Should we be trying to change the world from the bottom up or the top down?

Two Air Force JTACs discuss mission parameters prior to calling in CAS
Two Air Force JTACs discuss mission parameters prior to calling in CAS

Dr. Paul Gould is a professor of philosophy (PhD from Purdue) at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Here is his bio, which says, in part:

I have a Masters in Philosophy of Religion and Ethics from Talbot School of Theology and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Purdue University.

I am an Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Christian Apologetics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

What his bio page doesn’t say is that he left a career in business to go onto this apologetics/philosophy track. I find that very interesting, because like most professionals with an interest in apologetics, I had the same dream – to go and do a PhD and get into a college and be a positive influence on Christian kids. But the main thing is that he has had some experience in the real world.

Anyway, Dr. Gould has written two posts on how to change the world, and I want you to look at an excerpt from the first one.

First post:

Christians like to talk—and aspire—to changing the world. This language stems very naturally from our God-given desire to make a difference, to live a life that matters. In a very real sense, making a difference is to change the world. But, usually, when Christians talk about “changing the world” they mean something like “winning the world for Christ” or “helping the gospel to gain a hearing in culture” or “contributing toward shalom.”Recently, there have been a number of very helpful books written by folks who challenge the common view of how to go about the task of world-changing, and call into question the relationship between Christ and culture. One of the most important books to enter this discussion is James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the topic of world-change. In this post I will share his critique of the “common view” of world change. I think his critique is dead on.

Hunter argued that by and large, Christians have gone about the task of world changing in completely the wrong way and the result is that Christianity in our country at least and in the western world in general, represents a weak culture.

He focuses on world-view ministries (primarily from the US such as Chuck Colson’s Wilberforce Forum and Focus on the Families’ Truth Project) and those like them that offer the following view of how to change the world:

Common view of world change: as we change the individual beliefs and values of persons, and change enough persons, then we will ultimately change society. This is a bottom up approach.

On the common view, the implicit view of culture is that “the essence of culture is found in the hearts and minds of individuals” and that culture change will come as enough individual lives are transformed.

Hunter argues that this approach fails to take into account cultural elites and the institutions that yield power within culture.

Instead, cultural change has always been top-down: it is always elites—those who have cultural capital to exert influence and power—who have changed the culture. This is why the university, and the media, and the arts are so important in shaping the culture.

All of this leads to a fascinating conclusion: some ideas have consequences—namely ideas propagated by those within society who possess cultural capital and a supporting network of other individuals and institutions also within the center of cultural influence and production.

Second post is here. The second post has a link to his review of Hunter’s book (PDF), which is published by Oxford University Press.

I agree completely with the top-down thesis of James Davison Hunter, and I think that it is a tragedy that the Christian parents and Christian churches don’t do a good job of challenging and guiding young Christians to study the things that will allow them to have an influence. Most Christians I talk to have a negative view of steering young Christians towards advanced degrees, or towards making a lot of money, or towards positions of cultural influence, etc. Instead of focusing on being effective, they tell me “I will do what I want to do, because God has a mysterious will for me to be happy”. I don’t buy it. I am happy to consider alternative plans that serve God better, but I don’t think that the “I’ll do what feels good” view is interested in producing a return for God in terms of money and/or influence. Crazy plans do not work out just because we want them to. There are costs to every plan, and not every plan is as likely to lead to influencing the culture as any other plan. This is reality.

I also think it is important to steer children into positions where they can be prosperous and/or influential. Again, many Christians disagree with guiding children that way. In my experience, it is assumed that children need to be happy, and that they are the best people to decide what they should be doing in life. Well, I’m not a heavy-handed bully, but I am not letting my children do whatever they like, because they don’t have enough wisdom and experience to know what to do. For example, I am not letting my children study ballet in university. It doesn’t pay the bills, and it isn’t likely that they will have an influence compared to other choices. Money is important because money can be used to fund Christian scholars, apologetics ministries and apologetics events. Marriage is a great way to have an influence, but marriage costs money, and that means that marriage-minded people should have a plan to pay the bills before they consider marriage. We do not have the right to do whatever we feel like, because we have a boss who expects a return on his investment. If a person is capable of doing hard things that produce a better return (money or influence or children, etc.) then he should do that.

