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How to change the world

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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Recent polls indicate that 70% of likely American voters say the country is headed the wrong direction. How does culture change? What can Christians and churches do to influence our culture for Christ? What role could multi-site church growth strategies play?

James Davison Hunter teaches at the University of Virginia and leads the Institute for Advances Studies in Culture. I consider him the most profound voice on culture change in the evangelical world. I was privileged to discuss his latest book, To Change the World, during a recent dinner with him.

Hunter begins with ways culture does not change:

  • Winning elections. It is vital that Christians participate in the political process, but electing believers is not enough by itself to change culture. For instance, divorce escalated during the Reagan administration; gay marriage was legalized in some states during the George W. Bush presidency. Neither is their fault, of course, but their position was not enough to change the culture on these critical issues.
  • Evangelism and church attendance. We can build more campuses at more sites, but church growth by itself does not change the culture. More than 80% of Americans are identified with a faith community, yet our nation is intensely secularistic and materialistic. By contrast, the Jewish community has never comprised more than 3.5% of our population, yet it has received 36% of our Nobel Prizes.
  • Popularity. While more evangelical books are being sold than ever before, they primarily target the faith community. 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? By manifesting “faithful presence,” using our highest influence as salt and light. Cultures resist organized political strategies, but they have no defense against those who utilize their influence to advance their worldview.

For example, Hunter argues that academic influence originates with think tanks, elite research universities, elite opinion magazines and journals, and first tier university publishers. It moves downward to first- and second-tier universities, seminaries and divinity schools, and elite private schools. Then it influences journalism, the Internet, mass-market publishing, public education, and churches, synagogues, and Christian schools.

Moral influence moves from academic philosophy and law schools to public policy think tanks, special interest groups, and finally to local organizations and ministries. Artistic influence begins with visual arts, literature and poetry, classical music, theater and dance. It moves to public television and museums, then to primetime television, mass market movies and popular music.

We will change our culture when we leverage our most strategic influence by living faithfully as followers of Jesus. Here’s the critical issue: is your life a container for spiritual salt (Matthew 5:13) or a lampstand (vs. 15-16) where people “see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven”?