On changing the world

by Thomas Keppeler, Ph.D., Pastor of Global Outreach, Elmbrook Church

Last week a group of about 20 leaders from in and around Elmbrook Church spent a few hours interacting with John Seel of The Clapham Institute and James Davison Hunter, the author of To Change the  World – The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World.    Hunter’s new book is an incisive critique of the dominant ways the Christian movement—and in particular Evangelicalism in North America– goes about the task of influencing and seeking change in culture and society.    We had a very robust and delightful four hours of discussion on the critique, ideas and arguments James lays out in his book.  We also had the privilege of hearing both John and James’ personal stories of faith and vocation—and in particular the circumstances that led James into “backing into” writing this book.  Both John and James exuded thoughtfulness, humility, seriousness, grace and enthusiasm during our discussion over the many questions the book raises.

In sum, James Hunter argues that the underlying assumptions upon which the church today (and in particular the Christian Right, Christian Left and neo-Anabaptists) approaches changing the world are fundamentally flawed and erroneous. As a result our many efforts will never result in changing the world—and indeed have unintended consequences.  Hunter points out that the use of power is self-corrupting and that all three movements are compromised and co-opted by the very power they seek and exercise.  He characterizes the “tone” of the church’s cultural and social engagement as being wrapped (and warped!) by an ethos of ressentiment, a French word that involves a combination of anger, envy, hate, rage, and revenge.

Hunter suggests both theologically and sociologically, a more accurate foundation of cultural change.  Whereas the predominant assumption within Christian circles is that if you change people’s beliefs and worldview, over time, the sum total of those changes in individuals’ beliefs and worldview will result in cultural change.  He asserts that this view is sorely mistaken.  Rather, ideas and ideals change culture when they are linked to institutions (emphasis mine).   Culture formation happens at the interface of ideas with institutions.  Hunter also points out, that cultural change nearly always occurs from the “top down”, that the work of world-making and world-changing are, by and large, the works of elites:  gatekeepers who provide creative direction and management within spheres of social life.  He also sadly notes that Christians are conspicuous by their absence in such spheres of social life.

Hunter offers (in his words) his “gesture” of a new paradigm for how the church postures itself to culture and society:  In contrast to “defense against”, “purity from” and “relevance to”, he suggests an engagement of “faithful presence within”.  He writes:

A theology of faithful presence is a theology of engagement in and with the world around us.  It is a theology of commitment, a theology of promise.  At root, a theology of faithful presence begins with an acknowledgment  of God’s faithful presence to us and that his call upon us is that we be faithfully present to him in return.  p. 243  Only be being fully present to God as a worshipping community and as adoring followers can we be faithfully present in the world.  This plays out in three critical ways. . . to each other. . . to our tasks. . . within our spheres of influence.  pp. 244-248

As I have read, re-read and then discussed with Hunter, Seel and my colleagues, let me suggest a few thoughts, questions and observations for us to consider:

1. Faithful presence  is not a substitution for verbal witness, nor is it anti-evangelism, rather faithful presence suggests that words, especially church/Christian vernacular in our larger society, have become to varying degrees unintelligible because of the growing dominance of pluralism today.  As I write this I wonder if it is not just about finding new ways to articulate gospel truth today, rather, is there a deeper question that should give us pause.

2. As a church and as individuals, how do we, how do I, embody or “incarnate” truth in my/the world?  As a former missionary that worked 18 years in two different cultures and languages, Hunter’s articulation of faithful presence seemed intuitively obvious to me.  At its most reduced level he is calling communities and individuals (but not just individuals) to live out a robust theology of incarnation.

3. Faithful presence is not just something to be understood individualistically, but also communally.  Practically speaking how is our church, as a member of the broader community, a blessing in promoting the flourishing and common good of the city and county we live in as well as in its institutions?  What does it mean to seek the welfare of the city to which we are sent as exiles?

4. Hunter suggests we need to we find a new language for how we engage culture and society— perhaps a language less dominated by coercion, domination and take-over.  I agree.

5. We need to abandon or at least rethink what I see as a rampant “short-termism” in ministry both locally and globally.  Let us reflect more seriously about our commitment to be faithfully present and abiding to people, institutions and communities over the long haul.

6. At Elmbrook, how can we articulate and live out a more biblical theology of vocation that diminishes or does away with the dualism that exists between “secular-sacred”, “full-time ministry-lay”, etc.

7. Faithful presence suggests we consider ways that we can be rooted more in relationship and place as Christ followers and think carefully how technology and virtual worlds actually hinder authentic presence and having a sense of place.

Perhaps most compelling, is that my reading and ensuing discussion with James Hunter, John Seel and my colleagues, continues to give me serious pause to consider a more creative and robust theology of incarnation as it pertains to my life and witness in the world I inhabit.  In addition, as a worshipping community, as families and as individuals, what does it mean to embody the Gospel in our pluralistic world?  Do our structures and programs at Elmbrook Church hinder this “embodiment of the gospel” or help foster it?  How can Elmbrook become an even more effective “plausibility structure” for upcoming, future adult generations (the children and youth of today) who will live out their faith as exiles, in our increasingly pluralistic world.

