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What’s Expressive Individualism Got to Do With It?

Imagine trying to give directions to someone visiting the campus where you currently work. As you’re on the phone you tell him to “turn right on 4th street,” and then “hop on I-55 North until you reach I-74.” As the conversation progresses your friend is getting more and more confused, and you are getting progressively frustrated. Eventually he exclaims, “I don’t see any of the streets you’re talking about!” Finally you realize that you gave him directions from your current location, not the city he was living in. In order to give good directions, you must be clear on both the destination and the starting place. 

In cross-cultural missions work, this principle is readily understood and applied. If I’m going to share the gospel amongst a primarily muslim population, I must understand Islam and the unique challenges it poses to the gospel. But when it comes to our domestic efforts, we often act as if this is not the case. We don’t consider the unique cultural challenges or religious influence because we think “we’re not that far from home, how different could it be?” Well, just as we would necessarily want to understand Islam in the Middle East, we might want to begin studying the starting place and predominant “religion” of this generation of college students: Expressive Individualism.

Many of us campus ministers gladly think of ourselves as being practical and action oriented, and this is a good thing. When we hear words like “Expressive Individualism” we quickly disregard that for the theologians in the Ivory tower. Some campus ministers—working in the American south—are probably thinking, “this isn’t the religion of our students, they all think they’re Christians, so what’s this got to do with me?” Well, as we explore what “Expressive Individualism” is, we will see that this isn’t a religion of exclusive devotion that empties the pews of our churches, but this religion can even promote Christian activity. So what is it?

Expressive Individualism is the idea that meaning and identity aren’t given to me by outside influences (parents, church, or God), but rather are found within me. This ideology presses us to look at our deepest desires, longings, and urges and use these to discover the “true me.” Furthermore, it encourages us to “be true to yourself” and to “follow our hearts” so as to not be shackled in or constrained by traditional ideologies or external influences. It encourages us to chart our own path and to determine who we are, without being told by anyone else. Ultimately, it places the epicenter of authority in the hearts of every individual.  

Because identity is found and created on your own (rather than being given to you), you must then express this sense of yourself to the world around you. Identity is never content in isolation but must always have the confirmation and validation of those around us. So, we “express” ourselves to those who will acknowledge, accept, and affirm “who we are,” and won’t ask us to change. Rather than other people challenging and shaping us, we only associate with those who whole-heartedly affirm our own self created identity. 

At this point, you might be asking what this has to do with college ministry. Let me highlight some ways this impacts both evangelism and discipleship. First, the starting premise for most evangelistic illustrations and studies is that God is the ultimate authority. This is clearly true, but I think many students, living in the era of Expressive Individualism, functionally believe that they are their own ultimate authority (even if they verbally profess God to be the authority). This means that as long as the Bible makes sense to what they already want and believe, they will happily agree, but when the Bible disagrees, they can apathetically shrug off the consequences of rejecting the message of the Bible. Expressive Individualism creates “apatheists.” Unlike traditional atheists who can be passionately opposed to a Christian belief system, apatheists see no reason to argue, because God is just one choice people can pick, not the authority which demands our whole lives. I’m sure you, like myself, have shared the full gospel with a student, where they seem to agree with the content of the gospel and then have little to no reaction to this radical message. The gospel to them isn’t intrinsically true, it’s only true if they decide it to be true. For them, to be a Christian is a matter of personal preference, not life-altering truth about God claiming their lives. 

This goes back to the idea about giving directions with both the starting point and destination in mind. If we want to helpfully and powerfully bring people to the destination of Christ, we must understand how expressive individualism shapes their thinking. One suggestion I have for addressing this issue is to change the way we begin a spiritual conversation. If everyone begins with a belief that God is the ultimate authority, it is appropriate to ask them “what is God like,” and “how do people go to heaven?” But for the Expressive Individualists it may be best to begin with questions like, “Do you think you determine your own destiny?” or “Do you think your heart will guide you to the truth?” or “Do you think you have to look in to determine who you are and what you should believe?” If you open up the conversation in this manner, you can clearly see the barriers of authority and identity and get a clearer picture of a student’s starting place. This will allow you to guide your conversation to the most relevant issues and begin tearing down the specific obstacles which are hindering students to be affected by the gospel.

How then might this affect discipleship? As I stated earlier, Expressive Individualism doesn’t necessarily empty the pews, but it might fill them with people who are there to express their own identity and fulfill their own desires. The danger is that Expressive Individualism can produce people who do all the right things, at least for a little while. Many of the students who become leaders in our ministries may only be doing so as a way of expressing their own identity. Students often come to college with the desire to “remake themselves” and find our ministries as particularly attractive models for remaking their own identity. They can find that our ministry makes them “feel good about themselves.” This can be good in many ways, but if we’re not careful, we end up promoting a path to self discovery and see people involved in our ministry until their hearts’ desires eventually fall out of line with God’s desires for their lives. In the end we allow self worship and self promotion flourish under the guise of Christian activity while the true worship of God himself goes neglected. Because their motivations were never checked, and because we always affirmed their positive actions without probing into motivations, they were able slide through their time in college without fundamentally having their heart posture toward God changed. One application to guard against this trend is to “target the heart.” We can’t just assume people are doing things to “glorify God” because they read their Bible, share their faith, and pray. We must probe into our students’ desires, fears, and motivations. I also think it would be wise to be cautious with the people who do “all the right things” and learn to ask them the hard questions and the unexpected questions. 

I hope you can begin to see that the way we engage the religion of Expressive Individualism can have massive implications for how we approach faithful ministry on our campuses. In many ways these challenges aren’t new, but have a new flavor. If we want to proclaim Christ, and we want to do it in a way that people understand, we must learn about the “starting place” of our students and learn to draw helpful maps to lead them to the timeless destination of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Lastly, I am only beginning to probe these problems and find solutions to these issues. This article is only the most brief explanation of what Expressive Individualism is, so if you want more information or reading suggestions please feel free to reach out. Furthermore, I would love to open a dialogue to discuss these issues and how your campus ministry is engaging these issues. My team is wrestling over these issues and would love more perspective.