Spelunking, Cave Formations, and Culture Change
“It’s riskier than ever,” Jill said, “to tell people you work with you’re a Christian.”
Jill worked at a public policy communications firm in Denver. Having worked with people of all faiths and no faith for over seven years, her sentiment about being a Christian in pluralist America was one I heard often. Fear. Isolation. Better to be quiet about my faith, and not risk the professional repercussions.
Clearly, for Christians in America, we’re not in Kansas anymore.
For many evangelicals who sense a deep loss of cultural power over the past decade, a debate has developed about how cultures change. The need to reimagine a Christian cultural presence has emerged – and so have ideas about how cultures develop and change.
The debate essentially boils down to two approaches: (1) Top-down elites who are in power shape culture by imposing their perspectives on society. These elites sit in positions of institutional power, sit on one another’s boards, and have disproportionate influence on culture.
The other side argues for a bottom-up approach: (2) Cultures change through grass roots movements. When large numbers of people organize, they’re able to shape the beliefs of society through building a large, powerful platform dispersed over wide-ranging networks.
Little-known political philosopher J.P. Nettl can shed light on this debate about culture change. He thinks we can learn a lot about effective social movements through observing cave formations.
If you’ve ever been spelunking, you’ve seen two type of rock formations: stalactite rock formations come down from the top of the cave. Stalagmite formations, however, come up from the bottom. When stalactite and stalagmite formations meet in the middle they form a single column. J.P. Nettl believes social movements are strongest when both top-down and bottom-up approaches are united.
When I spoke to Michael Lindsay, President of Gordon College, about this phenomenon, he mentioned two examples. First, the International Justice Mission. “Gary Haugen, IJM’s president, speaks at the Davos World Economic Forum,” Lindsay said. “That is literally where the world’s power elite gather.” From local police to high powered attorneys, Haugen works with high level leaders across the world to bring about justice for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable populations. So, here’s a top down approach.
Yet IJM also has an army of college students who advocate for their work across the United States. From Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles, they’ve built a grass roots movement that has spread throughout the evangelical (and non-evangelical) world. IJM has become a strong social movement because both top-down and bottom-up approaches meet in the middle to form a single column.
Lindsay shared another example: AIDS in Africa. Huge progress has been made over the past two decades on AIDS. AIDS is no longer a death sentence for millions, in part because of the wide spread grass roots efforts from NGOs, churches, businesses, and local leaders. But there’s also a story of a key person of influence who changed the course of history: Condoleezza Rice.
When Rice was serving as National Security Advisor to George W. Bush, she was in the room when a crucial decision about PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) was made.
A conversation had been going on for about a year that tested the President’s compassionate conservative agenda: would the federal government contribute $15 billion to extend the lives of AIDS patients across Sub-Saharan Africa?
The final meeting takes place in the Oval Office with about 15 core advisors. They turn to Rice and essentially ask, “Is this a good use of money?” She tells the story of her mother who battled cancer and survived through 15 critical years of her adolescence and young adulthood. During that time, Rice graduated from high school, graduated from the University of Denver, changed from being a concert pianist to an expert on the Soviet Union, earned a degree from Notre Dame, and became a faculty member at Stanford.
With resolute conviction, Rice said, “It changed my life that my mother was able to be involved in those 15 years. If we can do that for an entire continent, and don’t do it, it’s a moral failure.”
That decision swayed the history of Africa in a major way.
And here’s the point Lindsay was making to me. He said, with equal conviction to that of Rice, “In order for evangelicals to have influence on key decisions that affect millions of people, you have to be in the room. Elite networks matter.”
When we were designing the 5280 Fellowship, this truth was being seared deeply into my mind. Leadership matters — for the well-being of us all. And yet, when we look at the evangelical landscape, we have broad and wide grass roots efforts aimed at serving the common good, from billion dollar nonprofits like World Vision to the 16,000 student strong annual missions conference Urbana. But what evangelicals lack are enough intentional efforts to form men and women for positions of significant leadership in American culture.
James Davison Hunter has made this point resoundingly in his book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. Evangelicals are almost completely absent – explicitly as people of faith – from leadership roles in culture-shaping institutions like elite private schools, fine art or mainstream media.
In other words, our evangelical cave formations are almost all bottom-up stalagmites.
One of my great hopes for the 5280 Fellowship is that more men and women early in their career will be prepared not just for influence in American society, but for influence in a particularly Christian way.
As Lindsay shared with me, “The reason I care deeply about having more serious Christians in positions of responsibility is because there are very few world views that preach a gospel of self-sacrifice, and none that are built around the very concept of self-sacrifice like the Christian gospel.”
I finally asked Lindsay, “Should we really be encouraging young Christians to pursue positions of institutional power?”
His response quieted me with a deep peace and hopefulness: “The antidote to the pernicious effects of power is not giving up power. It is using power sacrificially. Why, then, would we not want more people with these values? Why would we not want more people like that setting the example in the upper reaches of society?”
This vision of the 5280 Fellowship is not of an evangelical “transformation” of America, but neither is it being bound to fear for being a Christian in American society today.
This vision is simply of serving the well-being of all our neighbors — whether Christians or otherwise — through our work.
This post first appeared at JeffHaanen.com.