Thank you, James Hunter for your courage in writing this book.   This is an important conversation for all of us as we seek to live rightly  and wisely in this ever-changing world.

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17 thoughts on “On changing the world”

  1. Bill Kuykendall

    Tom –
    Nicely written!!
    What are “institutions”, as used in this conversation? Who/what are the “top-downesr”, the “gatekeepers” (Hunter even used the term “elites”)? These categories are generally viewed negatively – perhaps a few brief examples from Hunter’s book about how these specific groups once did exist in the history of the church and how they were used monumentally in the growth of Christianity. (I.E. evangelicals once were impacting cultural quite positively).

  2. This is an excellent summary of John and James’ work. The questions as well are outstanding. They get to the heart of the issue. Finding better answers however presupposes one thing: At the most fundamental level, James is offering a new frame (and ancient one, actually) for the church. The challenge with a new frame is it rearranges facts that people have long assumed “fit” inside an old frame. When Copernicus suggested a new frame, that the sun is the center of the universe, those who held to the earth being at the center of the solar system were perplexed. Answers and agreement were hard to find, since scientists in opposing camps were using the same words (“sun” and “earth”) but defining them in different ways. The heliocentric frame eventually won – it took three generations – because it was better aligned with reality. But reality takes a while to win. The problem was with those who believed the earth is at the center of the system. They resisted redefining “earth” and “sun” inside a new frame, since that wasn’t the way their books framed and defined reality. When ideas begin to challenge industries (publication) and institutions (science), people dig in their heels. This is the problem with paradigm shifts – they replace frames, not facts. They reveal that the old books are misguided at best and essentially wrong at worst. Since Hunter is proposing a new frame, the challenge for the church is seeing evangelism and worship and technology – everything really – inside a new frame. This new frame makes the old books on “doing church” misguided at best and essentially wrong at worst. You can’t fix this system – you have to replace it. It can be done, but only when a church sees the solution as starting inside a new frame (paradigm) rather than tweaking old paradigms and programs.

  3. Bill,
    James Hunter’s use of “institutions” refers to those culture-shaping sectors of our society such as education, media, entertainment, the arts (film, music, television), etc. He gives historical examples on pages 56-70 from the early centuries up to the Reformation an beyond. You mention that these categories (elites and center institutions) are generally viewed negatively– what is that? Should we not view them differently and thus be engaged with them?

  4. Benj Petroelje

    Tom and Mike, your thoughts here compliment each other (I think!) although at first glance they seem to be somewhat differing viewpoints. Tom, your reflection that, as a missionary, Hunter’s “faithful presence” based on a robust theology of incarnation seems intuitively obvious is well taken. For many of us, incarnation is not a crusty doctrine but a robust call to grace and truth-filled (faithful) presence. I believe this is fairly intuitive to younger generations as well; although sadly that intuition doesn’t always lead to actually living it out. All that to say, Tom, your encouragement that “faithful presence” isn’t that far around the corner from what many of us actually believe and long for is encouraging.

    Mike, you remind us that while it might be right around the corner, sometime the hardest step to take is the one closest to you. This is a new frame. And as you said, old frames don’t die easily. We shouldn’t kid ourselves into thinking (as you say well Mike) that this is merely a realigning of current programs. While a theology of incarnation and faithful presence may seem intuitive, is it true that the actual answers to the praxis questions are still on the ground floor? In other words, when we still believed the earth was the center of the universe, while some might have intuitively imagined something different, could they have imagined the far-reaching answers that would come when the “Sun as the center” was actually accepted? Can we imagine the far-reaching “answers” of a theology of faithful presence?

    So … intuitively close, yet farther away than many of us in the church might wish to imagine. Fair to say Tom and Mike?

  5. Benji/Mike,
    Benji, I like your observation about “intuitively close but farther away than we may think”. What are the parameters of a new (or ancient) frame? What does the “re-alignment of facts” as Mike M. says look like within a frame of “faithful presence” and incarnation. My seven questions in my entry above are my meager attempt to re-frame some things in light of faithful presence. What would this look like practically in a local church–big or small that desires to be about making disciples and live out the tension of “in, not of and sent to” the world—both individually and as a community?

  6. Well said, with your own questions to amplify and/or call the question at the local church. The challenge for the local church is to engage our culture witha true attitude that is demonstrated with GRACE, HUMILITY, PATIENCE and a COMMITMENT to STAY. Coupled with short-termism is our desire to see measureable results or to be patted on the back because we showed up. A “faithful presence” will be mute, if we are not able to check our attitudes, expectations and ego’s at the door.

  7. I have heard James Hunter interviewed on Mars Hill audio and also read the brief interview in one of the latest issues of CT. I have yet to read his book, but I would like to know the results of your discussions as they revolved around the assertion that the early church also approached changes in a “top down” manner. It is my reading of history that in most ways and for quite a while, the church stood outside these institutions. Can you enlighten me?

