Steve Holmes, in his 2012 book “Baptist Theology,” 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,” he observes.
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 that underpins the vitality of congregational life.
But the self-aware among us will also realize that our greatest weaknesses often turn out to be the opposite of our strengths.
We’ve all met the well-organized 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 that took place in the 1960s between Billy Graham and Martin Luther King Jr.
King was frustrated that Graham didn’t speak out more forcefully about the racism and injustice that were endemic in U.S. 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 that is hardwired into systems and structures.
We help at food banks and regret the increase of in-work poverty while buying goods and services from companies who fail to pay their fair share of taxes 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 other neighborhoods so that our children can attend the school with superior ratings.
A 2015 survey by the Evangelical Alliance appears to confirm these suspicions. Eleven percent agreed with the statement, “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 United Kingdom.
Only 33 percent saw “educational inequality” as an issue, and only 37 percent believed “inequality or social justice” to be a factor.
However, 75 percent of evangelicals considered “laziness” to be a problem, and 84 percent 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 that underpin evangelical attitudes.
These include the belief that:
- God has a plan for me and my life.
- He leads me to the one he predestined me to marry.
- He opens the doors to the job he wants me to do.
- 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 that are favorable to his chosen ones.
A further problem with this atomized view of Christianity is the extent to which it reflects so much of the individualism of modern life.
These days, we are less inclined to socialize 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 that 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.
Is there room in our churches for an understanding of the gospel that is big enough to address the needs of both the individual and society?
This question is vital for our congregations to ask and answer.
Trevor Neill is minister of Yardley Wood Baptist Church, Birmingham, United Kingdom. A version of this article first appeared in The Baptist Times of Great Britain, the online newspaper of the Baptist Union of Great Britain. It is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @TrevorNeill1.