Understanding the Challenge of Expressive Individualism: Part 2
This is part 2. If you haven’t yet, read part 1 here.
Collegiate leaders are like missionaries to the college campus, and one significant characteristic of college student culture is expressive individualism. In this two-part series, we’re examining what it is, the challenges it presents, the opportunities, and how we should respond as college ministry leaders. In part 1 we unpacked how expressive individualism forms identity by calling you to look inward, to follow your heart and be true to yourself. This presents significant challenges in ministry as it shapes students by a counterfeit gospel focused on self instead of God. Now let’s turn to consider the gospel opportunities, and finally our ministry response.
Expressive individualism and the secular salvation schema promise freedom and a satisfying life. But it fails to deliver. This presents a unique opportunity for the gospel to sound like the good news that it already is! One key way to frame the gospel is in the language of identity.
The modern identity of expressive individualism is fragile and exhausting, but an identity based on the gospel is resilient and restful.
At first, expressive individualism sounds like exhilarating freedom: go chase your dreams! The only thing holding you back is you! But anyone chasing this will quickly become disillusioned. What happens if you fail? Whose fault is that? Can anyone truly help you when all the responsibility is on you? This generates a massive amount of guilt, from which there is no atonement except doubling down on the same self-dependent work that generated the guilt. Since identity based on your internal feelings is so fragile, you need constant affirmation from others. So you need to constantly signal it yourself, and need others to not just see it but then celebrate it (hence the value of social media as a medium of display). Anything less than celebration radically threatens not just your feelings but your very identity. And anything less than constant signaling and expression threatens the dissolution of self.
But this constant signaling is exhausting. It leads to a persistent background anxiety about your worth and value. You are burdened by the never-ending pursuit of being true to yourself and figuring out your own desires so that you can live them out. Timothy Keller concludes that modern identity is incoherent, unstable, illusory, crushing, and excluding.
In contrast, gospel identity is resilient and restful. Trevin Wax says this gospel identity is found not by looking in, but first by looking up, to receive God’s gracious gift of identity in Christ. For college ministry, the fragility and exhaustion of expressive individualism presents a beautiful opportunity for the gospel! We can declare, with gladness, your worth and identity and meaning are not based on your work and achievement, but based on grace in Christ. You are offered a gifted righteousness, a standing before God not based on your performance, but based on the life, death, and victorious resurrection of Jesus Christ, who guaranteed with His own blood your forgiveness and acceptance. Wow!
This rock-solid gospel identity includes the ultimate affirmation from God himself. This gives you stability, poise, and resilience as you rest in your identity in Christ, in contrast to the fragile identity based on your feelings and self-declaration. In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus invites you to come to him for your identity, to cease the heavy labor of identity self-creation. Instead you take on His yoke, which is so much easier! You’ll finally be free of the need for others’ approval and accolades. Who else can compete with God? He delivers the final word, you are “approved in Christ” (Romans 16:10, ESV).
Here’s the gloriously good message of the gospel to students today: you don’t need to achieve a performed identity when you have received a purchased identity! As Tim Casteel says, the gospel means “we have value that is given, not earned.” That’s our firm foundation of grace. And it means we can get off the performance treadmill. This is good news for burned out college students!
How Should We Respond?
What difference does this make in our ministry to students? Let’s look at the three fundamental areas of EDM: evangelism, discipleship, and mission mobilization.
We desire to be culturally relevant in our evangelism, and this means speaking to the issues of identity that our students are struggling with; we want to frame the gospel in their language. Show them the better offer Jesus gives! Invite them to stop trusting in their own self-creation project, and to instead rest in the work of Christ to save them and make them a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).
As we disciple students to become fully devoted followers of Jesus, we must first grow in our own awareness of this concept of expressive individualism, and then help students to become aware too. We must assist them in recognizing the cultural narratives and claims they are hearing from social media, movies, and advertisements. Timothy Keller says we must deconstruct our culture’s catechism, and do the deeper work of counter-catechesis. This echoes the exhortation in Romans 12:2 (ESV), “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind,” which depends on the shaping power of God’s word, dependent prayer as we ask God to do this formational work, and the essential help of an incarnate local Christian community.
The call to discipleship will seem radical and alien in this culture of expressive individualism. We must not soften the edges of Jesus’ words in Luke 9:23-24 (ESV), “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” Obedience to Jesus will feel like death, and some students may not be willing to pay the cost. One paradigm-shifting truth is the concept of ownership: Do you belong to yourself? 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 (ESV) fiercely claims, “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” College students who recognize the authority of God will be radically obedient disciples.
If evangelism is offensive, and discipleship is alien, then mission mobilization to the unreached is just crazy pants. Who gives us the right to cultural imperialism, demanding that the whole world repent of false religion and follow Jesus as their only God and Savior!? Well, Jesus gives us the right, actually. He claims that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:19 ESV). Then He commands us to make disciples of all nations. This is our permit for world missions! In the context of expressive individualism, maybe you might choose to invite God into your story. But as God presents His heart for all nations, and His command to preach the gospel to all creation, it means God has declined your invitation into your story, and instead he invites you into joining his global story for his glory among all nations. Claude Hickman says the life advice you’ve been given is incorrect, in his short book It’s All Backward. Instead of looking within to find your purpose, you should look at God’s declared purpose, and align your life with his! As radical as this call to global missions is, for those who heed the call, it will be a mighty witness to a watching world of the superior value of Jesus.
Each people group presents unique challenges and opportunities for the church to make disciples. It’s easy to turn to complaining, or wish we had been born during the Reformation, or fantasize about some other “easier” ministry context, or maybe to throw up our hands in resignation as we see the difficult challenges ahead of us. But God has graciously called us to reach today’s college students. What a privilege! Trevin Wax exhorts us, “This is the world that God has called us to serve. And this is our moment of service and calling. Enough with the murmuring and on with the mission! This is our time.”
Expressive individualism is a big topic, I’m drawing on many resources for this article, and there’s certainly more that should be said. If you are interested in further learning, here are some videos, articles, podcasts, teaching, and books I would recommend (sorted by shortest to longest):
Three Ways of Looking at Life by Trevin Wax (3 min. video)
The Modern Self is Crushing by Timothy Keller (3 min. video)
The Secular Salvation Schema by This Cultural Moment (24 min. podcast)
Our Identity: The Christian Alternative to Late Modernity’s Story by Timothy Keller (36 min. video)
How to Reach the West Again: Six Essential Elements of a Missionary Encounter by Timothy Keller (60-page free ebook, also podcast and video clips)
Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age by Alan Noble (192 pages)
Rethink Your Self: The Power of Looking Up Before Looking In by Trevin Wax (224 pages)
You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World by Alan Noble (232 pages)
Telling a Better Story: How to Talk About God in a Skeptical Age by Josh Chatraw (240 pages)