We all want to be faithful to our Lord’s command to see the gospel permeate and change the world. As Christians, we see countless ways things are not as they should be—people alienated from God, one another, God’s good creation, and even themselves. As a result, they live and lead from non-Christian beliefs and values, which results in shattered lives, fractured families, human trafficking, oppressive regimes, and many other forms of alienation from God and one another.
We long for the day when God redeems all things, wipes away every tear (Revelation 21:4), and people worldwide, “…from every nation, tribe, people and language” are made new and worship the Lord together (Revelation 7:9). There are still 3.1 billion people worldwide who have not heard the Good News. So how do we go about fulfilling this mandate to see the world changed by God’s grace, from the local to the global context?
Interestingly, few have studied the question of how cultures change, and thus how the world can be changed. Our ideas have developed from anecdotal evidence, assumptions, and conjectures. But not long ago a research project was completed that showed how cultures do change. The conclusion was surprising because it was not what we usually hear. And it shows the way to have widespread change. Based on this, Global Scholars is helping form the Society of Christian Scholars. Please help spread the word!
The Traditional View of Cultural Change
If asked, most would say the world is changed “one life at a time.” As more and more in a culture come to believe in Christ, eventually there is a critical mass, and the entire culture is changed. As is often said, “Cultures change when people change.”
That changed people change cultures is such a widespread assumption that some will find it odd even to question it. Individuals come to personal faith, and so it is the individual on whom we must focus. Furthermore, as more and more are “salt” in the culture, eventually the “saltiness” is pervasive. Often the analogy is given of a bowl of soup. As more and more salt is added, eventually there is a critical mass of salt, and the entire soup tastes salty. So it is with individual Christians in society—as more and more come to faith, eventually the entire culture is affected. Or so the story goes.
But what is the evidence that this story is the right story? The parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) tells us to evaluate very carefully how we invest our resources for the Kingdom. How can we be sure this is the correct way to change culture, or the world? What grounds the assumption that this is how the we change the world?
But is the Traditional View Correct?
Several years ago a Christian professor at the University of Virginia decided to research this question. Dr. James Hunter is a sociologist, so studying cultures and how they change is in his area of professional expertise. He also directs the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at UVA, giving leadership to the exploration of a wide range of issues evaluating cultural influence. As a Christian, he was also interested in how best to be faithful to God’s calling to be salt and light in our world.
He went to work on this question. As a senior scholar with many years of experience, he was able to draw upon his extensive expertise and experience in researching this question. Oxford University Press, one of the leading academic publishers worldwide, published his research as To Change The World.
Therefore as Christians interested in changing the world both locally and globally, we should study his research and results. I’ll summarize what he found to be the answer to how cultures change. I’ll also share about an initiative soon to be launched that is based on his findings.
His findings: contrary to the Traditional View
Hunter begins by affirming the desire to change the culture:
The passion to engage the world, to shape it and finally change it for the better, would seem to be an enduring mark of Christians on the world in which they live. To be Christian is to be obligated to engage the world, pursuing God’s restorative purposes over all of life, individual and corporate, public and private. This is the mandate of creation. (p. 4)
However, he observes that a majority of our culture rejects secularism. Therefore, if the traditional view is correct, the United States should already be changed for the better. Yet it is getting more secular, not less:
…today, only 12 to 14 percent of the population would call themselves secularists. This means that in America today, 86 to 88 percent of the people adhere to some faith commitments. And yet our culture…is intensely materialistic and secular. (p. 19)
The traditional view doesn’t seem to match the data. On the other hand, we have examples of small groups that seem to be having widespread influence on culture. Hunter offers two examples. First is the Jewish community. They have almost never made up more than 3.5% of the American population. Despite their small numbers, their influence is far-reaching in “science, literature, art, music, letters, film, and architecture…made in the context of often [restrictive] anti-Semitism” (p. 20).
A second case study Hunter offers is the LGBT community, which is approximately 3% of the population. This tiny minority is having unparalleled influence in all levels and aspects of culture. Hunter asks, if the traditional view of cultural change were correct,
…then the influence of various minorities…would be relatively insignificant. But again, in these instances and in many others we can draw from history, we know this is not the case. (p. 21)
So what is it that these and other minority cultures have and leverage so well to change the world?
The Two Things That Actually Lead To Cultural Change
The short answer is that the groups who change their cultures or the world have two things in common. First, they value having representatives in positions of cultural influence (what is sometimes called the cultural “elite”). The traditional view is a very “democratic” or “bottom-up” view of cultural change—as more and more individuals, from all walks of life, seek change, change is inevitable.
However, those seeing cultural change have agreed that change occurs “top-down” through the influence of a relatively small number of people who are in positions of influence in a culture. Therefore they have encouraged their best and brightest to seek these positions of influence in order to promote broader cultural change.
