The Failure of Individualism

Ok, so here’s the story.

Yesterday I saw this tweeted and flipped my lid: “If you want to stop human trafficking, make disciples.” It was attributed to Francis Chan at Passion 2012.

As a self-contained statement, I find this admonition to be incredibly damaging. What better way to distract people from the real human needs in the world than to spiritualize the needs of the people around us?

In the immediate context of the talk, Chan went on to speak of the people around us as possible perpetrators. And so, within these few sentences, the way we’re supposed to understand the world seems to be something like this: If everyone loves Jesus, we won’t have to deal with human trafficking and sex slavery anymore.

Such an assessment is naïve, to say the least. There are greater powers at work in the world than the power of individual human hearts that act out of accord with the will of God.

On Monday I was talking about the hot topics before us, and mentioned “the gospel” as a holistic entity as one of those hot topics. We continue to need to learn that the purposes of God are bigger than simply the rectification of persons.

I found that 90ish seconds of Chan’s talk to be dangerous for this reason. People who already assume an individualistic gospel hear an individualistic means toward overcoming a pervasive evil, and are sent on their way to ignore the problem by telling people God loves them and has a wonderful plan for their lives.

We hear what we already know, and I worry about how 40,000 college students and 1.5 million online viewers heard that snippet, or read it in Tweet form.

If you want to end human trafficking, work to end human trafficking. Give to International Justice Mission. Learn from Not For Sale, and support their work. Find out where human trafficking is likely at work in your area (find someone to show you the “massage parlors” with the bars on the windows and inward facing security cameras).

Disciple making in itself, keeping Christians from soliciting prostitutes, is never going to solve the problem of human trafficking.

Now, having said all that, the larger context of Chan’s talk leads me to believe and hope that he would agree with my concern, and with the trajectory of sending people to work, truly work, for the freeing of prisoners.

The talk itself was about believing the Bible and doing what it says. He tells a story about throwing a banquet for a bunch of poor people as a self-imposed exercise in obeying rather than explaining-away Jesus’ instruction to do so.

He exhorts the audience to believe that the power we see at work in Jesus is still at work today–to heal, and to free the captive!

The very beginning of the talk was Chan celebrating a talk that had come before his, one in which someone was talking about kids trafficked for sex, and he was passionately responding, stirring the crowd up again with the desire to respond and act to free those kids from slavery.

So what happened in that 90 second piece that got me riled up?

One more piece of context: the entire talk was shaped as a call to passionate, faithful, believing discipleship propelled by an individual’s own reading of the Bible without anyone telling us what it says other than what we can see for ourselves.

Individually faithful discipleship. Driven by individual Bible reading. We could talk all day about his hermeneutics and the like, but here’s what I think happened: the “stand against sex trafficking” piece was not part of the planned talk, but was something Chan was passionate about and worked into his talk at several points because of the previous, powerful speaker.

And, as several folks have alerted me to, Chan does tons, including giving millions of dollars, to help rid the world of this scourge.

But, the message of “be and make faithful individuals” is actually a poor container for holding the social justice message that Chan also finds to be biblical. In this brief, 2ish minute riff, the theme of his talk itself (be and make faithful disciples) was brought into conversation with an issue that didn’t fit the topic (end human trafficking), with unfortunate results.

The 90 seconds troubles me, because it captures one possible way of construing the relationship between personal discipleship and the world “out there” that I think too many Christians buy into. I fear that hearing those words from Chan has the power to perpetuate not merely wrong-headed engagement with human trafficking, but a divinely approved withdrawal from the issue. I don’t think it was the best of what Chan had to say that night about human trafficking.

Much better was his strong affirmation at the end: this Jesus we serve really does have the power to free prisoners–so let’s go do it.

22 thoughts on “The Failure of Individualism”

  1. Chan’s statement is befuddling if I am understanding it. Since when does disciple making put an end to evil let alone a specific evil like this one? As you noted, this is possible if everyone became a disciple of Christ, but that isn’t going to happen, ever. Very odd solution.

  2. “… the block quote underscores how devastating the individualistic gospel is for those who need the liberating power of God to be at work through God’s people.”

    Daniel – with all due respect, if you are unaware of the larger context of Chan’s message then this post was made in ignorance.

    I wasn’t there to hear his lesson either, but I can tell you that Francis personally donates about 90% of his annual income to fight trafficking (which amounts to millions). I imagine his point was that we need MORE people to combat problems like this – thus the plea to make disciples.

