Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

I’d rather change the world than change a nappy (diaper)

Written by: on March 9, 2017

To change the world – James Davison Hunter


“I would suggest that a theology of faithful presence first calls Christians to attend to the people and places that they experience directly….the call of faithful presence gives priority to what is right in front of us-the community, the neighbourhood, and the city, and the people of which these are constituted. For most, this will mean a preference for stability, locality, and particularity of place and its needs.”[1]


In Practise Resurrection, Eugene Peterson draws attention to the character of Mrs Jellyby in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. She is a character obsessed with helping the people of far-off Borioboola-Gha at the expense of her own household, husband, children and immediate environment, all of whom she neglects spectacularly . For, as Peterson writes, this “telescopic philanthropy” is much easier and more romantic that living a resurrection life in the here and now:

“the very heart of the church’s life is squandered into disembodied causes and projects in far-off Borioboola-Gha by men and women who give neither time nor attention nor touch to what is going on in their home and workplace. These men and women, the considerable progeny of Mrs Jellyby, are totally absorbed in making plans, gathering support and whipping up enthusiasm for what is dramatic, romantic, challenging gospel work – and far away. Too far away for personal, hands-on involvement. Meanwhile they are far too busy to engage in the glorious practice of resurrection in caring for their own children and keeping the household clean in the tedium of the ordinary.”[2]


This appears to be very much the argument of James Davison Hunter. The efforts of Christians to “change their world”, to save America and its culture within a generation from its downward slide into secularism and godlessness is a false construct, a chasing after the wind. Whether the progressive Left or the conservative Right, Christians in America have been mistaken when they have tried to fight the culture wars by political means. The juxtaposition of Christianity with the nation of America is a false one, and the political means used to fight for Christian rights and beliefs – ultimately futile.


Hunter outlines the various responses of Christians over recent times to the loss of a Christian-influenced culture in America – “defensive against, relevance to and purity from” and ultimately argues for a fourth way – “faithful presence within”.[3] For him, it is Christians living out a faithful presence in their community, their tasks and their sphere of influence that will ultimately make the difference, not some supercharged effort to change the political weather and to regain America for God. Christians must move away from “ressentiment”, from a theology of negation, and affirm and support anything and everything good in culture (Christian or none) while living distinct and different lives in contrast to the aspects of culture that are counter the kingdom of God.


What does ring true for me in all of this is a movement away from grandiose claims and statements of Christians that they are going to change the world, towards a more modest, ordinary, subversive, salt-and-light approach to live locally – in this  place, with this people, at this time, recognising the gift of limits, being present in this moment, respecting this environment, seeing God’s Kingdom come here.


At the same time, we need wise leadership and strategic recognition that Christians are needed in all areas of culture, and that institutions remain highly important when it comes to influencing and changing culture. This is not the work of a generation, not a quick fix – but a long obedience in the same direction.


Changing the world as a concept is sometimes easier than changing me, or seeing change effected in a church or local community in which I live and practise resurrection, year in and year out.


It’s much more interesting and exciting to change the world than to change a nappy (diaper).

Now that’s a challenge.


[1] Hunter, James Davison. To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. 1st edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010, 253.

[2] Peterson, Eugene. Practise Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing up in Christ. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2010, 229.

[3] Hunter (2010), 237.

About the Author

Geoff Lee

12 responses to “I’d rather change the world than change a nappy (diaper)”

  1. Mary Walker says:

    “Changing the world as a concept is sometimes easier than changing me, or seeing change effected in a church or local community in which I live and practise resurrection, year in and year out.”
    Thanks, Geoff. I am distressed to say that your observation is very true here in many churches in the US. (how does Hunter’s critique compare in the UK?) I can only speak for my own church. People are great at giving but we have very few involved in community activities. It’s easier to just throw another $5 in the plate.
    Yet, it seems even one individual can do so much sometimes. The problem for me, I admit, is whether or not I see me as a part of the solution or if I will just let my Pastor or some other leader do it.
    And so how many nappies have you changed?

    • Geoff Lee says:

      I have changed a few in my day Mary! My kids are 15 and 12 now, though, so I am a little out of practice. I may resurrect my nappy-changing skills as and when the grand kids begin to arrive!

  2. Geoff,
    I think you are right on – I rankled at Hunter’s assertion that we can’t change the world – because I would argue that when we faithfully attend to what God has put before us – even if that is a dirty nappie – then we can and in fact do change the world or rather we are taking part of the mission of God to transform the world into the Kingdom of God…..
    In the end, I think you are right that this is what Hunter means, and I am probably getting hung up on the semantics.
    Good and insightful as always, thanks, Geoff.

  3. So true Geoff! I often confess to my clients when they comment on my insight or help with their issues, “Well, it’s much easier to solve your issues than my own.” Like them, I need the help of others, provoking insight, providing help, and pointing out the blind spots in me to produce growth and change. This can be a bit more arduous and uncomfortable then commenting or focusing on the change of others or in churches. Great reminder to change ourselves before changing others. Could it be said, “Change your own nappy before you change the nappies of others?” You heard it here first, and you can quote me.

  4. Stu Cocanougher says:

    I have always heard that the first step to solve a problem is to identify the problem. I also know that it is much easier to identify the problems in the world than to identify the problems in our own lives.

  5. Geoff,
    My first experience with a Nappy was with my last child. They were given to me as a hand-me-down from a coworker who was from England. I have never seen them before. I must admit when I first tried to use them I was a bit confused but after I figured them out and realized I didn’t need diaper pins and there would no longer be episodes of sticking myself trying not to stick the baby I was glad to have them, In fact, I ordered more of them.

  6. Geoff, I love that you brought Peterson and Mrs. Jellyby into this conversation! The example of being so focused on the world at large that we forget to care for our own community is so good.
    “Changing the world as a concept is sometimes easier than changing me, or seeing change effected in a church or local community in which I live and practise resurrection, year in and year out.” It seems that everything we have read this semester has told us we have to be in this for the long haul, not expect quick changes. It’s interesting that Heath and Potter said we must work within the system (change legislation, etc.) while Hunter says we can’t expect to change the culture that way. I think it is more both/and. If your community and calling is to political movements, give your faithful presence to that call. If your community and calling is to pastoring, give you faithful presence there. But either way, don’t forget that faithful presence is also required in every interaction along the way.
    I so appreciate the way you spark thoughts on these topics, Geoff!

  7. Katy Lines says:

    Funny you should mention nappies and the unremarkable ordinariness of ministering where we are. For full disclosure, as an adolescent who sought to serve God whole-heartedly, I naively believed being a missionary was the most faithful way to serve God. Fulfilling my dream, I discovered that the adventure of mission work quickly settles into humdrum everyday life that must be lived out and struggled through, relationships built– just like what’s needed “back at home.”

    Second full disclosure– my husband spent all yesterday caring for our friends’ 9mo baby, including changing multiple diapers. Our friends couldn’t fathom how someone would be willing to do that for them.

  8. We;ll said Geoff!!! I agree that we paint with a wide brush when stating that we can single handily change the world through our own individual actions or “gimmicks”. It is something that comes over time. I appreciate when you said ” This is not the work of a generation, not a quick fix – but a long obedience in the same direction.” The key to this is long obedience in the same direction. Often times we adjust our course when we do not get the immediate results we were looking to receive. In doing so, we miss the blessing that comes in the unfolding of the process!

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