Red Letters

Red Letters

Can You Change the World?

Most of you know that I’m pursuing my Doctorate at George Fox University. Love the school, the profs, the peeps. For my dissertation I will be writing a few books from my research on caring for the poor, ministering to orphans, and the theology of Hope. Hopefully, you can learn along with me. I’ll do the hard work! :)

From time to time, I will be posting about the books our cohort is reading that have to do with culture, church, and Christianity. You can follow all our posts and blogs if you like on the Dmin site. 
The first book is To Change the World by James Davison Hunter. He is interested in how Christians, and Christianity change culture. Can we change it? Is it even possible? The short answer is yes, but not the way we think. The predominant view of most American Christians is three fold: (1) “real change can proceed individually-one by one (2) Cultural change can be willed into being and (3) Change is democratic-it occurs from the bottom of from ordinary citizens (p.16). In other words, we can all be a William Wilberforce. 
Hunter says this is dead wrong. These things are important. So are “the renewal of hearts and minds of individuals, worldview education, social and political reform. It is simply to say that these things are just not decisively important if the goal is to change the world.” (p. 27)
Instead, culture is changed first from the “powerful elites” of society. These elites operate in “well-developed networks and powerful institutions” (p. 41). Ideas are important, so are individuals. But “not because they are inherently truthful or obviously correct but rather because of the way they are embedded in very powerful institutions, networks, interests, and symbols.” (p. 44)
Point number two: individuals don’t cause culture change, institutions do. 
Take how Christianity got its start for example. “Christianity’s early growth occurred through the interconnected cities of the Greco-Roman empire, cities that were often at the crossroads of important trade routes. The institutional setting of the expansion, however, was the network of the Jewish Diaspora synagogues.” (p. 49)
Back to the powerful elite concept. Hunter believes the spread of Christianity was also due to the fact that wealthy people financed the cause. It wasn’t poor fisherman like Simon (Peter) and John, they needed those with influence and money. “In each (city) Christians had made their way into elite circles of wealth, power, and culture. In each there were Christians prosperous enough to act as benefactors and the churches relied on them as such. (pp. 50-51) “It is also not incidental that with very few exceptions the church fathers-including Justin Martyr, Anthony the Great, Tertullian, Ambrose of Milan, Jerome, Basil the Great…John Chrysostom and Augustine-were born into families that were either prosperous, highly educated or of high social standing.” (p. 51)
I’ll stop at this point, but I must admit this flies in the face of everything I’ve been taught. I work with the poor for crying out loud, the least of these, and we teach them that their lives matter. They can change the world, God can use them, they are important.
A few things to consider here: (1) The Holy Spirit can use an institution, an individual, or a donkey. That fact remains true. We cannot limit God and how he works or what he does. (2) I do believe there is truth in what Hunter is saying. Even the many missionaries I know need the support of those with financial resources (the wealthy, the elite) to help them do what they do. You can’t make it as a missionary without funding. (3) And this is the most valuable for me: We all need institutions. I know many hate that word so let me change it, we all need community. Yes, God works through institutions. Be it a church, the UN, organizations like Children’s Hopechest or a community of friends. There are no lone rangers who change the world. Everyone has a community of friends behind them.
Last, I don’t think this takes away from the importance of the individual. I will never stop telling people they can change the world. God made us in His image. We have ideas and abilities that are far above what we can conceive because the Spirit of God lives in us. Keep believing you can change the world.
I know this is a bit long, and heady, but I would love to hear your thoughts. What do you think about Hunter’s conclusions? 
Comments read comments(15)
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Carl Holmes

posted September 15, 2010 at 8:36 pm

I read this book a few months ago and found it made a pretty convincing argument. It was a little disheartening to hear the way he says the little guy does not make the change, but what is an institution except a collection of little guys working together for bigger things?
It was interesting to see Andy Crouch give it such a good recommendation even though he beats his book up pretty good in part one.

