I was conned, misled and entrapped in the most cunning of ways. Calling a book “To Change the World” when the content of the book argues that such a thing is not possible, is a writer’s sleight-of-hand at its best.
Personally, the book scratched an itch that I have had for a number year. The itch is more like a bad case of eczema that has been almost untreatable without facing the truth: healing means isolating parts of my long history with the church growth movement. It’s entirely possible that much of it was wrong.
The readings of the last few weeks have considered the nature of our social and economic transformation of the last five centuries. The intermingling of the renaissance, reformation theology, enlightenment and scientific categorisation/systematisation and philosophical sociology have all had a voice in the ‘coming to be’ of the modern western world. Moreover, of course, it is all too easy to ignore the cultural formation of the 365 European wars (national and civil) of the last 500 years.
Given all that we have experienced as culturally diverse humans, Hunter’s Basic question is simple, “How is religious faith possible in the late modern world?… Is it possible? How does the encounter of religious faith with modernity change the nature and experience of faith? Alternatively, for that matter, modernity itself?”
At the heart of his three essays is a question of culture. How is it formed? How it is changed? And who are the true change agents in any culture’s history?
Four years earlier, in 2001, Charles Taylor wrote a journal article titled, Two Theories of Modernity. Taylor conceived of two opposed categories of modernity which he called ‘cultural’ and ‘acultural’. The former is a recognition of civilisations with their own unique human culture. For example, medieval Europe was a different culture to our present western society – they are not the same. Acultural modernity is a view of global humanity that emphasises the demise traditional society and the rise of the ‘modern’; a set of transformations that any culture can go through and will be forced to go through because they transcend history. That of course was Vincent Miller’s understanding in his book, Consuming Religion; we extract historic objects from their original context in order to make use of them for current consumption with a different meaning. For mechanisms, acultural modernity uses management, strategic planning, big car parks, comfort and user-friendliness as its primary tools for social development and has thus been the framework on which secularisation expanded. Also, because secularisation is a movement away from religious ideas and institutions as beneficial for human wellbeing, acultural modernism’s social equations, programmes and techniques have become the arbiters of human meaning and purpose.
From the above, it follows that Miller would write, “I contend that the dominant ways of thinking about culture and cultural change are flawed, for they are based on both specious social science and problematic theology. In brief, the model on which various strategies are based not only does not work, but it cannot work.” Combine this with Os Guinness’s reasonable argument that acultural modernity is anti-intellectual (it prefers empirical data over theory), then society, along with the modernised church, is prone to a mindless ‘development’ pragmatism that never finally succeeds because it is never reflective about its agenda.
So, going back to my uncomfortable itch, I would argue that the unreflective agenda of the Church Growth Movement adopted acultural modernity’s tools of social development to reshape the church. Why? Because in order to achieve this redevelopment, the leadership and management practices of acultural modernity have been incrementally applied. The emphasis on numerical growth through programmatic evangelism, meeting homogenous social needs and the adoption of secular leadership methodology, is ample evidence of this.
In my 30 years of ministry, most of the pastoral ministry talk has been centred on the need for leadership, and that leadership discussion has been about “Changing the Church to Change the World”. Yet the question, ‘what are we changing the world to?’ is rarely considered. In most cases, it appears to be the desire for a certain group of Christians to form the whole world in their leaders’ particular image. Unfortunately, the images are typically acultral – they can be applied anywhere to anyone without reference to their civilisations culture. That being the case, I agree with Hunter’s assertion that we abandon talk of “redeeming the culture,” “advancing the kingdom,” “building the kingdom,” “transforming the world,” “reclaiming the culture,” “reforming the culture,” and “changing the world.”  Christians need to discover again who they are in their part of the world, not how they can change it. The latter has been a failed exercise, and a quick look at countries like New Zealand reveal why. In 1993 Elaine Bolitho researched the growth and decline of the Baptists in New Zealand, the largest denomination in the country. She found that church growth was directly linked to church decline. Baptist ‘nicked’ congregants from the Presbyterians, Anglicans, Brethren and burnt-out Pentecostals in the 70’s and 80’s. The developing leadership model was about growth and transforming society. However, by the early 90’s growth had stopped, and decline set in. People were leaving the church altogether; acultural ministry had done its damage. We weren’t changing the world, we were messing up the church. The questions we should have been asking were questions from exile: “Who are ‘we’ and who am ‘I’ in a strange land?”
Hunter makes a good point in his second essay, “Rethinking Power”. The eight-century prophets spoke from within a theocracy, or what the people believed was a theocracy. The aching question is, ‘why need prophets in a theocracy?’ Because Israel was doing deals with the devil (international security arrangements), while still claiming allegiance to Yahweh. They lost any sense of who they truly were. The problem, Hunter rightly claims, is that self-righteous western Christianised countries (especially the United States of America) confuse themselves with Israel. Left and Right wing Christian groups see themselves as prophets to the country when they clearly are not. In a similarly depressing way, New Zealand Christians prophetically announce that the church must ‘recover’ its place in society and reclaim our position as a ‘Christian Country’, which ironically, we have never been. Indeed, I’m not sure there is any such thing. Until we realise that, we will continue to play the acultural game of “How NOT to Change the World”.
 James Davidon Hunter, The Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
 A basic List of conflicts in Europe https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_conflicts_in_Europe (These exclude America, the Pacific, Africa and China.
 Ibid. ix
 Charles Taylor, “Two Theories of Modernity,” The International Scope Review 3, no. 5 (2001).
 Vincent J. Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture (London: Continuum, 2005).
 Taylor, “Two Theories of Modernity”. 7-8
 Hunter, The Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. 5
 Os Guinness, Dining With the Devil (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1993). 45
 Hunter, The Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. 260
 Ibid. 280
 Elaine E. Bolitho, Meet the Baptists (Auckland: Christian Research association of New Zealand, 1993). 114
 Hunter, The Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. 97ff
 Ibid. 147f
Bolitho, Elaine E. Meet the Baptists. Auckland: Christian Research association of New Zealand, 1993.
Guinness, Os. Dining With the Devil. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1993.
Hunter, James Davidon. The Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Miller, Vincent J. Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture. London: Continuum, 2005.
Taylor, Charles. “Two Theories of Modernity.” The International Scope Review 3, no. 5 (2001): 1–9.