We have a problem in this country as it is with young people borrowing tens of thousands of dollars to study things that either don’t pay off, or that don’t allow them to have an influence. It’s not unloving to tell children the truth about the choices they make. Especially when the cost of having a child is over six figures per child. You can have a huge Christian influence with that kind of money if you spent it on other things, like apologetics scholars, their ministries and their events. So, if you are going to have children and spend it on them, you’d better have some sort of plan, and look for a spouse who is on board with that idea of providing God with a good return on his investment. Everything we do – including the choices to marry and have children – should be focused on serving God. If people shy away from the idea of steering children to have an influence, I don’t think it’s a good idea to get married at all. Save the money and use it for the kingdom somewhere else. Marriage is about making the best decisions you can in order to serve God, and you can’t marry someone who puts their own happiness over the need to produce that return for the boss.

Having said that, if you are already married, stick with it. I am advocating for making smarter decisions before you commit. And before you go off to college, ask yourself: is what you are thinking of studying worth it? Trade school is an excellent option that will give you an income that can support a family AND give to apologetics ministries, with less exposure to debt. If you must go to university, then it’s generally wiser to stick with STEM degrees, so that you can get a job and actually pay off those loans. Marriages and children are NOT free. Retirement is not free. Health care is not free. Christian apologetics ministries do not run on wishes and hopes. Christian scholars do not get their degrees for free – they need support. I think another good plan is to have one person do philosophy or history and then be supported by other people with jobs in STEM fields. That’s what I do – I help out Christian scholars on my team to finish their graduate degrees in fields related to apologetics. Those non-STEM degrees are the best way to have an influence, but it’s easier to get them as a multi-disciplinary team effort. Everyone has to pull their weight!

And one last point. The most amazing thing in the world is when I meet people who are very very skeptical about mentoring young people and steering children towards prosperous and influential areas, even though they themselves may be facing the results of their own poor decisions. You would think that someone who has burned $60,000 on a degree in Women’s Studies and can’t find a job would be on your side about helping other young people to make better decisions, but they are often not on your side. Why is that? Somewhere along the way, this culture stopped liking the Mr. Knightleys who were praised for loving people by telling them the truth about their bad decisions. Now we think that the Emmas can do whatever they want, and no one should be giving them any guidance. How sad.

2 thoughts on “Should we be trying to change the world from the bottom up or the top down?”

  1. Both directions are useful. But we do tend to overemphasize the bottom end change.

    You can’t change stuff from the grass root level as easily if the evil people hold spots high up and they continually light the grass on fire. You spend too much time putting put low level fires and not making differences in the lives of others. Just a basic analogy I thought of.

    But from higher up you can make it so less time is wasted by Christians fighting against created problems in the world by the elite. If the govt isn’t forcing more people into poverty through bad programs we can spend more time and resources in reaching and teaching to the lost


  2. I took a “Healthy Relationships and Conflict Resolution” class near the end of my time at seminary (my notes indicate Spring term 2004) and a lot of the ideas are similar:

    (copy-paste from my notes)
    Culture – Definition:
    “The Culture … is the personality of the church (or corporation) formed by the church leadership or management team. This same personality creates the attitudes about most of what is important within the organization.” – Harold Johnson (Mentoring For Exceptional Performance; Griffin, 1997)

    Those who form the culture of a church – are the leaders of a church.

    “Church culture is a reflection of the belief systems, values and practices of its leadership.” — Johnson

    “An organization’s culture is a reflection of the senior leadership team. A look at the culture can provide a vivid image of what the senior leadership team models as their ‘walk’. It is an imprint of the church’s leadership.” (–Harold Johnson)

    “With something powerful as culture, it is surprising how little time and attention many senior leadership teams spend on developing the desired culture.”

    Entropy: your marriage will get worse if you do nothing to harm it. Same with organizations and their culture. If you do nothing to enhance all of these, they only go down.

    Previous leaders have a culture [again, one of the pastor’s remarks about “understand the culture, then seek to be understood/change the culture.] When you walk into a culture, realize this. Don’t introduce change too quickly. “The Equipping Pastor” (Augsburg Press): When you go into any church, JOIN THE CHURCH (get to know the people and culture) – become part of the community. You may not have the relational chips necessary to make changes (minimum of the 6 months) – learn who has true power etc. You may not see what you are getting when you’re outside. If you make change prematurely, you will not be able to do it. 3-6 months of observation before you join?

