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

Jazz and the gospel

Written by: on March 15, 2018

To set the stage for reading this post, put on your earbuds and begin by clicking this link and streaming content while you read and respond. I apologize in advance for any commercials. ?

James Davison Hunter’s monumental book, To Change the World, shifts the territory under which most modern Christianity struggles to pursue its mission as we serve God. While most of us have been raised to labour, advocate, and pursue substantive change in our world as a result of our perceived calling to “make a difference” and fulfill the Great Commission, Hunter disrupts this emphasis with his call to just be.

After many decades, billions of dollars, and a never-ending struggle, Christianity has little to demonstrate in terms of shaping recent Western culture. This anxious Sisyphean labour of continually pushing against culture from a position of weakness is countered by Hunter with a call to be faithfully present in our world. While we remain in exile, he echoes Jeremiah’s call for the church to:

Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”[1]

The trouble with our efforts to this point, says Hunter, is we have operated from an idealistic, pietistic, and individualistic mentality where we claim that the salvation of souls will naturally lead to culture change.[2] Hunter demonstrates how that hasn’t happened, and explores how less numerous groups, specifically the Jewish and gay communities, have disproportionally influenced Western culture over the last fifty years by focusing on elite level presence in law, media, academia, journalism, and science. Grassroots and political efforts of evangelicals have been up to now only a Band-Aid on the wounds of our society.

This book has generated significant debate, particularly amongst evangelicals exploring the integration of faith with culture. For example, Hunter claims that Andy Crouch’s Culture Making does not go far enough, remaining rooted in a materialist perspective of cultural artefact creation rather than exploring deeper, intangible, culture-shaping forces.[3] Crouch graciously responds in his own review of Hunter’s book by maintaining “[i]t is groundbreaking, it is comprehensive, and it is visionary. Above all, it is wise, both sociologically and theologically.”[4] But he counters with the observation that Hunter himself is being idealistic, portraying himself as one of the few leading the way.

“What you are unlikely to ascertain from the text or the notes,… is the existence of any Christian scholar or public actor who has pursued the course Hunter recommends other than Hunter himself, along with a few of his students and associates… It would take nothing away from Hunter’s brilliant synthesis to acknowledge that others are doing similarly important and influential work.”[5]

Anna Littauer Carrington, in her review of Hunter’s book, states:

“To Change the World describes the crucial role of elites and networks in cultural change, and it helpfully questions the over‐politicized grassroots tactics that American Christians have embraced in recent decades. But, as Crouch has noted, Hunter’s concluding essay doesn’t present “an action plan for elite‐driven cultural change”. As Crouch hints, readers looking for a thorough prescriptive on how evangelicals should engage the culture may be disappointed.”[6]

The lack of this action plan means, really, that it is up to us. If culture does indeed change through the leadership of elites in society, then we need Christians who take up this mantle and pursue excellence in the higher echelons of culture making. This doesn’t need to infer we abandon our traditional grassroots good works of feeding the hungry, sheltering refugees, or proclaiming the good news. It does, however, require a more deliberate, long-range view of being a persistent presence in our culture at the higher levels of society. As well, it requires a substantial shift in how we view our role. Rather than seeing ourselves as agents of change, we must commit to being faithfully present in our world in the arts, sciences, urban planning, architecture, medicine, law, and media. We must surrender our ego-driven quest for meaning, and learn to patiently cultivate the soil of culture and wait for the harvest.

Hunter states,

“If there are benevolent consequences of our engagement with the world… it is precisely because it is not rooted in a desire to change the world for the better but rather because it is an expression of a desire to honor the creator of all goodness, beauty, and truth, a manifestation of our loving obedience to God, and a fulfillment of God’s command to love our neighbor.”[7]

In my work in philanthropy, I have grappled with these questions for years. In fact, this book has been a key work I’ve struggled with since its publication. While most Christian philanthropy is directed at grassroots projects and the desire to “change the world”, I am most inspired by examples of faithful philanthropists who are carving out a place to be within culture.

I had a coffee with one of my clients this week who is on a similar journey. She enthused about her recent discovery of Jazz FM, a Toronto radio station that relies on charitable donations for its survival (and which you may still be listening to… just checking!). The making and supporting of good jazz is an example of a worthy cultural investment that is aligned with the Jeremiah 29 passage at the outset of this post. It doesn’t appear to be typical Christian philanthropy, but in my view it is a broader and more robust expression of Christian philanthropy than we usually witness.

Our friend, Laila Biali, is another example. From our former church, Laila has risen in the ranks of jazz music in the past decade. She has played with Sting, hosts the Sunday jazz show on CBC, and relocated to New York to pursue her love of making great music. Her recent, self-titled album debuted number 1 in Canada, and number 7 in the US on iTunes. I watched her newest music video, Got To Love, and saw evidence of the beauty, humanity and spirituality of her message – entirely consistent with the exhortation of Jeremiah to build houses and plant. We need to settle down in our neighbourhoods and cultivate carefully. This is integral mission; let’s creatively hunker down.