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Joni Sweet

posted September 15, 2010 at 8:42 pm

Actually, I’m with Hunter on this one… it does take the resources(the wealthy, the elite) to get change in the way of poverty & that. Why? I alone can’t even begin to have a fundraiser to begin a journey of missionary work over seas or even out of town without someone kicking in for a spot a to rent, a poster board for a sign, an ad in the paper, etc. It takes a community of people to raise any kind of money & it takes (the wealthy, the elite) to bring the cash. Does this mean I cannot put my foot forward & gather heads together? No, absoluetly not… but I cannot force ppl to join in. Again, “community” effort. Same within the church bldg.
How does this all fit in with Christianity & “We cannot limit God and how he works or what he does.” WE are HIS hands & feet.
I may be WAY off in left field here but hey, I tried. LOL

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Tom Davis

posted September 15, 2010 at 8:42 pm

So true Carl. Shows a ton of character on Andy’s part.
It is a tough book to read and it challenges many of our presuppositions. But if we’re going to learn and change, we need to wrestle through these issues. What good is it if we’re always reading things we agree with?
He also hammers Focus on the Family, Chuck Colson, and others. So far, Compassion is spared! :)

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Vince Giordano

posted September 15, 2010 at 9:25 pm

Hunter definitely raises some interesting points. I think that those of us who work in arenas that are dependent on the support of others would tend to agree even. Keep this stuff coming – it was a great read.

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posted September 15, 2010 at 9:47 pm

This was very interesting! I think you balanced it out pretty well.
I would also venture to say that while maybe 1 individual can’t change the world, he/she can change one person’s world. And then that person can make a difference in someone else’s life, and so on. Isn’t that really what it’s all about?
The world will never be some sort of utopia or even “fair,” but individuals can be changed and enjoy Life from Jesus even if the world still stinks.

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posted September 15, 2010 at 10:28 pm

I think I understand the basis for Hunter’s conclusions, but I have to ask where these networks and institutions start. They don’t just appear fully developed. One day the Nazi’s didn’t exist, but they developed into a network and organization. Rebels/terrorists/guerillas are not usually powerful elites with well-developed networks, but they are using power to drive cultural change, just look at Africa. The USA was formed by desenters who refused to conform to something they felt was wrong. Individuals communicated with other individuals and came together. As they came together in unity, bound together for a common cause they made a difference and culture was affected.
I think Hunter is right that institutions bring that strength to make widespread change, but it all starts with one person who has a dream, a passion, a cause that is important enough to chase after. When they speak and the community stands behind them, a network is formed.

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Andy C.

posted September 16, 2010 at 7:39 am

Great post, Tom.
One of the interesting things that is showing up in the comment thread here is the disdain for institutions and the die-hard belief in an individual’s will-to-power. Hunter is going much further than urging Christians to co-opt “the resources(the wealthy, the elite) to get change” or “institutions bring[ing] that strength to make widespread change” – he’s saying that Christians need to be shaping and forming institutions and cultural artifacts to create a petri dish, of sorts, that will allow the formation of elites who can be that focal point or rallying voice of a broader movement.
Anti-institutionalism is the new anti-intellectualism within American Christianity. There is such a deep, knee-jerk reaction against anything institutional (and, conversely, such blind support for anything individual) that it is effectively setting up a new dualism – institutions are beyond redemption. Yet both the creation mandate in Genesis 2 and the Great Commission in Matthew 28 were pointing toward the eventual establishment of culture changing institutions.
While I am still finding Hunter’s work dizzying in its implications, I think that his assertions are right on: if what we want is culture change, we need to think and act beyond the level of individuals thinking and behaving Christianly.

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posted September 16, 2010 at 7:47 am

Really, as Jesus and the disciples went out, they did not have money.
They had all they needed, Jesus. Isn’t He more than enough for all our needs??
I think that is a western mentality, that we need money. It is the presence and reality of God that changes the world.
I look at some modern day missionaries, Mel Tari in Timor, he did not have money but God sent him out and the Kingdom of God spread.
I think of a couple of missionaries who went to China, to the walled city and ministered to prostitutes and drug dealers. They were poor, they ministered to the poor, ate with the poor, learned the language from the poor, and through loving the one in front of them, people changed. That was Heidi and Rolland Baker and Lesley-Anne Leighton.
How about Shane Claiborne in PA. He lives with the poor, shares all that he has with the poor. God is truly using him for the spread of the Kingdom.
All we need is the reality of the Kingdom of God to change the world.
Making disciples is free and loving the one in front of you is free.
Just my thoughts, thanks Tom.

