There is a well-known ancient Chinese folk poem called, “The Ballad of Mulan.” The poem centers on a brave young woman who goes in disguise as a man to enlist in the Imperial army in order to fight in the place of her disabled father.
In 1998, Disney released the animated movie, “Mulan” based on this ancient character. The movie was a huge success, bringing in more than $300 million. Almost a year later, Disney released the film in China – thinking the East would embrace a movie centered around Chinese culture.
The movie absolutely flopped. Many in Eastern cultures were even angered. Why?
To Eastern cultures, the ancient poem represented two key values: Community and Family Duty. In their view, Mulan was a hero because she did what was best for her people, at great personal cost, in order to preserve the honor of her family.
In Disney’s version, Mulan’s journey was focused on herself. It was a great story of individualism and personal heroism. In the movie, Mulan sees her opportunity to join the army as a way to throw off an oppressive culture of conformity and truly find herself. Her leap of faith was a way to make her mark despite her family’s wishes.
To Chinese viewers in the East, Mulan was a narcissistic, disrespectful, self-centered teenager who disgraced her family, culture and many other things her culture stood for. To American viewers in the West, she was a hero!
We live in a culture and time that is hyper-focused on the individual. The idea of an individual throwing off family, expectations, outside identity and going on a journey of self-discovery is the American story. It is the central premise of the vast majority of our movies – particularly those targeted at children. It’s the reason the parents die at the beginning of every Disney movie. We like to see main characters find their own way, their own name, their own individual place in the world. It pulls at our sense of need for individual success and validation.
We see the world through the individualistic lens of Me. But how might this lens affect the way we see the church?
Often when we relay the Gospel narrative, it is told as God having a great plan for your (singular) life. We say Jesus died for you (singular) so that you (singular) can be set free from your (singular) sin, in order to become all that God has uniquely designed you (singular) to be. While this is true, is that the story of the Bible? Is that the whole Gospel?
In John 17, we have Jesus’s high priestly prayer given before His betrayal in the garden. After praying for the disciples specifically, He said, “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one.”
Likewise, when Peter addressed his readers in 1 Pet. 2:9-10, he wrote, “But you (plural) are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you (plural) may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you (plural) out of darkness into his marvelous light.” When you read that verse, do you read it as a verse about you, the individual, or about us, the church, the people of God?
All the way back to Genesis, we are told about a people God would take as His own possession. The New Testament speaks in terms of a family, a united structure, “one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6).
The Bible speaks of unity not as individualistic sovereignty, but as a collective united body of individual parts. But the emphasis is continually on the body, not the parts. Do we have personal responsibility and individual callings within the body? Absolutely. Church unity does not mean uniformity. However, our particular giftings are not the focus of the body, but a function of the body.
How can we fight against this individualistic tendency in the church for the glory of God? Here are a few simple suggestions:
- When reading you in the Scriptures (particularly the epistles), think plural instead of singular. Ask how these commands and exhortations might be worked out in community. Think We instead of In most cases in the Bible, “you” is actually plural.
- Be plugged in with believers who are different from you. The church needs a variety of parts working cohesively toward one common goal. Therefore, we need great diversity in age, ethnicity, socio-economic status, and other areas in order to see the greatest growth take place. When we see the same Spirit at work in very different people, we are reminded that there is more that unites us than separates us. This is one reason you need to be a committed member of a local church.
- Celebrate what unites us. We must center our church gatherings on fellowship of the Spirit through the Word of God. The Gospel is good news that transcends culture, borders, eras, races, ages and capabilities. May we focus on Jesus as the center of all things. May we seek unity even when it’s hard. May we strive for the good of our brothers and sisters in Christ over our own comfort. Let every voice from every place say with unity, “Jesus is better!”
This side of heaven, we will never see complete church unity. While it IS a reality in Christ through the Spirit, it is also something that must be fought for every day. We must strive to attain what is already true about us – especially when it’s hard.
Therefore, rather than approaching the Word and the church with a me-centered attitude and expectation, let us adopt what Paul encourages in Eph. 4:2-3: an attitude of, “humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
And may God be glorified not just through our own lives, but in the church from generation to generation (Eph. 3:20-21).