Furthermore, these individuals unite together in social networks to leverage their individual influence. The result is a widespread and powerful cultural influence. Change in the culture occurs, sometimes at breathtaking speed (as has been the case for the LGBT’s social agenda). As Hunter summarizes,
[W]hen networks of elites in overlapping fields of culture and overlapping spheres of social life come together with their varied resources and act in common purpose, cultures do change and change profoundly. (p. 43, italics added)
Hunter has much more to say, but this is his central answer to the question “how do people really change their cultures?”
What Can We Learn To See Our Nations Changed?
I am not claiming that this is the only way God acts to influence change. Biblically we also see God working through “the least of these” to accomplish his purposes. What I am saying is that we have severely neglected and vastly underestimated this “top-down” approach to cultural change, as Hunter’s study has pointed out.
Therefore, as those God has called to influence our cultures for Christ, what can we learn? First, we must understand that it is not enough to see individuals come to faith in Christ. To change the world, we must help and support those who have the ability and opportunity to serve in positions of influence in our cultures. Some of the most influential people in a culture are university professors. Each day they shape the impressionable young minds of the men and women who will be people of influence in business, media, law, politics, and the arts. If Christian professors can “come together with their varied resources and act in common purpose” their cultures “will change and change profoundly” (p. 43).
The Good News and the Bad News
I have visited universities in 42 countries and interacted with professors from at least two-dozen other nations. The good news is that in each country I find Christian professors God has raised up to serve in their universities “for such a time as this.” (Esther 4:14). In virtue of their positions at universities in their nations they have significant influence, no matter whether they are in Islamic countries in the Middle East, closed communist states in Eurasia or Asia, resource-rich nations in Africa and South America, or secular nations in Europe and North America. They are men and women who Love God and seek to make him known among their students, colleagues, in their universities and academic disciplines, and throughout their nations.
The bad news is that they are often not connected to one another (often not even on their campus or in their nation, and certainly not globally). Most are not in networks in which they can encourage one another or share ideas and resources. Therefore they are not able to act in “common purpose” for the cause of Christ. Instead, many feel isolated, lonely, and wish to be better equipped to have an impact for Christ.
As a result, Christian professors are not having the widespread cultural influence they could be having. As church historian George Marsden put it,
Contemporary Christian scholarship will not realize its potential unless it can establish a strong institutional base. Isolated individuals in university culture can make impressive efforts here and there, but unless their voices are united, they will be lost in the general cacophony of the contemporary academy. (George Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, p. 101)
This is what we must do in order to change our cultures and world!
The Society of Christian Scholars: Meeting This Need Locally and Globally
The Society of Christian Scholars has been developed to meet this need. It will connect Christian professors worldwide in a global community, uniting all those called to have a redemptive influence in higher education. It will form some of the strong institutional base referred to by Marsden. Through it, in the words of Hunter, these cultural influencers will be able to “come together with their varied resources and act in common purpose” and, if Hunter is right, their cultures will “change and change profoundly” (p. 43).
The Society of Christian Scholars has been nine years in the making. Since 2009 42 Christian professors from 25 nations have helped give it shape (representing Argentina, Australia, Benin, Brazil, Cambodia, Cameroon, Canada, China, Columbia, Czech Republic, Ethiopia, France, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Mexico, Nigeria, Philippines, Poland, Senegal, Sierra Leone, The Gambia, Uganda, United States, and United Kingdom). Together they determined how the Society of Christian Scholars could best serve them and others like them the world over—through fourteen specific benefits provided to members. Global Scholars (with whom I serve) has provided the support for the formation of the Society of Christian Scholars, and will continue providing logistical support once it is established.
After much planning and prayer, all of us involved are looking forward to the establishment of the Society of Christian Scholars on March 1, 2019. As of today, the Society of Christian Scholars’ public website is online and pre-registration is open (https://societyofchristianscholars.org)!
Please Help Spread The Word!
The key to the Society of Christian Scholars having a worldwide impact is to serve, connect, resource, and partner with Christian professors in every nation. Therefore, please forward this blog, or at least the web link, to all the Christian professors you know.
If they are in nations with no ministry among Christian faculty, they will be thrilled to receive your invitation. Yet even if they are in a country that has a ministry to faculty (such as the U.S. or Australia), this will be an opportunity for them to be connected to the global community of missional Christian professors, as well as receive additional benefits their national ministries may not provide (see the list of fourteen Benefits on the Society of Christian Scholars homepage).
Finally, please pray for the Society of Christian Scholars. Pray we can finalize the means to provide all fourteen benefits by March 1, 2019. Pray we continue to find more and more ministries and Christian scholars excited about being a part of this global endeavor. Pray we have the funding and other resources necessary for such a massive initiative. Most importantly, pray that God uses the Society of Christian Scholars, as Hunter’s research indicates may be the case, to change the world, as Christian professors are equipped to be a faithful presence for Christ in their universities, and therefore have a redeeming influence among their students, colleagues, universities, and disciplines!
Until next week, grace and peace.
For further reading, see James Davidson Hunter’s To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World