INDIVIDUALISM AND COLLECTIVISM
Individualism and collectivism are two views of culture widely accepted by many disciplines. While “there is no single definition” of culture or its subgroups, these two terms describe worldviews of culture used to help define the term. (Estep and Kim, 2010, p275) These terms are found not only in the text of our class but in many other theological textbooks and reference works in many of the social sciences. Understanding their definitions, how they compare and contrast each other and how they can each impact our personal ministry or leadership is a worthwhile challenge.
They are very different. Our textbook does a nice job of summarizes some their differences. (Estep and Kim, 2010, p276) Collectivism views society as one big family, all needing each other. It is the “we” perspective on life. We should all be connected, flexible to the needs of others and completely public about all parts of our life. We should work hard to fit in to society and help the collective group. All that matters is that the group succeeds. It’s all about the team. The most important thing in life is to do your duty and serve the whole of society. It’s not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country that matters most, to paraphrase a popular President. To succeed is to be lost in the group. Generally, countries with communist or socialist backgrounds are considered examples of collectivism. South Korea is a good example.
Individualism is what the root word implies, about the individual. It is the “I” perspective on life. We should respect others while prioritizing personal achievement. We should be independent, connected to other only as much as is necessary to succeed. We should be private about our lives. Being a part of a group is acceptable but not required. Life is not a team sport, but an individual event. Another popular President called personally for the leader of another country to tell down the walls around his society. He didn’t call on the country to do so. He called on the individual. To succeed is to win the gold medal or be the team leader. Generally, countries with democratic backgrounds are considered examples of individualism. The United States is a good example.
How does the understanding of these two worldviews impact the strategy of a missionary or an individual on a mission? It is about knowing the audience. Understanding the context or perspective from which a person hears your message can go a long way in crafting a successful message. If your listener is not hearing your message, you will not be effective. How do you put idea to use or to the test? In presenting the idea of salvation to a person or people group with a collective background, presenting it in a manner that speaks to a shared-experience would be welcomed. Salvation is an experience that can be shared with others. It can lead to the inclusion in a group of believers who support and love each other commonly called the church. As a Christian, you become part of the largest more successful belief group in human history. You can be part of serving the God of all the Earth. You can one day sing in the heavenly choir! All God’s people will come to your support and assistance once you because part of “God’s people”. It is a very theologically sound presentation.
A listener with an individualistic world view would hear this message quite differently. If presented as just described, they would quickly leave the building! They would have no desire to accept salvation. A different, equally theologically sound approach could be much more effective. Salvation is an individual experience. If in doubt, ask the thief on the cross. He had no group to join or support. Salvation is also private. If needed, it can be accomplished privately without even say an audible word. The salvation experience and the resulting walk with God are the ultimate of individual experiences, leading to the most intimate, personal relationship with another person possible, a personal relationship with Jesus. Creating an accurate message with the audience in mind is a strategy for success employed by most successful communicators.
But wait, shouldn’t we just present the message and let the Holy Spirit do the rest? Sounds like the most “spiritual” approach! God did give us the Holy Spirit as our guide and partner in these endeavors. He also gave us a real-life example on Earth to follow. His name was Jesus.
Christ’s ministry was full of example after example of tailoring a message to fit the audience. He asked questions at the temple as a boy, certainly the most respectful way to get the attention of the scholars there. (Luke 2:39-52) He spoke with the woman at the well putting his message into the context of her life. (John 4:1-42) Understanding the perspective of the listener and molding your message in a way that helps them better understand it is a successful strategy modeled for us by the most effective missionary of all time.
In much the same way understanding the worldview of your audience can make you a more effective missionary it can make you a more effective leader. The goal of a leader is to guide a group to success. If the group does not understand the message or the goal, success is unlikely. Helping the group hear and clearly understand the message or task is greatly enhanced by presenting it in a way that is respectful and understanding of the context from which they will hear that message or task. It is all about great communication.
These two world views may seem obvious to some. I must admit that I had never considered them in this context at all before this week’s assignments. These two perspectives help me understand many of the cultural issues I have seen and grown to respect in coworkers I have from different cultures. I need to more carefully consider my approach to them both from a secular leadership and a ministry point of view.
Estep, James R. and Jonathan H. Kim. 2010. Christian Formation, Integrating Theology and Human Development. B&H Publishing Group.