    Again, I wasn’t there so I don’t know, but you weren’t either so how can your post be a fair critique?

  3. “Daniel – with all due respect, if you are unaware of the larger context of Chan’s message then this post was made in ignorance.”

    I totally agree with this statement. I would assume that from the outstanding statements you made that you did NOT listen to Chan’s whole message. If you had you would have had an understanding of these tweets. Don’t critique what you didn’t hear for yourself.

    His message was to encourage students to embrace discipleship and to make the most of the very powerful Word of God we have in both the Bible and His Holy Spirit. He expressed his desire to see the students to let the Word make a change in their life that would stir in them and perhaps move them to get more involved in the world including putting a stop to human trafficking.

  4. Amen and amen. I agree that bigger vision is needed to address social justice issues such as this, though everyone can do at least one of the steps on your list. Similar efforts are needed for environmental issues and education as well.

    All that said, it is also important to remember that our efforts are all signs of the Kingdom–partial and provisional. Until Christ returns, there will always be something missing no matter how many disciples we make. Still, it is our task to represent the full reign of Jesus to the best of our ability.

  5. With respect, I think you have misinterpreted Chan’s remarks last night. I listened to his whole talk (it’s still available for you to also watch the entire thing if you choose) but he did not at any time advocate forgetting about trafficking in lieu of creating a safe environment for us to appease ourselves. Rather, the tweet you reference came at the end of his talk, was supplement to his overall point of learning what the Bible says and then doing it. The danger in failing to do that is the likelihood a person will be taken for a fool and will follow lies because they merely sound like they could be true or they make us feel good. Chan advocated going to the least of these, not just sitting by and letting others do it. His illustration came from 1 Samuel 13 (I believe; my notes are elsewhere right now) and was a challenge to be on the forefront of God’s work. Yes, the gospel is holistic, but each individual among the global church has to make an individual decision. Why would we ignore making disciples of individuals? The command of Jesus was to go into all the world and make disciples. The answer to all the world’s problems is Jesus. We introduce the world to Jesus by following His command. What is the alternative that you might propose?

    As a matter of interest perhaps, the conference where Chan spoke last night has raised over $1 million for trafficking causes, including the IJM, in the past 3 days. Today they gave $100,000 to the city of Atlanta to help fund a Special Victims’ Unit specifically targeting child exploitation in that city, which is a major hub of human trafficking. A group of many individuals, disciples of Jesus, that collectively work together to bring light into the darkness: that’s what happened in Atlanta over the past few days.

    Forgive me, but I don’t understand your statement of the “gospel” of isolated individuals getting their lives on track before Jesus being something the church needs to “get over.” I would welcome an explanation because that doesn’t make sense to me.

  6. Thank you for so effectively demonstrating what happens what we take things out of context. If you had listened to the ENTIRE message, you would know that Francis Chan was actually saying the exact opposite of what you’ve concluded he was saying from that one soundbite. He wasn’t telling us to go hand out tracts on the streets. He was saying that we are to spread the gospel with our hands and feet – get out and DO what the Bible says, instead of just sitting around reading it. When God’s people put the gospel into action and bring the message of hope, healing, grace and freedom found only in Christ, slaves are freed.

    Also, if you’d done a little research into what Passion is doing this year, (or, if you’d checked a Twitter feed), you would know that this year, they are raising money for the two organizations you mentioned, as well as several others in Atlanta, the US and the world.

    There was absolutely nothing in Chan’s message that was “individualistic”, unless you consider encouraging people to read the Bible themselves instead of trusting others to read and interpret it for them as individualistic. And if that’s the case, Acts 17:11 is about nothing more than individualism.

  7. He’s urging people to live as faithful disciples of Christ & make faithful disciples of Christ. If we all lived like that then we would do your 3 steps. We would go & save these girls. That’s his point.

  8. Dr. Kirk,

    I had just listened to Francis Chan’s message myself. And he did say that making disciples is the solution to human trafficking.

    However, he did follow up that statement by sharing the story of Jonathan and his armor bearer in 1 Samuel 14. Jonathan’s faith gave him the boldness to assault a large Philistine camp when Saul and the rest of the army were too afraid to act. The ground shook and the Philistines panicked, and when Saul saw this he then commanded the army to attack. As they were winning the battle, the rest of the Israelites hiding in caves joined the rout.

