I believe that the Church sincerely desires to make a positive impact on the world, to bring about a more Christ-like society where God is honored and people live under His Lordship and receive His blessings. But, for most of my life, it seemed as if the Church’s every effort to bring these positive change has only brought failure. In fact, most of these efforts have only lessened the Church’s attractiveness and influence. In my time, such well-meaning efforts included churches calling their members to stand along roadsides to hold up pro-life signs for several hours on a Sunday afternoon. There were political score cards given out to churches to help members vote more “Christianly.” There were marches on Washington, petition signings, and court-cases (even court-cases about courts displaying the Ten Commandments and about teaching Creation in schools). And then there were super-star conversions – the rich, the powerful and famous whose conversion gave hope that a person of “secular-clout” would give credence to the faith in the eyes of our lost culture. There was even the thrill of having a born-again president who would surely bring about a return to a Christian America. And the story goes on and on.
I knew deep down that something was missing in these attempts by the Church to bring change to society. One reason for this bad feeling was that all these hard fought efforts had so little effect. I began to ask why so many attempts to influence legislation had been so ineffective? Why was it that, in a country where the majority of people claimed to be Christian, that these same people voted and acted in increasing unchristian ways? I knew something was seriously wrong with the way the Church was seeking to influence society, but I could never put finger on why.
James Davison Hunter’s book To Change the World was like a breath of fresh air when I first read it two years ago. Hunter’s book was one of the first books that I read that shed real light on so many of these challenging issues. His idea is simply that the Church is extremely naïve in its understanding of how culture works, and because of this, she going about influencing culture all wrong. Hunter takes on a huge task of explaining what culture is all about, suggesting it is very messy. He states that culture is not independent or autonomous; rather it is tied to deeply entrenched structures within society. These structures include “advertising, government-sponsored cultural institutions, education at all levels”[i] along with political movements, media and religious institutions. Culture further has a center that carries with it great symbolic capitol and power (particularly universities, newspapers, and other media), which have become the gatekeepers for the thinking and direction of society. Understanding culture in this multifaceted and wide-ranging manner suggests several important facts: First, “culture is profoundly resistant to intentional change”;[ii] second, change in culture requires a multigenerational process; third, change comes through elites (often on the periphery though in positions of influence, such as artist, scientist and intellectuals who provide imaginary for a different way) whose new ideas or critique of existing culture merely begins a titanic change of course that will take generations. Hunter is right to suggest that major cultural shifts throughout history are never the sole achievement of the individual, but rather influential individuals exists in the context of a culture that is shifting in a new direction (a movement that started long before) that makes possible a person’s important—though never lone—contribution. This suggests that it will take more than a new Christian hero or superstar or even a vast evangelism campaign or a new law in congress to change our present world. What it will take is a reengagement of Christians in those places of greatest influence to culture over many years.
Hunter argues that substantial change in society does not come through legislation or politics, and yet this has been the single most used method of the Church in recent years. He suggests that there are innumerable ways in which to serve people and engage the world outside of the political realm that should be explored, like “art, education, the care for the environment, and the provision of relief for the widow, orphaned, and sick, but in the market itself to engage the world for the better.”[iii] It would be a great step forward if the Church were to invest time and effort in those “gate-keeping” institutions and organizations, the location of real influence at the center culture, to bring the voice of Christ into the places that give direction to society. Where I’ve seen this work most recently is in the field of philosophy, where Christians have exerted strong and lasting influence on that discipline and provided a powerful voice.
However, the problem remains, that the very places Christians often shun are the places we should provide positive and powerful influence (like the arts, media, universities, etc.). The single method solution or quick fixes to solving problems and changing the world have been tried and is wanting. Hunters book is a call to action, to engage the world where at the center of what makes our culture tick! Here, stepping out of politics to see the larger arena of ideas, influence, structures and opportunities provides a great approach for the Church to impact the world. However, it all rests on the willingness for Christians to enter where “men fear to tread,” powerfully entering into the institutions, structures and places of symbolic power to give voice to Kingdom and power of Christ.