[1] Jeremiah 29:5-7, NRSV.

[2] Hunter, James Davison. To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 44-45.

[3] Hunter, 30.

[4] Crouch, Andy. “How Not to Change the World.” Books and Culture. May 2010. Accessed March 15, 2018. http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/2010/mayjun/hownotchangetheworld.html.

[5] Crouch, Ibid.

[6] Carrington, Anna Littauer. “How Evangelicals Failed to Change the World.” The Review of Faith & International Affairs 8, no. 4 (January 1, 2010): 85–87. https://doi.org/10.1080/15570274.2010.528984.

[7] Hunter, 234.

About the Author

Mark Petersen

Mark Petersen is the CEO of Stronger Philanthropy, a Canadian firm specializing in maximizing family philanthropy. He leads a diverse group of visionary individuals, foundations and organizations to collaborate in leveraging wealth for charitable impact.

14 responses to “Jazz and the gospel”

  1. M Webb says:

    I really like the “just be” reference. I associate that with 2 Cor 2:15-17 and learned this principle when we were missionaries in Afghanistan. We learned we could not present Christ in the open because it was illegal and dangerous to one’s health, but we could “just be” the fragrance of death, and of life. Christ repels, and attracts. That’s just the way it is, so “just being” is just OK in many ministry contexts. Add the Ministry of Presence, and just being works wonders. Even in the Muslim world, just being creates the friendly Christian presence that Christ, thru dreams, draws people from other cultures and religions toward him. They come and ask questions, watch how you live, and when the time is right (after the Holy Spirit works His miracles) some of them come to saving faith in Christ.
    I agree, we can “just be” in our “hunkered down” homes, churches, neighborhoods, and mission fields. God calls some to go, some to send, and some to support.
    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

  2. Mike,

    I love your reference to 2 Cor 2:15-17 … we must be the subtle aroma, the alluring fragrance, that wafts through the air and inclines hearts to Christ.

  3. Jason Turbeville says:

    As always an enthralling read, thanks for the intro to the jazz station. I love the idea that it is up to us, but the way I think is through this presence. One question, the presence seems to be there in most segments that I have moved through, why do you think we do not have more influence on society? I tend to think it is because we have not taken care of our own house and that is why we fail with society.

    By the way great song at the end I would love to see her live, I bet it she is awesome.


  4. Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Mark,

    Great music and great post! After reading your post, I was thinking about all the missions organizations and ideas I have been associated with. Honestly, the only ones who thrive and last, at least the ones I know, have been because the “outsiders” like us Americans, ensure that the local people are the ones who stay, pray and obey. The mission is handled by the nationals, because they will be the ones “present” in the long haul. I think this may be what the author was saying about effective “ministries of presence”, and least in my limited perspective. Agree?

  5. Shawn Hart says:

    I still recall the mini-van that nearly ran the red light and then honked violently at the car in front of them for not going faster. Then the driver lowered her window and proceeded to offer the “bird” to the driver. Sadly, the next thing I noticed were the two Christian bumper stickers on the back of van. I felt I should almost ask forgiveness of God on her behalf.

    My point. At that moment in my day, I did not know if that woman helped with benevolence, missions, the youth program, or community outreach; all I knew is that for that 3 seconds in the middle of that intersection, she blew it! She had a chance to shine and instead she threw mud at the name of Christ with her behavior. Though I could relate and even at times agree with Hunter, I also resonated with exactly the point you and others have made; we need to shine the light where we are. It does not mean that we do not work toward other ministries, but what good are those if we ourselves have failed in our own opportunities to shine.

    Good job Mark. Sorry, but had to shut of the Jazz…cannot read and listen at the same time.

  6. Dan Kreiss says:


    Hunkering down, settling and planting seems to me to be exactly what Hunter suggests we do to encourage any demonstrable cultural change. Rather than efforts to establish a theocracy and force a cultural perspective that may be in line with our version of Christian orthodoxy but not necessarily be to the benefit of others, we should seek to live out our faith in the midst of community with others. If that includes great Jazz then all the better.

  7. Great post Mark, I love how you bring in unique situations and apply them to the topic. I enjoyed the jazz feature and very cool about your friend Laila. Your ending said it well…”We need to settle down in our neighborhoods and cultivate carefully. This is integral mission; let’s creatively hunker down.” Living out our mission in our sphere of influence is how we make an impact on this planet.

  8. Trisha Welstad says:

    Thanks Mark for adding the jazz element to your post this week (I enjoyed the music and relevant applications). In many ways your post echoes the one you wrote least week about beauty and creativity not being missed by the church. I have had Jeremiah 29 posted on my wall for a time because of the idea of ‘welfare’ also signifying shalom for the people which is when they are in exile. It is significant that we are able to find shalom or the welfare of those who are unlike us while living among them and being a faithful presence. Maybe more than significant, essential. I wonder what types of teaching could be done around this and if the church as a whole would be opposed to your identifying a jazz artist as a bringer of shalom and faithful presence? Hmm…

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