Last Sunday I had the incredible privilege of attending a combined church service in a small village in rural South Africa.
It was an amazing experience!
The whole service was very special, and the time we spent after the service listening to and praying with the local church leaders over lunch was beautiful, but the thing that stood out most significantly to me was the singing. Oh the singing!
What struck me was the way in which the individual voices worked together so perfectly to produce the whole. These voices came together so gracefully (and seemingly effortlessly!) to produce impossibly beautiful harmonies. As soon as someone led off with a new song the people in the congregation instantly (quite literally) sprang into action – each voice playing its own part (and individually discernible if you paid close enough attention) to produce a remarkable symphony. Individually, each voice was good and each part necessary; together they were sublime.
In the midst of this experience, I was struck by the intrinsic social nature of humanity in general and of Christianity in particular; the way in which we only make sense in relation to others. I couldn’t help thinking of the powerful imagery the Apostle Paul uses when talking about individual Christians coming together to form one ‘body’. Each part is necessary and must play its own part in order for the whole ‘body’ to function as it should.
I was also struck by how profoundly us Western Christians miss this point.
Of course, this is something that’s been noted many times before, and I don’t really want to get into that whole naive and simplistic notion of how everything about Western Christianity is corrupt and useless and how everything about (in this case) African Christianity must therefore be pure and wonderful. Reality is always far more complex than this, and those statements taken at face value are plainly ridiculous.
Rather, I want to offer two relatively simple observations that stood out to me in the midst of the church service and that wonderful singing.
1) Firstly, I feel like a fairly sizeable proportion of the Church in Australia—at least the parts I’ve had a lot of experience of—has prioritised the personal over the communal to such an extent that individualistic Christianity, if it can be called such, has triumphed. We are taught to focus on our (individual) walk with God. We seek to understand God’s plan for our (singular) lives. When we meet together we are often told to block out everyone else and focus only on God. We hear the biblical imperatives in the second person singular.
Now I don’t for a moment want to forget that our faith must be personal, but I do want to keep that understanding in tension with the fact that our faith must absolutely not become individualistic. It just doesn’t work that way.
In fact, it is my belief that Christianity should offer the most significant critique of and alternative to the rampant individualism that we so often see in Western societies, rather than being (as has so often happened) the conduit for it.
2) Secondly, and this point leads out of the first, the intense focus on personal (or more specifically individual) ‘sin’ has meant that we have lost almost all understanding of the social nature of sin. Not only is personal sin often something that involves other people anyway, but there is significant social or ‘structural’ sin that plagues our societies. I know this might offend some people (who might consider that places like the U.K. or the U.S. or Australia are societies which are ‘based on Christian values’), but I am convinced that there are structures of institutionalised ‘sin’ that are far bigger than one person. There are groups or organisations or companies or social structures or prevailing attitudes or cultural practices that are partly or wholly oppressive or exploitative or just plain evil. These things are real, and they don’t just disappear if we ignore them. In fact, that’s how they thrive.
Again, I don’t want to neglect the fact that our faith should certainly be personal. We do need to bring our own thoughts and attitudes into the light for examination. The point, I guess, is that it can’t stop there. It cannot be our sole focus. Unfortunately, it often is.
And so I finish where I began.
The extraordinary singing only worked because each voice understood itself in relation to the others. It is because of this fact, I think, that the result was a thing of such beauty. May our lives be the same.