No “I” in “CHURCH”–How American Evangelicalism Gets Its Pronouns Wrong


Lonely in a crowdI listened to a message recently that told me all the things I had to do so I could be godly.

For the most part, the words went sailing past me. Perhaps I’m like the hard soil and the birds are coming to eat up the message seeds.

Or maybe I’ve just reached a saturation point for being told what I need to be doing so everything will be perfect in my Christian life.

There’s a big problem with the approach so much of American Evangelicalism uses when speaking to people: It’s all I and you (singular) pronoun use. It’s as if there is no message to the collected Body of Christ. The plural you, we, and us continue to go missing. And with them goes most of the New Testament.

You hear the singular you used a lot in sermons. Someone is preaching at me what I need to do as an individual.

But if you read the New Testament, the you in it, almost all nearly 4,000 uses, refers to a group of people—a plural you. In almost all cases outside the Gospels, that you is the Church.

How is it then that so many messages directed at us aren’t to the genuine plural us, but solely to individuals sitting in one place? We somehow avoid all sense of a collected group of believers.

One problem with this is that it automatically creates legalism and moralism. Individuals are told to do this or that, but there is no greater sense of collected purpose in those admonitions. Whatever it is that I should do is relegated to me alone. It then becomes a personal performance issue. My success as a Christian is solely because of what I do; the greater Body has no influence at all in this—nor do I truly influence that greater Body.

Which is one major reason why the Church in America isn’t advancing the way it should be. We are in a state of every man for himself.

An example of how this individual focus fails…

Take the subject of giving. From an individual perspective, you (singular) and I are told biblical principles on how to give and save money. To live below our means so as to be able to give to others. To tithe. To be cheerful givers.

But when we take this up to the level of what the Church as a collected whole is supposed to do, a vast silence emerges. What is the Church’s financial responsibility?

The Scriptures make it plain in many places that the Church should ensure that no one within the Church body is in need. Goods are to be collected and dispersed to people in the local church body to ensure no state of want.

That asks something of the Church/church though. And you just don’t hear messages and sermons on what the whole Church responsibility is in a given situation.

In short, there is no you (plural), we, or us. There is no vision for anything beyond what the individual is asked to do.

The Bible says that you have died. Your life is now hidden in Christ. And His life is expressed in this world through His Body, the Church.

To the person who has died, the law says that he or she has lost the right to own. In the Church, there is no my or mine. There is ours. Jesus abolishes all personal claims. You are not even your own. All that remains is the collected Body. I, my, mine, you (singular), yours—these are remnants of what we must leave behind when we choose to follow Jesus.

What would happen if American Evangelicals, instead of devolving into what I or you (singular) should be doing as a Christian, focused instead on how the group of believers that comprise the local church and the greater Church operates as it is intended to function—as a unified whole? What if we stopped with the relentless granularity and started thinking of Christianity not as a personal belief but as one that achieves its vitality only within full community? What if we stopped preaching individual works and started focusing on collected works? What if we believed that sanctification wasn’t solely for the individual but for the group? What if we truly believed Jesus in His admonition that the herd of sheep was no longer complete in the eyes of the shepherd if even one was missing?

What if we Christians shifted all our pronouns toward you (plural), we, ours, and us, while moving away from I, me, mine, and you (singular)?

Can we at least start to think outside of the individual? Perhaps if we did, we’d actually live out the biblical plan for the Body of Christ.

UPDATE: See also the follow-up post, God of the Group.

The Medium of True Blessing


The medium is the message.

Marshall McLuhan

Times have been rough here of late. When the homefront reels under attack and the newspaper screams out worrying headlines, sometimes it’s all one can do to get out of bed.

Last Sunday in church, our pastor spoke on entering God’s rest. That’s a difficult message to hear right now. I’m working 60-hour weeks and my family faces some tough expenditures in light of recent illnesses. Even with the private health insurance we carry, the costs will be considerable. Finding rest when that “final straw” may lurk in each new day proves easier said than done.

Amid one of the most difficult weeks of my life, I noticed that a back tire on our car was badly out of balance. After yet another visit to the doctor, I tried to squeeze in a free tire balancing at the store that sold us the tires. Free.

Sitting in the waiting room at the tire store, I watched the clock tick and wondered how we would live in the light of illness. God, what does this mean for us? How will we go on?

When the hands of the clock clicked past a few too many minutes, I investigated and found three mechanics huddled around our car. Then came the dire words: “Sir, there’s a problem.”

That problem amounted to $850 worth of repairs, not including two new tires. Hadn’t I come in for a free tire balancing? My wife and I walked out of the store, estimate in hand, stunned. We drove off in our wounded car, wondering how we could possibly pay for this pressing repair.

So I sat in church that last Sunday with the wheels coming off of life, no rest in sight.

After the service, I walked up to a man in my church whom I respect for his spiritual insights and his nearly thirty years experience in the car care field. He’s retired from the car repair business now, but he knows far more than I can ever hope to know. I asked what he thought I should do. He said he’d call a few people.

The next day, he knocks on our door. He had to run an errand in another part of the city and wanted to take our car to some folks he knows.

That night, he returns with our car. His people had taken care of the $850 problem and the tires. When I asked him how much I owed him, he said, “Don’t worry about that. I took care of it.”

Joe Carter at the Evangelical Outpost asked this question this week:

If the medium affects the message, how will the Christian message be affected by the new media?

When I reflect on my life, I can’t remember many sermons that stick out. Even the words of my favorites hymns don’t always surface in memory when I need them. Gustave Doré - 'The Arrival of the Good Samaritan at the Inn'I can’t remember more than hazy concepts from the blogs I’ve visited. Viral videos? Web 2.0? Dancing 3-D holograms? Heck, I can’t even tell you the movies I’ve seen in the theater in the last five years.

But I can vividly recall every single time when life beat me up and left me for dead by the side of the road and someone in the name of Jesus took me up, cleansed and bound my wounds with his or her own hands, and made certain I was cared for.

The medium of the Christian message is you and it’s me. It’s the cup we hand in person to the parched and thirsty soul.

Fifty years from now, no one will remember the name of that blogger, the genius behind that YouTube video, the author of the Web 2.0 site. Nor will we remember what all the hoopla was about.

What we will remember are those people who were there for us in tough times. Those people who invested their lives in ours by showing up on our doorstep in our bleakest hour. Those people who took the time to be Jesus for us when we needed Jesus the most.

Because 2,000 years later we still tell of the Good Samaritan. May his message—and his medium—always be our example.