Is the Church a Faithful Witness?
I described the notion of world revolution in my post "What Makes a Revolution Successful?" To build off that concept, one popular idea of revolution is captured in a phrase coined by James Davidson Hunter: the church is a faithful witness. Hunter’s view is that the church does not have the power to achieve political goals and grand notions of transforming the world. What’s the alternative? The alternative I would recommend is to adopt the plan of Jesus to be a light to the world, in other words to make disciples who then make even more disciples. (Matt 28:18-20).
Obviously, this method is not one that brings change quickly. It takes time. It doesn’t make the headlines. It is a person-to-person approach. We tell others the good news and people are publically baptized. Then we teach them to do everything Jesus taught us, including how to make more disciples, all until the story is told to all the earth. When this is complete, Jesus says that he will return and make things right (Matt. 24:14; 28:18–20).
Being a quite revolutionary is not flashy or complicated. It is simply living an authentic life and Christian witness embedded in society, preserving and illuminating God’s truth until he returns to establish his kingdom. I am an advocate that personal influence is the key to changing culture. Hunter presents a different approach which involves cultural elites and powerful networks. Hunter and I agree that we are called to be faithful witnesses. But I see that the starting point is character change, disciples who make other disciples. Then when multiplication begins, it will create what Hunter describes as social or cultural change
Four Ways of Social Change
Hunter sees four ways in which social change happens that he presents as more determinative than commitment to make disciples and to teach everyone everything that Jesus commanded (Matt. 28:20).
Jesus told us to make disciples and said almost nothing about society and networks. Hunter presents the key actor in history is not individual genius but the network. New institutions are created out of networks. As an example, Hunter points to outlawing slavery in England. Most would contend that this victory was due to the character of William Wilberforce. Hunter, however, says it was due to the Clapham Circle, a powerful network of Christian abolitionists, of which Wilberforce was a member. I would say it was the character of Wilberforce which led to the advocacy of the Clapham Circle.
Dr. Hunter, a sociologist, has observed the following trends:
- The individuals, networks, and institutions most critically involved in the production of culture operate at the center where prestige is the highest. Power is at the center, not on the periphery where the status is low. For example if the president of Harvard believes the right thing, he will have more impact than your local plumber.
- Long-term cultural change always occurs from the top down. It is the work of the elites, the gatekeepers who provide creative direction and management to the leading institutions of society. I believe that while there are examples of elites and gatekeepers changing society, that it begins in the grass roots. One could argue that Pastor Rick Warren leads a powerful church and world-wide network and that is the reason people listen to him. That is true in its present manifestation, but Pastor Rick’s influence is based on his character and being a faithful witness. First there was Rick Warren, and over a thirty year period Saddleback Church became a major force, then there was The Purpose Driven Church, and The Purpose Driven Life. My point is you begin with the person who then creates the effect, network or movement that then a sociologist would recognize as elite or a center of power.
- World change is most intense when the networks of elites and the institutions they lead overlap. According to Hunter, it is a consistent pattern that the impetus, energy, and direction for changing the world are greatest where cultural, economic, and often political resources come together in a common purpose.
To be clear, what Hunter is advocating is different from the Jesus way of transformation through personal evangelism and discipleship. If Hunter is right, then Jesus’ plan is wrong, and our churches would be wasting time in attempting to change the world by working with ordinary people. The church should be targeting the key cultural players as the primary strategy.
The Role of Ordinary People
While Hunter may be somewhat correct on his first point, in that social elites do lead important institutions and networks, his remaining points tend to downplay the role ordinary people play in God’s economy. Contrary to his second point, a certain carpenter from the backwater of Nazareth seemed to break this rule. Historian Randall Balmer writes, “My reading of American religious history is that religion always functions best from the margins of society and not in the councils of power. Once you identify the faith with a particular candidate or party or with the quest for political influence, ultimately it is the faith that suffers.” So while Hunter, a sociologist, sees the main potential for change at the center, Balmer says the church has done its greatest work out of the limelight, in the margins. In other words, the church has been at its best when it had the least.
On Hunter’s third point, one could argue that grassroots movements actually bring about the greatest change. Hunter holds that the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Great Awakenings, the Enlightenment, the triumph of capitalism, and all democratic revolutions in the West began among elites and then percolated into the larger society. In other words, even if reproducing disciples are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, we will not see revolution until cultural elites get involved.
To be fair, I think Hunter would agree that Jesus didn’t tell us to take over the world or dominate or control it in anyway. Our role is to be faithful witnesses until he returns and makes things right. But I believe Jesus has set the bar higher in his plan and kind of revolution, which Dallas Willard characterizes in this way: “We must make no mistake about it. In sending out his [disciples], he set afoot a perpetual world revolution: one that is still in process and will continue until God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. As this revolution culminates, all forces of evil known to mankind will be defeated and the goodness of God will be known, accepted, and joyously conformed to in every aspect of human life. He has chosen to accomplish this with and, in part, through his [disciples].”
Willard specifically says here, “until God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.” This speaks of the revolution culminating at Christ’s return, when he will defeat the physical and spiritual forces of evil. This is the time of judgment, when Christ finally establishes his rule over all and creates the new heavens and the new earth. So while we have a role in his revolution, we are not the ones to ultimately complete it. Our role is partial, yet crucial and significant because we are the means God uses in the revolution today.
We start the revolution, and Jesus finishes it.
It is understood that we cannot ultimately seek to rule until Christ has returned, because he is the only one who rules. Balmer is right. Our churches will be suffering, persecuted communities until Christ’s return, so the authority we have must be exercised from the margins of society. McKnight is also right in saying that political power is too weak. And Willard is right in reminding us that we have an important part to play as the church.
Above all, though, Jesus is right. The way we bring change is to be his disciples and to make disciples. What elevates making disciples above all else is the reality that only our churches can do this. If we don’t make disciples, no one else will. Christians should be involved in politics, business, the media, and among the cultural elites. We should work among the poor and in the margins of society. But in all of our work, we cannot forget our primary mission. We have a unique calling to make disciples who make disciples. And this, above all else, must be our focus.
 James Davison Hunter, in an address to Trinity Forum, June 21–22, 2003. Summarized by Jay Lorensen on June 10, 2006, in Leadership Movements: Marks of a Movement, www.onmovements.com.
 Hunter, Trinity Forum.
 Randall Balmer, God in the White House, 167, quoted in McKnight, Conspiracy, 267.
 Willard, Renovation, 14–15. The first “[disciples]” is trainees in the original, and the second is students.
This excerpt has been adapted from Conversion and Discipleship.
Image credit: Unsplash.