What is the best way to make a difference in the world?
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I’d like to posit that creating an idea that colonizes our minds—a signpost in the memescape, if you will—is a very high leverage way of making a difference in the world. . .The kind of signposts I’m thinking about are often little more than short phrases—or even single word neologisms—that, due to what ideas they have compressed within them, reorient how you see specific spheres of experience.
These are “catchy” concepts that often combine two or more words in unexpected ways, creating a mental hook for a vague penumbra of facts and experiences. And these signposts evoke a similar sensation to when you learn a new word: once you’ve been exposed to one of these, you see it everywhere. . .
How to begin? Recognize patterns in the world and name them. Smash unexpected terms together and see if they sing. Realize when you are struggling to describe something and spend some time just sitting and figuring out how to compress that description down into a short pithy phrase.
There’s something to this idea, but the change you render could be for good or ill. Shifting the memescape is reckless idea, I think, adding distraction to distraction, piling sound byte upon sound byte, pasting clutter over clutter, and hoping that the new coinage will effect a mystical transformational outcome. Arbesman names “premium mediocre,” “cozy futurism,” “horsehistory,” “intuition pump,” “undiscovered public knowledge,” “Matthew effect,” and several others as examples of signposts we now “see everywhere.”
He must be reading and conversing with people quite different than those in my sphere. I have not encountered a single example he cites.
I’m more an advocate of developing discourses, but, as someone who has been attempting to communicate the Christian tradition to people for years, I know how valuable shorthand can be, as can fresh ways of expressing old ideas in memorable, pithy ways. Preachers are often meme generators. The best build a world around those memes.
The truth is that languages dances ever so lightly on thought. One proof of this is how terminology’s meanings quickly bend according to thought patterns. University of California linguist George Lakoff, for example, has notoriously suggested that the Democratic Party could attract more voters by altering the labels they apply to things of political import, such as calling income taxes “membership fees” and trial lawyers “public-protection attorneys.” Lakoff’s idea has seemed less urgent since the Barack Obama phenomenon created a Democratic ascendance on its own, but the idea could have had at best a temporary impact. Terminology doesn’t shape thought, it follows it.
Consider terms such as affirmative action, now so conventional we rarely stop to parse what the actual words composing it mean: “affirming” what? What kind of “action”? The term was artful and gracious, giving a constructive, positive air to an always controversial policy. Note, however, that political opponents soon came to associate the term with the same negative feelings they had about the policy it referred to, such that today it is uttered with scorn by many. Welfare is similar. The contrast between the core meaning of the word and its modern political associations is instructive, in that one can easily imagine a Lakoff in the 1930s proposing exactly the word welfare as a label for government assistance. Notably, another term of art for the same policy, home relief, rapidly took on the same kinds of negative associations. Similarly, if an issue commonly attracts dismissive attitudes, those accrete to any new terms applied. This happened quickly to urgently intended terms such as male chauvinist and women’s liberation, as well as special education.
Changing the terms can play some initial role in moving opinion, rather like God getting the globe spinning under the deist philosophy. But what really creates change is argumentation, as well as necessary political theatrics. Mere terms require constant renewal as opponents quickly “see through” the artful intentions of the latest ones coined and cover up the old label with the new one, applying to it the attitudes they have always had. Only in an unimaginably totalitarian context that so limited the information available to citizens that constructive thought and imagination were near impossibilities could language drive culture in a lasting way. This is why Orwell and 1984, expected references at this point in my discussion, are not truly relevant here. In the real world, language talks about culture; it cannot create it.
John McWhorter, The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language, p. 159-160
Here’s John McWhorter, saying something that has relevance to every church debate I’ve ever heard about whether to call the congregation’s primary gathering space the worship center or the sanctuary, or the piece of paper handed out at the door the bulletin or a worship folder. Is it evangelism or outreach? Are we Christians or followers of Jesus?
When disagree over terms, or when their is some push to change them, we assume that be changing the terms we will change the culture. But that’s not true. As McWhorter notes, changing terms might start a conversation, “But what really creates change is argumentation, as well as necessary political theatrics.”
I’ll confess that I’ve been a leader who has shifted terminology or made changes in the effort to create an institutional shift, while neglected to enter into the debate with fellow congregants about why a change in approach is needed. And in most every instance, that move has resulted in tension. Thinking I was putting a shortcut into effect, instead, needed changes could now only be enacted after taking an even longer way around.
