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How can we change the culture?

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Our nation clearly needs moral and spiritual renewal.  How can we help?  What can we do to make a difference?  How do we become culture-changing Christians?

The way to change the world

James Davison Hunter’s new book is titled, To Change the World. This University of Virginia sociology professor turned down an appointment to Princeton to continue his work with the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.  He may be the most profound voice on culture change writing and speaking in America today.

How does he think culture is changed?  He begins with ways it is not.

Culture does not change by winning elections.  It is important for Christians to be engaged in public service.  In fact, I am convinced that God is calling more Christians into public service than are answering his call.  But electing Christians to office is not enough to change the culture by itself.  For instance, during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush, divorce rates escalated.  Gay marriage made significant inroads in American culture during the presidency of the second George Bush.  Neither was their fault, of course, but both illustrate the fact that winning elections is not sufficient.

Culture does not change by evangelism and church attendance.  More than 80% of Americans are identified with some faith community, yet our culture is intensely secularistic and materialistic.  By contrast, the Jewish community has never comprised more than 3.5% of our population, yet its contributions to science, literature, art, music, film and architecture have been remarkable.  At least 180 Jews have been awarded the Nobel Prize, constituting 36% of all American recipients.

Culture does not change by popularity. While more evangelical books are being sold than ever before, they primarily target the faith community and exist out of the cultural mainstream.  Few are ever reviewed by the New York Times or Wall Street Journal.  People have heard of Rick Warren and Joel Osteen, but we cannot claim that our culture has been changed by their popularity.

How does a culture change?  Here is the matrix, according to Dr. Hunter. 

For knowledge:


  • Academic think tanks
  • Elite research universities
  • Elite opinion magazines and journals
  • Elite and first tier university publishers

High-end educational

  • First and second tier colleges
  • High-end journalism
  • Seminaries and divinity schools
  • Elite private schools

Practical / everyday

  • Journalism (print and electronic)
  • The Internet
  • Mass-market book publishing
  • Churches, synagogues, and teaching ministries
  • Public education
  • Christian schools

For morality:


  • Academic philosophy and moral psychology
  • Law schools and schools of public policy


  • Public policy think tanks
  • Special interest groups
  • Innovative churches, synagogues and faith-based ministries of mercy
  • Moral education activism

Grass Roots

  • Local activist organizations
  • School boards
  • “How to” publishing
  • Youth organizations and ministries
  • Faith-based ministries of mercy
  • Moral education

For aesthetics:

High Brow

  • Visual arts
  • Literature and poetry
  • Classical and orchestral music
  • Theater and dance
  • Museums

Upper Middle Brow

  • Public television
  • Public museums
  • Film
  • Jazz and specialty music
  • High-end advertising agencies

Low Brow

  • Prime-time television
  • Mass market movies
  • Popular music
  • Mass advertising agencies
  • Cable television
  • Mass circulation magazines

What are we to do to influence change in these cultural areas?  Manifest “faithful presence” where we are, with those we influence, and seek to develop leaders at places of the greatest effective influence in our culture.  How do we do this?

The mustard seed movement

Jesus taught his disciples this parable:

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field.  Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches” (Matthew 13:31-32).

The mustard seed is the smallest of all the seeds used in Jesus’ day (about the size of a period at the end of a sentence today).  Would anyone believe that a tree some ten feet tall could grow from it?  But the farmer has faith.  He plants it, and waters it, and waits for it.  It takes time, several years in fact.

But eventually that tiny seed becomes a tree so large that birds come from all over to settle on its branches.  They eat some of the seeds it produces.  And that tree multiplies itself, until it makes more and more trees.  All from one seed so small you must strain even to see it in your hand.

That, says Jesus, is how God builds his Kingdom on earth.  Here we have the mustard seed movement: God uses anything we entrust to him, to do more than we ever imagined he would.  If only we believe he can.

Whom does God use?

Let’s examine the mustard seed movement in Scripture and history:

  • Noah, working for 100 years by himself to build an Ark to save the human race when it had never rained before.
  • Moses, standing before Pharaoh with nothing more than a rod in his hand and God’s call in his heart.
  • David, fighting the mighty Goliath with a slingshot.
  • Prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, speaking divine revelation with effect all out of proportion to their social status.

One of my favorite Old Testament examples of the mustard seed movement is the story of Gideon at the Springs of Harod.  The Midianites were the enemy of the Jewish people and an indestructible army: “It was impossible to count the men and their camels; they invaded the land to ravage it” (Judges 6:5). Yet God called Gideon to march against them, his 32,000 foot soldiers against their vast army.

