In his book Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah takes note of this. Eighty-one percent of the American people say that an individual should arrive at his or her own religious beliefs independent of any church. The result of this religious individualism is a vague form of spirituality that requires next to nothing in reference to a change in one's behavior. In other words, when we get to define what is true for us religiously, we get to define what is right for us morally, and thus what becomes wrong for us morally is usually quite small. We arrive at faith on our own terms; terms that make no demand on our behavior. This is the scandal of self-defined salvation.
Bellah tells the story of Sheila Larson, a young nurse who describes her faith as "Sheilaism." She says, "I believe in God. I'm not a religious fanatic. I can't remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It's Sheilaism. Just my own little voice."
Sheilaism can make no sense of Jesus' teaching in John 15:1-11. "Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me." It is a mistake to interpret Jesus' words simply as how I as an individual should be related to Jesus; it is a reference to our communal life together as the people of God, the Church, as we remain in Christ.
To understand more fully what Jesus is talking about here, we need to remember the call of Abraham and the promise God made to him. God came to Abraham in the leisure of his retirement and commanded him to go west to a land that God would show him. God promised Abraham amidst the scattered peoples of the earth, "I will make of you a great nation. Your descendents will number the grains of sand on the seashore." It was God's intention to make of Abraham's offspring one united humanity by which there would be no more divisions. It is St. Paul's conviction that in Jesus God has finally fulfilled his promise to Abraham. In the church, called into existence by Jesus, that new humanity is formed where all the distinctions that the world deems important, distinctions of gender, class, and race, no longer matter.
In other words, salvation is not first and foremost about God saving individuals. Salvation first and foremost concerns creating a new humanity. When individuals come to know Christ as their Lord and Savior, this is not just some personal thing between Jesus and the individual "I"; it is about becoming part of that new people, the church. This is very difficult for us to get a hold of in our highly individualistic society. We believe that we are individuals first and a community second. In other words, the community is here for me. But the New Testament has the opposite view. The community is primary, the individual is secondary. The community is not here for me; I am here for the community.
This is the reason that the church has become irrelevant in modern, popular notions of salvation, or at least not as important as it should be. We are scandalized by Martin Luther's affirmation, "There is no salvation outside the church." We have been hoodwinked into the very unbiblical view that faith is primarily about God and me and no one else, but the New Testament operates on the assumption that faith is primarily about God and us-- the Body of Christ. Thus, in the New Testament view, Christian discipleship is not possible apart from the church. We are the branches connected to the vine. We are the Body of Christ. We are the new humanity. We are the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham. We are saved, not for ourselves, but from ourselves for the pleasure of God's purposes.