    Political science insight: figure out who are the POWER PLAYERS and WHAT kind of power they all have. Psychology: Figure out what motivates each person.

    —end cut and paste

    Up until my first kid was born, I spent a lot of time in the leadership of my church, and was working on volunteer systems and galvanizing church culture. A lot of the older crowd/older leaders wanted to point out that “you change culture by changing one person at a time,” much like your above post.

    “Changing culture” is daunting and nebulous, they might claim. However, it is possible to change culture — but that’s a rabbit trail for another day.

    In any case, there are a lot of ways that Christians can make an influence and some random thoughts:

    1. Mentoring and speaking at college fellowships — including at your own alma mater.

    It’s sometimes just as easy as being/becoming friends with people and through your friendship, influencing them to be more sanctified.

    2. Work on your own character and obedience, but deliberately seek out positions of leadership and responsibility.

    When I was a younger Christian, I was a little more passive about seeking leadership roles — although I was thrust into them. I’m in my mid 40’s now, so I have a little more perspective on this. There will always be positions of power, and it is far better to have the right people in these positions (servant-leaders and more sanctified people) than it is to have people motivated for the wrong reasons.

    Positions of leadership and authority at the church, in ministry, at work, in the community — these are all important. We can pick on an easy example. Maybe one of your readers has a six year old daughter. Would the reader rather be his or her daughter’s soccer coach or would he or she rather have someone else do it? Maybe the reader might think, “I don’t know much about soccer.” Well, your daughter doesn’t know anything, and you can watch youtube videos and read the rulebook or whatever.

    People who are most sanctified and godly, the most capable of leadership — I would argue SHOULD prayerfully seek out positions of authority and influence and leadership.

    3. Paul claimed he was a “tent-maker” (he made something that people wanted and paid for, to provide his income) and a lot of the earliest Christian missionaries (Priscilla, Aquila, Lydia) were business people.

    Translation: they had skills and did things that people wanted. They were able to support themselves to do ministry. These days, STEM graduates are in demand.

    When I first started working, a recruiter try to tell me a joke, “What’s the difference between a hobby and a job? A hobby is something that you enjoy doing, but you’re not superlatively good at this thing, so that people want to pay you to do it. A job pays you for either knowledge or skills a company doesn’t have, or pay you to do something they can’t or won’t do themselves.”

    Everyone would love to be a musician or sports star — but obviously not everyone is good enough to be paid to do so.

    I realize not everyone has solid STEM skills — so look to build solid skills, not fluffy “hobby majors.” Learn economics. Learn business. Learn something that is valuable, so that you have something to contribute towards the well-ordering of society and you have money to be able to give to charities (and to do hobbies and so on).

    4. A lot of meaningful things in life require teamwork.

    In this day and age, there’s a certain fixation on sports superstars (LeBron James carrying his Cavaliers through the Pacers and also against the Raptors last night, ice hockey goalies playing out of their mind, etc.) — but LeBron can’t be five places at once.

    Likewise, William Wilberforce was an important person — a member of Parliament — but he had a significant team behind him (William Pitt, the Clapham Sect including Henry Thornton and Granville Sharp, John Newton, and even John Wesley). Wilberforce was able to change the world for the better — from the top down.

    It would be interesting for Christians to rally behind certain individuals — not just pastors or missionaries — and encourage them — and even consider how to empower them. For instance, “we see you would be a really great elder/speaker/whatever. We would like to babysit for you so that you can be doing this more.” Or, “We can see you are really outstanding as a student and can see that you would do well to obtain a Ph.D. — how can we team up with you and be of assistance?”

    (I might be a bit biased. There was a MIT student — now alumna — who got pregnant and she decided to keep her daughter. She knew it would be very difficult — this is MIT we’re talking about, where there are no honorary degrees and you have to earn your credentials. When she returned back to MIT, her all-women’s Bible study would take turns taking care of her daughter and babysitting so that this lady could go to review sessions and classes and so on.)

    Liked by 1 person

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