I do think language is important, and I wonder if McWhorter is amiss that language is far more descriptive than generative. It seems to me that shifts in language can result in new ways of seeing, and new ways of action. I think the way that we pray, the words that we speak, and the terms we apply matter a great deal. I also think that the language of faith is not only a spoken form of communication, but that it must also be embodied in habits of individuals and the community.
I think the important here is that getting the words right is not enough. There must be a culture, a way of being, that accompanies the words that describe it, and the description must accurately match the reality being described in ways both concrete and abstract.
The object of our pastoral care is all the flock, that is, the church and every member of it. We should know every person who belongs to our charge. For how can we take heed unto them if we do not know them? A careful shepherd looks after every individual sheep. A good schoolmaster looks to every individual student, both for instruction and correction. A good physician looks after every particular patient. And good commanders look after every individual solider. Why, then, should the teachers, the pastors, the physicians, the guides of the churches of Christ not take heed unto every individual member of their charge?
Christ himself is the great and good shepherd and master of the church, who has the whole church to look after and yet takes care of every individual in it. In Luke 15, he tells us that he is like the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness to seek out the one who was lost; or like the woman who lights a candle, sweeps the house, and searches diligently to find the one coin that was lost, and having found it, she rejoices and calls her friends and neighbors to rejoice with her. Christ tells us that there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents (Luke 15:7, 10). The prophets were often sent to single men. Ezekiel was made a watchman over individuals who must say to the wicked, “You shall surely die (Ezek. 3:18-19). Paul taught the people publicly and from house to house (Acts 20:20), which refers to his teaching particular families. The same Paul warned every man and taught every man, in all wisdom, that he might present every man perfect in Christ Jesus (Col. 1:28). Christ explained his public parables to twelve on their own (Mark 4:34). Every man must seek the law at the mouth of the priest (Mal. 2:7). As pastors, we must give an account of our watching over the souls of all who are bound to obey us (Heb. 13:17). Many more passages in Scripture assure us that it is our duty to take heed unto every person in our flock.
Richard Baxter was writing in the 1600s. His words still hold. Pastors are to take heed unto every individual in their charge. Ministry should be personal as well as public. As Howard Hendricks would often say, “You can impress people from afar, but you can only impact them up close.”
I’ve made it a habit in ministry to keep lists of names before me, whether it be members of my youth group or families in my care, or students I’ve met attending classes on a nearby college campus, or congregational members that I’ve wanted to keep before me in prayer. As a teacher, I now keep my class rosters nearby. And I’ve made myself available for one-on-ones of the planned and the “pop-in” variety. Believe it or not, I set out about ten or so dates a semester where students can sign up for “Lunch with Brother Ben.” The majority of those dates do fill.
Baxter’s vision is active, more intentional, not only visiting pew by pew but house to house, coming to know people not only in congregation but where they dwell in the broader community. His notion of shepherding not only requires walking the distance from pulpit to church doorway, but down streets and across fields. He envisions parsons who go to the people, not wallflowers who wait for congregants to come for instruction and counsel. A good shepherd not only counts the sheep, but knows each by name. He lives where they live, sees what they see, and experiences what they experience, so that he can serve as is fitting for people and place.
This old vision for pastoral work needs to be cast yet again, for, as Baxter notes, this mode of ministry is scriptural and, therefore, does not go out of style. Our moment is replete with influencers but sparse of shepherds. We scroll past hundreds of peddlers of inspiration or advice each day, but scarcely come face to face with a person who, having come to know our name and needs, can counsel us in the way of wisdom, who can help us walk by the Spirit, who can instruct us in the Scriptures, and who can comfort us with the gospel of Christ.
God is still calling forth people to serve as shepherds. But if more such servants are to be found in our midst, that call must be answered.
Not long ago, it would have been taken for granted that social order in our free society is a function of our capacity to restrain and govern our most intense longings. Human beings are moved by passionate desires for things like pleasure, status, wealth, and power. But these intense desires can deform our lives if we don’t subject them to some structure and moderation through marriage, schooling, work, religion, and other binding commitments. Disordered lives are a product of rushing in recklessly, so that sex or children come too soon while responsibility comes too late if at all.
But a lot of contemporary social science, like this important new report, has come to be quietly premised in a different understanding of disorder. Rather than seeing the drive to have children as a force to be channeled and domesticated by marriage, for instance, we have come to see both the desire for marriage and the desire for kids as endangered and in decline. And more broadly, the challenges to America’s social order now seem less like exorbitant human desires driving people’s lives out of control and more like an absence of energy and drive leaving people languishing and enervated. These are very different kinds of social problems that call for different sorts of responses. We can all perceive the shift from one toward the other in this century, but our cultural and political thinking has been slow to catch up.
