Understanding the Challenge of Expressive Individualism: Part 1
Collegiate leaders are like missionaries to the college campus. All missionaries need to understand their target culture, translate the Bible into the vernacular language, avoid cultural taboos, and find creative ways to connect the gospel story to the good and broken parts of the culture’s beliefs.
Expressive individualism is a foundational aspect of college student culture in the Post-Christian world today. But most students don’t know it, and most collegiate leaders don’t either. It’s just the water we all swim in, and it’s hard to notice the water when you’re a fish. So let’s get nerdy and examine this water together with four questions in two parts. Expressive individualism is a large, nuanced, and sometimes esoteric topic, and far too hard to capture in a few thousand words. Nevertheless I hope these two articles serve as a helpful crash course introduction. Part 1 will address two questions: What is expressive individualism? What challenges does it present to college ministry today? Part 2 will focus next on these two questions: What opportunities does it open up for the vitality of the gospel? How practically should we respond in our ministries?
What is Expressive Individualism?
Robert Bellah et al. first coined this term “expressive individualism” and Trevin Wax unpacks it here. Let’s break down this key phrase in two parts: individualism means the solitary person (the individual) is the basis of society, more important than the group, state, or tribe. The individual must look within oneself to find one’s deepest desires and passions, and then live out that identity with authenticity. Morality and purpose and meaning are all found by looking inside your own heart, not by looking to your family or religion, as the latter are mere social constructions that often oppress the individual. Expressive means that you present to yourself and those around you what you discovered in your inward journey. You express yourself through art, music, fashion, social media, choices, experiences, politics, exercise, the list goes on. You desire recognition and celebration from others for what you express, because after all, you’re expressing your very identity, your true self.
Put these two concepts together and you get expressive individualism, the cultural water we all swim in today: Look within your own heart, and then show that to the world. Desires become displays. Feelings are flaunted. Passions are posted. What you have explored inside, you now exhibit outside. This characterizes not only those on campus, or GenZ, or unchurched folks, but all of us. As Carl Trueman concludes, “It is the very essence of the culture of which we are all a part. To put it bluntly: we are all expressive individuals now.” This is the air we breathe, even in the church, and even in myself. To give a personal example, I really enjoy reading books. If you look at my social media, you’ll quickly conclude that my unintentional branding is something like “Andy reads books” which can present a significant temptation for me to flatten my identity into merely a book reader, who therefore posts photos of books.
What makes expressive individualism so attractive? It provides people with an unprecedented amount of freedom and a flexible identity. You don’t have to be stuck with how family or society defines you. Maybe your parents pressure you to take piano lessons, but you really want to skateboard. Maybe society said you should get an office job, but you dream of being an ice road trucker. You can! You can be whomever you want. You can remake your brand on social media every year. You never have to say no to your desires, passions, and dreams. There’s a lot of freedom and excitement in this! It “sells” well. Perhaps that’s why it’s the common theme of so many inspiring speeches, inspirational posts, and popular movies: Follow your heart! You do you. Be true to yourself.
But expressive individualism goes too far, and ends up denying the community in favor of radical atomization of each person. It over-values freedom and under-values relationships. But most concerning is that expressive individualism replaces God with the self.
When self is exalted, the result is personal chaos. Created man cannot thrive when he severs his connection to his Creator and sits on the throne of his universe. This focus on self ends up inverting the very story of salvation. What is this false gospel of expressive individualism? Mark Sayers outlines the “secular salvation schema” as a counterfeit model of creation, fall, redemption: in the beginning, we were not created by God, but have come about through naturalistic chance, therefore we are blank slates, and each person has inherent freedom to write her own story. The problem with the world is that society has imposed expectations and restraints on individuals, demanding them to submit to a story not their own, which is a form of oppression that stifles their freedom. Redemption is found in breaking free from the rules of society by being true to yourself and living your own authentic story. An example of this script played out would be Princess Elsa from the film Frozen, having left her stifling community and now singing alone, “No right, no wrong, no rules for me, I’m free… Let it go, Let it go!”
This internalized belief structure results in many implications in the lives of our college students that present challenges in ministry. Let’s unpack two: impotent discipleship and thin community.
Expressive individualism undercuts radical obedience to Jesus, leading to impotent discipleship. Looking within to find your true self doesn’t necessarily mean that a student rejects all religion. Rather it means that a student selects in Christianity what fits well with their own morality and self-actualization, and discards the rest quite easily. It’s like a music playlist: they hear Bible teaching on sexuality or money or mission not as a call to obedience, but as an optional add-on of spiritual inspiration. If Jesus calls them to something that feels like a stifling social construct, the command is easily dismissed, curated out of their lives. Whatever deflated form of Christianity remains can be interpreted by others as a lifestyle choice—just one more aspect of the personal brand of that student. But like all brands, it’s an option to add to your playlist of life, depending on your preference. The jarring demand from Jesus to “repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15) is neutered by soft Instagram posts of Bible reading and coffee that signal comfortable belief without radical change.
It’s unsurprising for unbelievers to be motivated to attend a Bible study or church service as a supplement to their own story of authenticity. We may even accept this at first, as we’re just glad they’re here! But for those who are following Christ, we must not allow them to remain in this mindset. The narcissistic distortion of Jesus as a mere cheerleader to your self-creation project will easily derail when confronted by suffering, persecution, slow sanctification, or even just a busy schedule. Jesus Himself predicts these responses in the parable of the four soils (Mark 4), that many will hear the word but ignore it, not stick with it, or get distracted from it by the cares of the world. Searching for resources to augment the self, students will often find better advocacy and affirmation outside the church. If a better offer comes along, such a student will ghost Jesus.
Expressive individualism also develops a thin community. If each of us are pursuing our own authentic stories, it means we demand only celebration from others, which undermines honest confrontation for ways we need to grow. The Bible paints a picture of the church with thick connections and deep community, shaped by the two great commandments of love for God and love for others (Mark 12:28-31). In this relational network, orphans and widows are cared for (James 1:27), and needs are met with generosity (Acts 2:45). But when self is exalted above God and others, friendships become utilitarian, and church becomes a chore. This stunts real community, as each person selfishly recruits others to bolster their own fragile selves with shallow affirmation. And if this roommate, girlfriend, pastor, or parent doesn’t contribute positively to your story, then you have a moral obligation to be true to yourself, and unsubscribe from that relationship.
While these challenges of self-exaltation, discipleship, and community are deeply saddening, they do open up significant felt needs that can be windows for the gospel to speak powerfully into the hearts of students. Let’s next examine these gospel opportunities in part 2.