Tuesday, July 21, 2009

How to change the world

I read something yesterday that gave me a whole new perspective on the mandate Jesus gave us to make disciples of all nations.

In an earlier post I reviewed Mark Driscoll's book, Vintage Church. In his last chapter, entitled "How Could the Church Help Transform the World?", Driscoll tells the story of a trip he once took to a remote third-world village. In this village was a river polluted with garbage and human waste. The stench of it made him sick, but what he saw was even worse: children swimming in the river, women washing clothes in the river, people even drinking from the river.

Driscoll uses the image of that river to drive home a radical but obvious point. To change the situation of those poor villagers would require much more than trying to clean up just that section of the river. In fact, attempting to do so would be a waste of time, since new garbage would just flow right in to replace the old. "Instead," writes Driscoll, "the only hope was a complete transformation upstream wherever the filth originally entered the river."

Note the word "upstream." Change must take place at the top, where the dirty water originates.

Driscoll refers to an address by James Davison Hunter, Professor of Religion, Culture and Social Theory at the University of Virginia, given in 2002 to the Board of Trustees of The Trinity Forum. You can download the address here. In his address Hunter said that Christians have "extraordinary, even unprecedented, opportunities to strategically engage the world we live in for good." But we must adopt a new way of thinking.

Most of us, according to Hunter, believe cultural transformation occurs by multiplying the number of people who believe in God and live by godly values. The way I've heard this put many times by Christians is, "changing the world one life at a time." The problem with this theory is that it's not borne out by the facts. The vast majority of Americans adhere to some kind of religious faith, yet secularism has won the day. The church seems to be declining in influence, if anything. By contrast, think of the sweeping and permanent cultural changes that have been introduced by small groups of highly influential people. The Jewish community in America is one such example. The homosexual community is another. Gay people make up at most 3% of the US population, but in a short time they have transformed the way homosexuals are portrayed, perceived, and treated. Hunter says that out of the billions of human beings who have lived since 600 B.C., as few as 150 to 3,000 people are responsible for the thoughts and ideas that now define our culture.

Hunter and Driscoll say that if we want to change the world, we must go upstream. We must capture the hearts and minds of that relatively small group of people who hold the "cultural capital."

Driscoll writes,
"Culture changes from the top down and rarely from the bottom up. ...most cultural creation and transformation begin upstream and flow downstream. This is because the cultural gatekeepers who decide what does and does not go into the river of culture are upstream. They run the law schools, fashion industry, banking industry, political parties, media outlets, and the like. They decide which bands are signed to record contracts and placed on the radio, which films are funded and distributed by the movie studios, which clothes are sold at the store, and which books are published. This is because those who hold the cultural capital are also networked with those who hold the funding capital, media capital, and political capital, and together they are the cultural gatekeepers who decide what goes into the river of culture, how it is introduced, and when."
If this is true, the goal of cultural transformation will not be reached by changing one heart at a time - although we should continually share the gospel with individuals and labor for their conversion. Driscoll and Hunter would say that we must do more. We must take the gospel upstream, where the world changers live and move. If we could reach out more effectively to Hollywood executives, musicians, college presidents and professors, newspaper editors, politicians, judges, news commentators, and the like - if the gospel could penetrate these strata of society more powerfully - if we could equip and send people into these circles of influence - if we could plant more churches in large cities where the cultural capital is found - we would see dramatic world change.

Hunter calls leaders of change the "elites, gatekeepers who provide creative direction and management to the leading institutions" of society. They and their networks of fellow leaders have the credibility and authority to be taken seriously. They have the brains, connections, power, and money required to "shape and direct the lives of individuals." Like the headwaters of a stream, they create the ideas and values that eventually get swallowed by the masses. I like the way Hunter puts it: they are the ones who have the ability "to name things." They are the world changers. If they can come to love the gospel, think of the dramatic effect that would have on the rest of the world.