Then God said, “You have too many men for me to deliver Midian into their hands. In order that Israel may not boast against me that her own strength has saved her, announce now to the people, ‘Anyone who trembles with fear may turn back and leave Mount Gilead.’  So twenty-two thousand men left, while ten thousand remained” (Judges 7:2-3).

Then he told Gideon, “There are still too many men.  Take them down to the water, and I will sift them for you there. If I say, ‘This one shall go with you,’ he shall go; but if I say, ‘This one shall not go with you,’ he shall not go.’  So Gideon took the men down to the water.  There the Lord told him, ‘Separate those who lap the water with their tongues like a dog from those who kneel down to drink.’ Three hundred men lapped with their hands to their mouths.  All the rest got down on their knees to drink” (vs. 4-6).

Now “the Lord said to Gideon, ‘With the three hundred men that lapped I will save you and give the Midianites into your hands.  Let all the other men go, each to his own place.’  So Gideon sent the rest of the Israelites to their tents but kept the three hundred, who took over the provisions and trumpets of the others” (vs. 7-8).

With these 300, each bearing a trumpet and a torch, they went to battle.   And this was the result: “They blew their trumpets and broke the jars that were in their hands.  The three companies blew the trumpets and smashed the jars.  Grasping the torches in their left hands and holding in their right hands the trumpets they were to blow, they shouted, ‘A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!’  While each man held his position around the camp, all the Midianites ran, crying out as they fled.  When the three hundred trumpets sounded, the Lord caused the men throughout the camp to turn on each other with their swords” (vs. 19-22).

The New Testament demonstrates the same pattern.  Jesus told us that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matt. 5:13-16).  It doesn’t take much salt to change the flavor of food, or much light to shine in the dark.  You can think of examples immediately: Peter, the fisherman who failed his Lord before preaching the Pentecost sermon; Paul, the Pharisee who persecuted Christians before taking the Gospel across the Empire; John, exiled on Patmos where he receive the Revelation for the world.

If we will be God’s “faithful presence: where we are, with the influence we have, he will use us to change our culture.  The first century church had no strategy for political power or cultural engagement.  They simply went where they went as the people of God, and by Acts 17:6 they had “turned the world upside down” (KJV).

Martin Luther was an unknown, troubled monk when he nailed 95 topics for discussion on the community bulletin board and sparked the Reformation.  William Wilberforce read an unknown book by Thomas Clarkson about the horrors of the slave trade, and then moved single-handedly to abolish it.

The first Great Awakening was more the result of Theodore Frelingheusen’s prayer commitment than anything the history books note.  Isaac Backus was a little-known Baptist minister whose call to prayer led to the Second Great Awakening.  Jeremiah Lamphier’s prayer meeting at Old North Dutch Church in NYC on September 23, 1857 led to the Third Great Awakening.  The preaching and praying of Evan Roberts led to the Fourth Awakening.

A church of seven meeting on May 15, 1958 is today a congregation of 1.2 million under the leadership of Pastor David Yonggi Cho.  Jim Cymbala’s Brooklyn Tabernacle was down to 30 when it resolved to make its Tuesday night prayer meeting the engine that drives the church, and now their ministries span the globe.


Changed people change the world. Use your influence where it is for the Kingdom of God, praying for those in other spheres of influence.  Make your work and home and school your mission field.  Ask God to make you his faithful presence there.  See every person you meet today as a subject for ministry, every problem and opportunity and temptation as a way to serve your King.  And step by step, day by day, as we serve our King with faith and joy, he uses us to change our world.

To that end, let’s close our exploration with this statement by the brilliant Chinese theologian, Watchman Nee:

A day must come in our lives, as definite as the day of our conversion, when we give up all right to ourselves and submit to the absolute Lordship of Jesus Christ. . . . There must be a day when, without reservation, we surrender everything to Him—ourselves, our families, our possessions, our business and our time.  All we are and have becomes His, to be held henceforth entirely at His disposal.  From that day we are no longer our own masters, but only stewards.

Not until the Lordship of Jesus Christ is a settled thing in our hearts can the Holy Spirit really operate effectively in us.  He cannot direct our lives until all control of them is committed to Him.  If we do not give Him absolute authority in our lives, He can be present, but He cannot be powerful.  The power of the Spirit is stayed.

Is today that day for you?