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

Off mission

Written by: on April 4, 2014


I’m going to be honest from the get go: I did not like this week’s book. James Davison Hunter’s “To Change the World”[i] left me unsatisfied.

I know, how can it be? I read through various reviews of the book, thinking surely I must be missing something. The reviews were positive. One even referred to the book as, “Probably one of the most important books about Christianity and culture in the last decade.”[ii] How could I be that far off?

I will admit that there were a couple of nuggets at the end. But overall, I thought that the book was poorly organized, had faulty (biased) logic, and relied upon outdated data.[iii] If I was in charge of the world, and Dr. Hunter had asked me how to organize his book, I would make a number of suggestions. Hunter organizes his book in three essays. In the first essay he presents an argument about Christianity and World Changing. His first discussion of culture and how Christianity interacts with culture was painful to read. His assertion of Christianity’s definition of culture as rooted “in the hearts and minds of individuals”[iv] was painfully simplistic and presumptive. Eventually, Hunter offered seven propositions to provide a broader understanding of culture[v], followed by four propositions about how cultural change happens[vi]. In general, I agree with Hunter’s seven propositions about culture, though his descriptions were distinctively western, American, and assumed a specific world view. Hunter’s propositions about cultural change demonstrated a lack of understanding of social change. Though Hunter presented a limited historical overview of culture change to back up his propositions, it was not persuasive, and again, it maintained an exclusively western, colonial point of view.

Culture refers to the cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, roles, spatial relations, concepts of the universe, and material objects and possessions acquired by a group of people in the course of generations through individual and group striving.[vii] Culture is not worldwide; it is specific to people groups, time, context, and place. Hunter argues that the Christian world is trying to change culture, and if that is true, then it would be a false endeavor. Culture is a product of the people. It is more than ideas, feelings and artifacts. Impacting society, how the world functions, the economy, and other broader concepts would have an impact on various cultures, but social change does not originate necessarily in culture.

Hunter argues that cultural change occurs from the top down, and is initiated by the elites. Such assertions demonstrate a lack of understanding of social change. There are (at least) eight evidence based models for social change. These include the process of community organizing, coalition building, developing advocacy movements, social planning, political and social action, creating sustainable social and economic development, collaborative program development, and movements for progressive change.[viii]  Broad movements for social change incorporate multiple change strategies. Change does indeed require developing social and political power, but it does not have to be (and often does not come from) the elite. Rather, people who are pursuing change cultivate access.

For many readers, this incredibly brief overview of social change processes will simply cause your eyes to glaze over. This makes sense. A blog post will not adequately address how community and social change happens. However, I will argue this: change is possible and does not require people in privilege to initiate said change. Hunter noted that the civil rights movement involved a large number of people with privilege. Indeed it did. But it did not start with them. Rather, advocacy and awareness called the attention of those who had access to influential channels. Do people who do not have power need people with power to facilitate change? Yes. The powerless need the powerful to enhance their voices. But consider the social and revolutionary change in Liberia which was initiated by a group of women with no power. Christian and Muslim women came together in prayer and protest against a corrupt and violent government. They learned how to use their influence to facilitate peace and revolution, resulting in the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to the women’s movement leader, Leymah Gbowee. 

But let’s get to the part of Hunter’s book that worked.  Hunter refocuses his discussion of why the church is unable to impact the world by directing his discussion to the mission of the church, which is the Great Commission.[ix] As believers we are called to go and make disciples of all men, teaching them to observe the things that Christ taught us (Matthew 28:19-20). Further, the purpose of man is to glorify God, and to make Him known.

In essence, the reason that the church is ineffective at changing the world is because that is not our mission. Our purpose is to make disciples, and then, among those disciples, to teach them how to live well according to God’s purposes. Hunter calls the church to demonstrate a faithful presence, in our personal, professional, and multiple spheres of life and influence.  Hunter also presents a model of how Christ used His “power” to accomplish the goals of the Father. First, Christ’s power originated from His intimacy with God. Show also should ours. Second, Jesus rejected status and privilege. He humbled Himself, not claiming His rightful equality with God, but humbled Himself even to the point of death. Third, He willingly endured this humiliation out of compassion for God’s people. Compassion was a hallmark of His ministry. And finally, He was non-coercive. Though He could have asserted His authority and compelled man to comply, that was not His mission.[x]

Hunter does not argue that it is not our role to be engaged in the world. What he does argue is that we should remain mission focused, and as we engage with the world, do so modeling Christ and God’s faithful presence. As we live our lives, we can be a part of social and cultural change, but we need to recognize our mission and remain true to that. If I were in charge of the world, and Hunter had asked me, I would have told him to focus his work on his final essay. This is the essence of his argument, and the part that worked.

On a final thought, I would add that there is a place or the church to be engaged in social change. However, we should not be sidetracked to think that this is our mission. It is not our mission to get the world to conform with God’s values and principles. It is not our mission to change political structures. It is our mission to make disciples. God calls disciples to demonstrate the humility, compassion, and leadership Christ demonstrated.  God calls us to love the people He loves – the poor, the outcast, the people on the margins of society. If then, some are compelled to initiate ministry to bring clean water, economic development, physical and mental health services, education, or engage in public discourse, we should do so as Christ did. We should do so demonstrating His faithful presence while remaining faithful to our mission.

[i] James Davison Hunter. To Change the World: The irony, tragedy, & possibility of Christianity in the late modern world. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

[ii] Chris Putnam. “Book Review: To Change the World by James Davison Hunter.” Logos Apologia. Retrieved on April 3, 2014 http://www.logosapologia.org/?p=4954.

[iii] For example, Hunter chooses to demonstrate the church’s weak influence through examining foundation giving data. The data he references is from 2001, nine years before this book was published. The foundation center updates this information annually, and giving trends have changed significantly over the past decade. There is greater recognition of the value and need for faith based international and local compassion efforts. The point that would be accurate is that most foundations specify that funds cannot be used to evangelism. This limits their giving. The review of foundation giving also leaves out the support of local churches in faith based change initiatives.

[iv] Hunter, 6.

[v] Ibid, 32-39.

[vi] Ibid, 41-44.

[vii] Larry A. Samovar, Richard E Porter and Edwin R. McDaniel. Communication Between Cultures. 7th Edition.  Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning. 2009.

[viii] Gamble, D.N., & Weil, M. Community practice skills: Local to global perspectives. New York: Columbia University Press. 2010.

[ix]Hunter, 226.

[x] Ibid, 188-191.

About the Author

Julie Dodge

Julie loves coffee and warm summer days. She is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at Concordia University, Portland, a consultant for non-profit organizations, and a leader at The Trinity Project.

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