Hardly a day goes by that a book or an email doesn't arrive telling me how to "transform the culture" or "change the world."
In one recent email, a conference promised the attendance of many nationally recognized evangelical speakers. I went to the website and read that at this conference, among other things, I will "find out what it means to be inwardly strong and outwardly focused and to have a church body that desires to change the world from the inside-out!"
I have on my desk a book subtitled "The Passion and Practices of Missional Churches," and the subtitle for one chapter says that missional churches "expect to change the world." It leads with a quote from a well-known futurist, who says, "It is still God's policy to work through the embarrassingly insignificant to change his world and create his future." The book points to one Southern California church and says, "The ultimate criteria for determining its effectiveness is the transformation of Los Angeles."
Are they ever in for a big disappointment. On top of that, I'm now worried for Los Angeles.
I hesitate to cheer for cultural transformation, though not because I like the world just the way it is. Hardly. I read the paper this morning. I hesitate, though not because I don't believe that the church impacts the world. It has impacted the world and will continue to do so. I hesitate because I think the goal of transforming our city, our culture, or our world can lead to little good.
The church is rightly embarrassed by well-lit displays of the Crusades, the Inquisition, murderously Reformed Geneva, and the Salem witch trials in history's hall of shame. What do all these events have in common? They were motivated by a desire to transform the culture, if not the world, into a kingdom of God. When we get on that kick, history has repeatedly shown that even Christians will destroy a village to save it.
To be sure, Christians ought to care about the sad plight of the culture and the world. And we ought to recognize that we are at least partly responsible for the mess. Then we should recognize that God wants us to work against injustice and evil.
It's the next step that gets us into trouble. We recall verses like this: "Go and make disciples of all nations " and "You are to be my witnesses in all the world ." So we make the leap of faith and start preaching, "We've got to change the world!"
We are certainly responsible for going to the ends of the earth and making disciples from people of every nation. There is plenty in Scripture about doing justice and loving mercy and feeding the hungry and caring for the widow and orphan. But I find little or nothing about us having the task of transforming the culture.
We fall into this rhetoric because we know the problems we face are huge and we feel so small. We worry that if we don't boldly proclaim that we can "change the world," everybody will give up before we even begin. We all face the common temptation of Adam and Eve. We want to feel significant. We want to feel like we're players. We want to make a difference in the world. And only by imagining that we can change the world do we think our actions have any meaning.
This, of course, runs in the opposite direction of Jesus' ethic, which is about service. Servants aren't about world-changing initiatives as much as about washing the dirty feet of the travelers sitting at their kitchen table. Jesus never tells us to do anything because it will transform the culture. Surprisingly, he didn't seem interested in transforming the Roman Empire, one of the most oppressive and unjust cultures in history. He seemed rather to think that society would always have economic disparity, and that not only should changing Rome not be a priority, but also we should not even object to underwriting it with our taxes.
To be sure, he says we can be "the salt of the earth" and "the light of the world." As such, we can indeed give the world a glimpse of kingdom life so that many will give glory to God (Matt. 5:12-14). But there's nothing there about the world being transformed. What Jesus wants us to do primarily, it seems, is to love those right in front of our noses.
I remain puzzled as to why we're so bored with the very things Jesus asks us to do, like picking that foreigner up out of the ditch, giving away our goods to the poor, going to court with a young man who's being railroaded by the system, taking an orphan into our home, going the extra mile with the oppressive and manipulative, forgiving the offender, baptizing, and witnessing. I find these things really, really hard to do. I fail all the time. If I can't even do these things well, why would I believe that I could transform my culture, let alone change the world?
Just because Jesus doesn't ask us to change the world doesn't mean, of course, that it's not going to eventually be transformed. Even the apostles knew they were incapable of making a heavenly kingdom out of this mess we call history: "Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom?" While rightly anxious to see the world transformed, they knew who was responsible for transforming it.
In the meantime, we have our little jobs to do. And as Jesus put it, "Sufficient for the day is its own trouble" (Mt. 6:34).
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today and author ofJesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untamable God (Baker 2006). You are invited to comment below or on his blog.
Copyright © 2007 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Sub-biblical Transformation, a Christianity Today editorial, dealt with the use of social psychology as the route to effective ministry.
Previous SoulWork columns include:
GraceThat's So Sick | The church seems to be an embarrassment to everyone except its Lord. (July 26, 2007)
We Are Not Pregnant | The glory of men and women lies in their unbridgeable differences. (July 12, 2007)
Seeker Unfriendly | We need more than worship that makes sense. (June 14, 2007)
The Cost of Christian Education | Getting schooled in the faith is more unnerving than I care to admit. (May 31, 2007)
Surviving a Family-Wrecking Economy | What the church can do about working mothers. (May 17, 2007)
The Real Secret of the Universe | Why we disdain feel-good spirituality but shouldn't. (May 3, 2007)
Peace in a World of Massacre | What Jesus calls us to when we're most frightened. (April 17, 2007)
The Good Friday Life | We need something more than another moral imperative. (April 4, 2007)
I Love, Therefore You Are | Why the modern search for self ends in despair. (June 28, 2007)