Why Americans Need Congregations

We can’t survive without community, though Americans often think otherwise. As Robert Bellah has observed, American individualism—that image of the lone individual seeking self-gratification—powerfully shapes how we experience ourselves.

Individualism lies at the very core of American culture. . . . We believe in the dignity, indeed the sacredness, of the individual. Anything that would violate our right to think for ourselves, judge for ourselves, make our own decisions, live our lives as we see fit, is not only morally wrong, it is sacrilegious. Our highest and noblest aspirations, not only for ourselves, but for those we care about, for our society and the world, are closely linked to our individualism.[1]

      Each of us wants to be a unique individual and to determine our own destiny. But here’s a fact: we also need community in order to achieve personal fulfillment. It can be quite challenging to strike a balance between our individual needs and life in community. While our freedoms, rights, and liberties are indeed precious, we need to reexamine our individualism and see how faith and spirituality can be more deeply rooted in community. Bellah has pointed out the irony that American individualism, which keeps us separate, is at the same time a shared value that serves to hold American society together. Unfortunately, when individualism is overemphasized, it can lead to social isolation and economic inequality. Congregations offer a powerful counterbalance to such isolation.

When congregations engage the community, we can strengthen them and improve the well-being of our neighbors. This engagement might include providing food, clothing, or cash; mentoring or starting a business incubator; removing tattoos from former gang members; throwing a party for public school teachers; community organizing or lobbying at the state capital; or any number of actions. Different denominations give it different names, including mission and outreach, home missions, social ministry, and justice ministry. Congregations can and must play a role. We need strong communities.

[1] Robert Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008), 142.

Photo: Erean, Morguefile License.

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