeper of authority. Relationships, cultural values (sacred or secular), and other voices are major influences in identity formation. Beyond our DNA and demographic information, family and friends shape our values, actions, and self-understanding. We are made for and need community. Instead of being peripheral or overbearing, faith communities can be integral to identity formation.

Reflection Questions for Individuals:

  • How self-reliant are you? How can this be a positive as well as a negative trait?
  • How could a relationship with the church aid in discerning your self-understanding and values?

Reflection Questions for Church Leaders:

  • “But a pilgrimage is just a trip if meaning is not connected to the journey. There is some risk that young adults are not asking big life questions during this time in life. There is a much greater risk that they are asking them without any consideration that the Christian church, or even God, might have anything to do with them.”3Midlife Adults (though others as well) especially focus on the question, “Who am I with you?” Invite adults (either through a sermon or in a class) to ask their closest friends or family members to answer the question, “Who am I (the person asking the question, not the one to whom the question is directed to).” “What are my greatest qualities?” Have the adults listen and make notes.
  • How do churches create intentional time and space to model and welcome community?

Optional Practices:

One way churches can help adults craft their religious identity is by helping them develop a genogram or spiritual descendants chart. “How have the identities and choices made by others affected who you are?”

1 Lyrics from “God” Found in Zimmerman, David A. Deliver us from Me-Ville. David C Cook, 2008, p. 49.

2 Roberto, John., “Envisioning Faith Formation 2020’ in Faith Formation: 2020: Designing the Future of Faith Formation (Lifelong Faith Associates &Vibrant Faith Ministries, 2010), available online at

3 Oliver, Kyle. The Seasons of Adult Faith Formation Edited by John Roberto. Lifelong Faith Publications, 2015; p. 65.