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Carole Turner

posted September 16, 2010 at 9:01 am

Tom, I believe what he is saying but I also believe that our wealth today is in communication and access. Think about this blog, twitter, Facebook, etc, all the forms of social media that allow instant spreading of a message to the masses. This all used to cost a lot of money, it doesn’t now, so what used to take millionaires to accomplish now takes only the right connections-connections that are made by ordinary people.
Yes, the powerful and elite are still more in control then the masses but think about all the grass roots efforts that have caused real strides in the right direction on issues like Abortion, Human Trafficking, Clean Water, etc. All because we now have the capability to spread a message instantly and constantly, on a global scale.

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Mary Beth

posted September 16, 2010 at 12:24 pm

I agree totally with Joy. I don’t recall Jesus working with the powerful, elite institutions of his day. In the western world, we are overly focused on power, prestige, and money. This, in my opinion, is more of the secular view of ‘how to make things happen.’ Amy Carmichael was not associated with elite institutions in India and she was a huge influence there and in generations to come.

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K. Duane Carter

posted September 16, 2010 at 1:12 pm

I think Hunter’s thoughts bring more of a comprehensive, kingdom-minded strategy to the table. And please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying we cozy up to the influential because they can do something for us. However, I think Heidi Baker says it best when she says she sees the poor in Mozambique and in the halls of Harvard. There are lots of people, poor and influential, who are poor in spirit, and those people need Jesus’ love. I guess what I am saying is that God knew what He was doing in the spread of Christianity, and modern Christians need to quit bashing those in power and begin to influence them with love. That WILL change the world. Thanks for sharing this Tom.

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posted September 16, 2010 at 3:13 pm

What does it take to change the
Only the grace of GOD can change
a heart, Only the love of GOD
can renew a life; Only conviction
of the cross can save a soul!!

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Shane Robertson

posted September 16, 2010 at 9:54 pm

The little guy can make a huge difference. We have been working through the elite for decades for it to get us nowhere. Today we now have 163 million orphans in the world and networking with leaders and the “elite” has not helped the problem. What will help the problem is when we begin teaching people to love Jesus instead of trying to get to heaven. Heaven is the prize for loving Jesus, not the goal.
When we teach people to love Jesus, then we will teach what it truly means to be a follower of Jesus. Today, too many churches teach the gospel of heaven and self help. It appears that the goal is to get to heaven and become the best me I can be until I reach heaven.
That is not Christianity.
Instead,when we teach the whole gospel of salvation, compassion and justice then we, the Church will begin to produce mass amounts of people that sacrifice personal lifestyle to rescue the orphan, defend the widow and help those in need. Hundreds of thousands of Christians will adopt, support orphanages, will advocate for justice, etc…all for the glory of God.
They will be living the life of Jesus here and now and the world will experience a culture change that it never imagined.

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Melanie Strobel

posted September 16, 2010 at 11:07 pm

Tom, I love this post and frankly I see both sides of the arguement. I do however like what you said about telling the least of these, the poor, that what they say, do and believe matters. They can change the world. More importantly is raising people’s awareness when it comes to answering the call that God places inside them. Are we living the life God asks of us? If we have faith then it is very likely that God will provide the ideas, the skills and yes the resources. Funding is essential but not as essential as community (well put) and also passion. For if we are willing to live with our eyes wide open while keeping them raised toward God well anything is possible! I am also compelled to remind each and every one of us that changing the world may not be nearly as fulfilling as changing the world for one. It starts with one. BE THE CHANGE.

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Keith Seckel

posted October 4, 2010 at 8:00 pm

Interesting post. Without reading the book, or the research behind the post, my comments feel untethered, but…
It seems to me there is a difference between “this is an historical pattern we can see” and “this is the best way it could have …been”. History is rife with morally bankrupt leaders, but that is not to say there were no good leaders, or that the morally bankrupt *should* have been set in leadership.
Plus, it is one thing to say “this is an historical pattern we see” and quite another to say “therefore, this is the best way forward”. Not all verifiable data are causal, and not all trends ought to continue.
I’m not saying your conclusions are wrong, per se, just perhaps a bit short sighted? Again, maybe I need to look at the book and your research in more depth.
Also, I bristled at the idea that all missionaries need benefactors. My wife and I are missionaries and the career given me is financially sufficient. My “tent making” as it were enables us to live a life of purposeful faith while paying the bills.
Lastly, I do applaud your use of “community” vs “institution” and heartily agree that while one person may change the world, it is not done alone.
I don’t know the faith-life of John Donne, but he was spot-on about none of us being an island, entire of ourselves.

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