  8. Roy,
    I am not an expert on church history, but I believe the issue is more that the early church did not approach change in a top down manner, but rather (at least in Hunter’s analysis) over the the first few centuries of the church and then beyond, the church made inroads with the gospel among cultural elites as well… while at the same time being known for their care for and work among the poor. It was the church’s engagement at all these levels of society– call it “faithful presence”, call it “incarnational witness”– …. that ended up having to varying degrees an influence on society and culture. Of course we can’t ignore what happened in 313 AD for better or for worse.

  9. I would like to ask Mike Metzger to elaborate on “how seeing evangelism and worship and technology – everything really – inside a new frame” might look in a local congregation? Assuming “the frame” or new “paradigm” is ‘faithful presence within” as opposed to the old frame which was………?

  10. OK… lots of comments… must be a large church!

    Tom, as to your comments on church history. The church did indeed practice a top-down (or center-out) strategy. Early “Christians were dominated by a socially pretentious section of the population of big cities,” writes sociologist Rodney Stark. Historian Heinz Kreissig says the early Christians were drawn from “urban circles of well-situated artisans, merchants, and members of the liberal professions.” This continued through the Middle Ages. “Early medieval missionaries were firm believers in the ‘trickle-down’ effect,” writes Richard Fletcher. “The most easily identifiable and consistently pursued element of strategy was the missionaries’ choice to work from the top downwards. If you can convert the directing elite then those who are subject to its direction will follow the lead given.” Hunter covers this in his book.

    As for elaborating on what this looks like in a local congregation, the challenge is that paradigm shifts make the old books useless. In other words, evangelism is no longer “outreach” because – in this new frame – Christians are “in there” and respected as having the knowledge of reality. Church staff are no longer seeking to assimilate members into the church but to assist them in having, for example, Harley-Davidson take seriously the gospel and act on it in regards to their policies, products, personnel, and profits. This would require a major retooling of staff. Big gulp. As Neil Postman pointed out (“Technopoly”), any change – if it is genuine – requires total change. You can’t wedge old practices into a new paradigm. This is like eating an 800-lb. gorilla – one bite at a time…. but still a big task.

  11. Hmmm…having been a student of Church History all my life I am a bit confused by the views expressed by the authors quoted above. All the foundational works on Church History (Schaff, Latourette, Cairns, Jackson) and even more recent works like Justio Gonzalez seem to point to the early church through the first 300 years as being made up of largely the “proletariat” (to use the words of Will Durant), wage earners and laborers, with a very few rich and influential among them. Even Origin did not refute Celsus when he referred to the church as the dregs of society. So I am having trouble reconciling what I understand from the time of the church’s most dynamic growth and what Mr. Hunter is proposing. The church flourished in the cities, to be sure. But the “top-down” approach can hardly be called strategic. Comments?

  12. Early Christianity spread among both the underprivileged classes and the upper classes. It is not an either/or. There are plenty of examples in the New Testament itself, and in the second and third century Christian literature and archaeological evidence. In any case, it would seem anachronistic to describe the early Christians as debating a “strategy” of mission and outreach. That’s the way we think, not the way they did. When Christianity did spread among people who had power, wealth, and education, then they certainly exercised noticeable influence in their circles. It seems like the apostle Paul was thrilled that the faith had spread even into Caesar’s household, and he took the audiences he had with magistrates as a great opportunity. But that is not to say that the faith wasn’t spreading among all classes or that early Christian mission was engineered to be a culture-building movement.

  13. After sitting in on some discussion with Mr. Metzger and Mr. Seel for a day and a half, and then again with Mr. Hunter and Mr. Seel, I can say from the “average joe” perspective trying to understand all this stuff has kind of been like trying to eat ribs with no hands. I happen to love ribs, so if I have a chance to eat ’em I will regardless of the difficulty or messiness. Especially if they are good ones, and believe Metzger, Seel, and Hunter have prepared some good “ribs”. I really don’t know if I understand all of it, and I am not a key person in an elite institution yet i have benefited from chewing on this new frame. I enjoy helping people benefit from understanding reality rather than trying to change them. My coworkers, my clients, my friends, an most of all my wife seem to enjoy it as well. Thanks for the meal!

  14. Well said, Mel. This is what often troubles me about studies such as this. Not that they don’t reveal interesting trends or movements, nor that we cannot learn from them. But we tend to read our own ideas back into history. Where the church was merely living out daily the call to follow Jesus in all ways and at all times, we see a strategy. We do this all the time, whether from a sociological or theological point of view.

  15. Roy,
    That is not Hunter’s point. He is not reading a strategy into church history. Granted, he approaches things as a sociologist and is looking at church history to understand the complexities of how cultural change took place across eras, but he is not trying to find a strategy for “how to do it” today. Read Hunter’s book to get the best sense of what he is saying and not saying.

  16. What if everyone worked or volunteered outside of Christian/ministry circles? What would we experience? Would we remember we were once lost? Would we judge the world or have our hearts broken?

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