Hunter ended his 2002 address by pointing to Jesus and his followers:
"...even Jesus created a network of disciples (who, over time, became spiritual and cultural leaders). Though they originated on the periphery of the social world of that age, they moved to the provincial center of Jerusalem, and then, within a generation, to the center of the ancient world - Rome. They too created new institutions that not only articulated but embodied an alternative to the reigning ways of life of that time."
Driscoll's main point in his book is that we need to plant churches in urban centers. I see that, but my thoughts were drawn to the amazing opportunity we at UPC already have. Around the corner from our church is the University of Central Florida. Fast becoming one of the largest universities in America, UCF is equipping men and women for influence at the center of culture. Graduates of UCF walk into leadership in fields of science, industry, the arts, education, law, medicine, politics, etc. What more could we be doing to reach them during the short time they are here in east Orlando? How can we build multiple bridges of relationship with the faculty and administration? What can we do to give more support to Ande Johnson and Reformed University Fellowship? How can UPC become more true to its name: "University Presbyterian Church"?

Incidentally, not to be ignored is the fact that a highly respected liberal arts college - Rollins College in Winter Park - is just 10 miles from our church in the other direction. We already have a Rollins professor worshiping with us. Additionally, Full Sail University is just 6 miles from UPC and is one of the premier media arts schools in the world. Several students and teachers from Full Sail have made UPC their church home over the years.

As Mark Driscoll says, "...we were created to make culture and spread across the earth to create culture." God has been very gracious to our church. He has given us 26 acres of land in close proximity to several major universities. We don't have far to go upstream.


Matthaeus Flexibilis said...

Thanks, Mike. My feeling is that it's not either a bottom-up or top-down approach, but both-and.

When I think of the top-down approach, I think of Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority, who wielded their influence in Washington in order to bring change. To my mind that project was largely a failure (e.g. on stemming the tide of abortions through legal means), and I doubt that Driscoll desires a return to that model.

If we stick with the abortion example, it seems that we should put lots of energy into the bottom-up approach of crisis pregnancy centers and changing one heart at a time. We shouldn't stop the fight for overturning Roe v. Wade or for expanding restrictions on abortion, but we shouldn't focus all our attention on just one of these paths either. It's a both-and approach that's needed.

Does that gel at all with what Driscoll and Hunter are saying?

Mike said...

The "both-and" approach occurred to me too, Matt, and surely it's correct. Both guys stress that the one-at-a-time strategy must continue. In fact, Hunter says "the renewal of our hearts and minds is not only important, it is essential - indeed a precondition for a truly just and humane society." But then he adds, "But by itself, it will not accomplish the objectives and ideals we hope for."

Driscoll deals with the political approach, and says it won't work for 3 reasons: "One, true Christians are a minority group, so their candidates struggle to be elected, particularly in major cities, which are far more liberal and secular. Second, politics follows the culture but does not create it, because politics is downstream from the culture. Third, even if the laws are good and just, without regenerated hearts and supporting communities such as churches and families, the laws will not be obeyed, just as God's good laws are regularly known yet disobeyed."

Hunter cites the Reformation and the abolitionist movement in Great Britain as examples of world changing starting at the top. The Reformation succeeded not only because God was behind it and Luther & Calvin were great men, but (humanly speaking) because the German nobility gave it financial and political capital. Wilberforce succeeded thanks to not only his own political vision but the literary, cultural, and economic capital of the Clapham Circle. So what Hunter is saying is that cultural transformation is effected "not by lone individuals but rather by institutions and the elites who lead them."

Hunter would probably say Falwell failed because though the movement united bunches of Christians, it did not really go all the way upstream. It did not overlap with the elites and institutions that possess the economic & cultural capital of America.

Here's Hunter's thesis in a nutshell: "overlapping networks of leaders and overlapping resources, all operating in the center or peak institutions - in common purpose...are the practical dynamics of world changing. These are the conditions under which ideas finally have consequences."

I'd be interested in hearing him speak to the abortion issue.