By the time I graduated from high school, I was a Culture War veteran with his sights set on changing the world for Christ. I had succeeded as a homeschool debate team member, a campaigner for my uncle’s County Council seat, and a “good Christian boy” who had neither cussed nor drank a drop of alcohol. I was energized to fight the moral scourges of our age – namely abortion and homosexuality – in the courtroom and steer America back to its Christian roots.
To train for this conquest, I would attend Indiana Wesleyan University, a place whose institutional ethos seemed to fit perfectly with my own, a university who printed a constant reminder of my life’s mission on the back of my student ID card:
“Indiana Wesleyan University is a Christ-centered academic community committed to changing the world by developing students in character, scholarship and leadership” (IWU Mission Statement, emphasis added).
I’m not exactly sure when my confidence in those words diminished; I just know that at some point the questions I encountered both inside and outside the classroom began to take me places intellectually that, before college, I’d only heard mentioned alongside stern warnings to avoid “liberal thinking.”
I began to ask myself what it means to make an impact/difference in the world and what kind of person I wanted to be. Shane Claiborne, a former “good Christian boy” like me, challenged me to think differently about how to use power and influence to change the world for Christ. He mentioned a quote by Mother Teresa that has since captured my imagination:
“We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”
Crouch points out that the ideal of “changing the world” is popular in the Church but that it creates a paradox. Even though Christians desire to change the world, the Church actually has markedly less effect on it than it thinks (specifically in the American evangelical context). In fact, the Church is shaped by the world as much as the world is shaped by the Church.
Crouch identifies three core problems with the Church’s perception of its own influence:
1. The Issue of Scale – It is quite difficult to define the terms “changing the world” and “culture.” Consequently, when we talk about changing the world, we are actually talking about changing the culture around us by affecting a particular group of people within a particular cultural context.
2. Survivor Bias – It’s one thing to look at history and identify people and events that caused social movements and positive change that shaped contemporary culture, but it’s far more difficult to recognize which contemporary catalysts will survive and effect future change (let alone intentional and positive change). With survivor bias, failed attempts are often forgotten until historians rediscover their merits.
3. Sufficient Conditions – If an attempt to change the world creates some “cultural good,” then there must be some way of measuring its success to either prove or disprove a cause-effect relationship between the action taken and the good created. It is impossible, therefore, to absolutely guarantee that something has changed the world, according to Crouch, who writes, “at a large enough scale, there are no sufficient conditions for cultural change.”
Beyond our immediate family circles and friend groups, guaranteeing cultural change becomes much more difficult.
“My ability to make small changes in my local world is dwarfed by my dependence on the changes other people make at larger scales of culture,” writes Crouch.
Building on Crouch’s ideas, Hunter suggests an alternative view of culture, noting the importance of ideas, artifacts, elites, networks, technology and new institutions in culture formation. He argues bluntly that the American Church cannot change the world through evangelism, political action and social reform, mainly because of the theory behind the strategy: “the essence of culture is found in the hearts and minds of individuals – in what are typically called ‘values.’”
Hunter says social science and history tell us that this ideal of world-changing is “deeply flawed,” including Chuck Colson’s adage, “transformed people transform cultures,” and James Dobson’s dictum, “in one generation, you change the whole culture.”
“The public witness of the church today has become a political witness,” according to Hunter, who critiques the political theologies of the Christian Right, Christian Left, and neo-Anabaptists and explains that James Dobson, Jim Wallis and Stanley Hauerwas are all “functional Nietzscheans” by their desire to dominate (or as Nietzsche says “will to power”) through negation and resentment.
Hunter suggests “faithful presence” as an alternative method of cultural engagement. It seeks not to change the world by a “will to power” but rather focuses on alliances and cooperation among individuals and institutions so as to make disciples and promote public virtue.
“If there are benevolent consequences of our engagement with the world,” Hunter writes, “it is precisely because it is not rooted in a desire to change the world for the better but rather because it is an expression of a desire to honor the creator of all goodness, beauty, and truth, a manifestation of our loving obedience to God, and a fulfillment of God’s command to love our neighbor.”
Change is much harder to come by than we might think. It is guided most surely by forces that are difficult to explain and much bigger than the individual, forces I must trust to the hands of an all-powerful God who loves me more deeply than I could ever imagine and encourages me to lay down control of my life and world, control that I want(ed) so desperately to keep for myself.
Though I no longer subscribe to the world-changing ethos of my alma mater, I am thankful for the people there who helped point me toward a life that counts. Because of these people, I give Indiana Wesleyan University a “B” for helping me to know how to impact the world around me.
I think the institutional ethos is outdated and misguided, but I am glad that my dear academic community has managed to attract people who understand their lives as deeply purposeful and foster the conviction to do good by being themselves. These professors, administrators and students helped engender within me the idea that the best thing I can do with my life is to be the best Aaron Morrison God created me to be. I don’t need to have my name written in the history books, nor do I need to have my bust in the library rotunda to know that my life still matters.
I hold dear, now, the words of the Persian poet Rumi: “Yesterday, I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today, I am wise, so I am changing myself.”