    I say this because I agree that making disciples is a solution to human trafficking and a host of injustices in the world. That is because I do not think that making disciples is limited to just verbally preaching the Gospel or handing out tracts. Like Jonathan, we can make disciples through actions that can only be explained by faith in God. Jonathan’s actions caused Saul, the army, and even the ones hiding in caves to act. I did not hear that we should “forget about human trafficking” in his message, but instead to blaze a trail where there is none to faithfully act on the Gospel. You listed some suggestions that seem like great ideas to start.

    For the others that God wills to verbally preach the Gospel or pass out tracts, I’m sure that their sincere, faithful work will not be in vain to touch people’s lives and alleviate injustice as well.

  9. I want to thank everyone who Tweeted, FBd, and Commented to me to get my act together on this post, and to listen to the Chan talk before ranting about it.

    Individualism is antithetical to the gospel, as my initial post remarked–and you all helped me come around to a better understanding of what Chan was doing in the talk. It is much appreciated.

    His passion for people actually acting to end trafficking was clear.

    1. It seems to me that a lot depends on what we hear in the words “making disciples”. Could it not be argued that actively working to address all the social issues involved in human trafficking is precisely what a disciple would do? I’m guessing you didn’t hear it that way because of the wider context of evangelical Christianity (which Chan is certainly a part of), where “make disciples” can seem reduced to a project to get someone to pray the sinners prayer, get them on a plan of daily Bible reading and prayer, and make sure they come to church and stop having sex with anyone they aren’t married to (which would of course include young women caught in sexual slavery). With this understanding of discipleship, then of course ‘making disciples’ is a reductive solution to such a huge problem. But I believe it’s possible to expand and redeem the term, looking more at what following Jesus’ radical project can look like in our complex, beautiful and ugly world.

  10. The point you’re making shouldn’t be missed just because you may (or may not) have misrepresented Mr. Chan’s talk. Your point is one that is critically important and one that most lay people (like myself) don’t understand. Most North American Christians DO take an individualistic view of Christianity. We need scholars like yourself to be telling us otherwise in ways we can understand.

  11. Make disciples of the good news of Jesus Christ. What do you think that means? If you look at the BIG picture, it certainly means a lot more than bringing some person to a “faith decision”, it means to teach them in a way to impact their world-view so that they together will everyone will understand the fundamentals of justice. Without the good news, whether one think this good news is contained only in Christianity or also in other doctrines, there is no justice in the world, only self-seeking human animals acting on instinct. Look at the big picture, the Good News is the foundation of a humane world.

  12. Part of the problem here (and I see Daniel has changed the post) is Twitter itself. On Twitter there is no context. Twitter encourages the spread brief aphorisms which have no context.

  13. Further to Craig L. Adams’ point, whoever tweets implies that the statement can be understood without further context, unless specifically noted otherwise.

    Further to Jay’s point, we need a greater appreciation of what it means to make a person a disciple of Jesus Christ. Such a person goes to Jesus daily – and throughout the day – seeking moral direction from the fountainhead of morality. If Jesus wants such a person to become actively engaged in anti-human trafficking activities, He will direct that person. We are not to make anti-human trafficker activists, we are to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

    Further to AymieJoi’s point, I don’t get why “individualism” was blamed in the title of the post. It was never defined or demonstrated. I don’t see what it has to do with the post.

  14. Perhaps to further challenge the tweet… Since when do disciples not struggle with sexual sin or participate in supporting sexual slavery?

    Unfortunately even sincere disciples continue to struggle with sin and temptation. Looking at the history of the church, being a disciple didn’t automatically abolish slavery even in the church. Plenty of disciples today are caught up in activity that feeds the sinful system of sex slavery. I wish it weren’t true, but disciples in our country watch porn and go to massage parlors.

    1. Your last sentence refers to churchgoers, not disciples of Jesus Christ.

      This is my point: we have so devalued the biblical call to discipleship that it has become equated with churchgoing or with becoming a Christian.

      A disciple of Jesus follows and learns from Him as Peter, James, John, Matthew, and the others did.

      1. No, Mike, actual disciples fall, actual disciples sin, just like Peter and the other disciples who were weak in Jesus’ time of trial. I am in no way trying to devalue the biblical call to discipleship. If you knew me you would know the kind of discipleship I am about. Let those without sin cast the first stone!

  15. ‘If Jesus wants such a person to become actively engaged in anti-human trafficking activities, He will direct that person. We are not to make anti-human trafficker activists, we are to make disciples of Jesus Christ.’

    I agree with this. I wonder how many of the commentators are actively involved in anto-trafficking? If they are not does this mean they are not disciples of Christ? Does it mean they are being unfaithful to the gospel?

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