Method vs. Mission
My previous post said “Bad Religion” is my favorite book this term; James Davidson Hunter’s “To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World” is a close second. My affection for Hunter’s book isn’t because I’m wholeheartedly agreeing with his views on culture or cultural change, but because he’s taken hold of my assumptions on culture and kicked them around a bit and shown me some weaknesses in them.
I’d like to reflect on these comments; he provocatively states, “revival would have a negligible long-term effect on the reconstitution of the culture.”  He goes further “the call to this generation of Americans to repent and pray for revival to renew the values of the national culture may be welcome, but no one should be under any illusion about its capacity to fundamentally transform the present cultural order at its most rudimentary level.” Hunter isn’t attacking evangelicalism; he comes across as highly respectful of Christian faith. He continues this argument with “Invitations by Christian leaders to fast and pray are most worthy, but their main effect will be to renew the church rather than keep America from “losing its soul””.  The issue is that evangelicals hold this common view of culture, and how culture changes: culture is primarily a matter of hearts and minds, a view that based in the philosophy of idealism.
If I was pressed to define culture, I’d share the popular view that it’s primarily about values, which can be consistent with a biblical worldview or with a natural worldview. These two-world views create a tension in our American culture that Christians know all too well. A natural, Darwinian-supported worldview will be godless and amoral; the values that result will be, and are, widely reflected in the culture. Both worldviews believe that the repository of values is in the “hearts and minds” of the people. Cultural change, in this view, becomes a straightforward proposition: change a person’s values and you’ll ultimately change the culture. Hunter cites three tactics in which Christians are working to change the world or culture: Evangelism (aka spiritual renewal), political action, and social reform. So the popular belief is that culture changes regardless of the tactic (spiritual, political or social); “cultures changes when people change or as Charles Colson put it, transformed people transform cultures.” 
Yet Hunter goes on to argue that popular view of cultural change is almost wholly wrong.  To be fair, and clear, Hunter is supportive of evangelism for the sake of offering Christ, for transforming the life of the individual. He is also supportive of Christians engaged in political action and social reform yet he’s clear that “such engagement may be worthy, but if the end is to ‘save civilization,’ it most certainly naïve, by themselves or even together, evangelism, politics and social reform, then, will fail to bring about the ends hoped for and intended.”  Hunter goes on to offer an alternative view of culture and cultural change with eleven propositions all of which make it clear that culture is bigger than the individual: it encompasses history, institutions, symbols, etc. His view of cultural change is top down, it comes with no small amount of tension and change, and it isn’t one person at a time.
As an evangelical I have tremendous respect for Chuck Colson, James Dobson, Bill Bright, and others like them. If you asked me for a representative sampling of American evangelical leaders from the former generation I’d gladly name them. Hunter clearly documents that they all believed you will change the world, change the culture, by introducing people to Christ. And I’d likewise follow that train of thought. But then – why hasn’t it changed? America has a greater percentage of people confessing faith in Jesus, close followers of His teaching, than anywhere else in the world. One could criticize the quality of our faith but still America also has the greatest percentage of believers who take their faith seriously enough to find practical ways to live it out. Where is the cultural change our leaders promised?
Could it be the desire to change the culture—change the political, social, educational systems—isn’t really the mission of the church? We’re called to “go and make disciples”; “make more followers of Jesus through our witness.” That witness of Jesus can and should engage the culture using all our abilities, gifts, talents and interests – as a vehicle of our witnesses. However, the fruit of the witness is changed lives, not changed culture. Let’s be careful not to confuse method and mission.
 James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: the Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 46.
 Ibid, 47.
 Ibid, 16.
 Ibid, 17.
 Ibid, 47.
7 responses to “Method vs. Mission”
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.
Excellent post, Dave.
I’ve been wresting with these issues for several years. I love the way you pose the question, “Could it be the desire to change the culture—change the political, social, educational systems—isn’t really the mission of the church?” We are called to make disciples, not create Christian nations. “Let’s be careful not to confuse method and mission.”
Dave, great work man! You wrote: “why hasn’t it changed? America has a greater percentage of people confessing faith in Jesus, close followers of His teaching, than anywhere else in the world. One could criticize the quality of our faith but still America also has the greatest percentage of believers who take their faith seriously enough to find practical ways to live it out. Where is the cultural change our leaders promised?”
Your subsequent observations about maybe our job is not to try to change a culture, but to just make disciples… Extremely insightful my friend. I’m pondering that one deeply.
I am always preaching about how we need to just worry about our own job and not spend too much time trying to do other people’s jobs… Maybe this is an example of me needing to practice what I preach! Just do my job, make disciples in any culture, wherever I may be found, and let the cultural chips fall where they may! That’s a job that is waaaaaay above my pay grade!
Jon, Somehow we’ve skimmed over Jesus clear word that the World hatted him and would hate us too. That’s in the context of his calling to love like him… a Hallmark of being a disciple. So expect to be hatted and do your best to show love. Ugh… that sums up our influence in the world
Dave, Ut oh . . . I think I might be guilty. “Could it be the desire to change the culture—change the political, social, educational systems—isn’t really the mission of the church? We’re called to “go and make disciples”; “make more followers of Jesus through our witness.” Guilty in the sense of the cart before the horse. My desire become to change culture and then I see the means as changing lives. I believe that might be a motive and function problem. I have heard the phrase in church planting, “Start a worship service and you may disciple people. Disciple people and you WILL get a worship service. I think in our American success chase, our celebrity creating tendencies, and our corporate business models for the church we get off base and like you said . . . confuse “method and mission.”
Dave…Excellent post. I feel like you really have drawn us back to the real question. Are we making disciples? Sometimes as believers, the last thing we actually try is building relationships. Thanks Dave.
Walking this D.Min journey with each one in our cohort is such a privilege. I noticed this particularly as you openly shared your willingness to wrestle through what Hunter has offered. Rather than throwing out what could be mind-bending for you, you stay in it to see what propositions can shed light not only for you personally but those to whom you minister. As a result, the integrity by which you offer your own thoughts influences my own understanding. Thank you for staying in it!
Dave that is where my heart is now. I want to help chabnge the church. I think our focus should be on this more so than anything else. I am committed to this because to change the world we have to change from within. I am not saying that that is the intentions of what Christ called us to do. He just told us to preach the gospel in all the world!