Human life is dynamic and fluid, always changing, and the challenge before the sages, intellectuals, and leaders of any age is to accurately diagnose the societal ills of a given moment and to propose and activate solutions that work.
What’s wrong with American society today? What’s wrong with the West? For that matter, what’s wrong with the world?
Yuval Levin argues that our problem is not an excess of societal energy and the failure to channel it, as it may have been in the recent past, but cultural lethargy.
And strangely enough, that lethargy yields results that are both good and bad, with the positive aspects being easiest to observe, and the drawbacks most elusive.
Teen pregnancy is down and divorce is down. Out-of-wedlock births are down. Abortion rates are down. Fewer teenagers are dying in car wrecks. But that’s because teens aren’t dating. Teens are staying home more. People aren’t connecting. Fewer teenagers are obtaining a driver’s license. Marriage and fertility rates are down, too, but that’s because marriage is delayed, and having children is delayed, and sometimes, marriage and having children is discouraged.
Levin writes, “If social dysfunction is essentially a breakdown of discipline—if the core social problem is unruliness—then American life is getting better. We should want fewer people suffering the consequences of disorder, and it’s a good thing that more people’s lives answer to their own choices and preferences.”
But that can’t be it. This definition is incomplete. Levin states, “that case is ultimately unpersuasive because the greatest virtues of a social order are not functions of its ability to restrain commotion or even to empower choice but of its capacity to enable human flourishing.”
A healthy social order doesn’t just counter what ails it. A healthy social order offers reasons for hope, worthwhile aspirations, and a vision of the good life.
The pathologies of passivity are more fundamental challenges to flourishing because they strike deeper and earlier than the dangers of unruliness. Habits and institutions of restraint can work like sculptors of the social order—selectively chipping away at our wild, boisterous pursuit of happiness to shape it into more beautiful forms of energetic human action. But what if we fail to act on our longings to begin with? What if there is nothing to restrain, and so no raw material for the sculptor to work with? The right to pursue happiness won’t do us much good if we don’t exercise it.
Levin’s article is lengthy and worth a read. In the end, his focus is on public policy prescriptions and political leadership. He concludes that rightly understanding our maladies is only a starting point, a way to grasp our moment in order to better argue about and identify productive avenues for moving forward, ways to lift us from our malaise.
Policy won’t be enough. We’ll need a story and a cause powerful enough to inspire, challenge, and invite us to rise to our moment, to work and to build.
I think the way forward will necessarily involve the religious sphere. Faith leaders will need to step forward and offer the wisdom of their traditions in the moral, intellectual, social, and ethical dimensions of life. To offer it, they’ll need to mine it, to understand it, possess it, and embody it. As a Christian leader and minister, I certainly see the role I have to play in my family, workplace, community, and local congregation.
I have a calling to teach, equip, and inspire leaders to become active, to be workers and builders, connectors and collaborators. The local church can be a powerful catalyst for transformation and change, not only in the lives of individuals, but in the broader social fabric of a community. An entire community need not be converted for a leavening effect to be felt, for an entire neighborhood, town, or city to experience uplift and positive change, all because a small group of dedicated individuals commit their lives to God, to serving and loving all people, and praying that the kingdom would come, not only for the sake of the faithful, but for the sake of the world, all to God’s glory.
It is now becoming my prayer that God would not only bring forth more workers, more dedicated Christian leaders, but specifically more pastors and preachers, people who will teach, shepherd, equip, and send the faithful into the world within the life of local congregations. We not only need pastors and preachers who will fill the pulpits in established churches, but also those who will plant new communities, who have been given evangelistic and apostolic gifts to break new ground and to gather in new believers, and to help those they serve do a new work in our time.
The previous age may have necessitated Christian leaders who would redirect disordered energies toward marriage, family formation, and the maintaining of a healthy communal life.
But the next generation of Christian leaders may need to dedicate themselves to the work of exhortation, urging us to get moving while painting a picture of what a flourishing life before God might look like. They may need to help us move toward a land of promise while walking through a wilderness, and to learn to trust God for our daily bread.
A couple of weeks ago our congregation celebrated World Communion Sunday, and like many other congregations, each person received what I’ll call a “personalized wafer/grape juice combo pack” upon entering the sanctuary.
After we received the elements together as a congregation late in the order of service, I was amused when I caught sight of a young boy, maybe around eleven or twelve years old, make his way to the nearest trash can at the rear of the worship space, take a final swig of his juice, and windmill slam the container into the bottom of the can. Two points. And with authority.
I also found it funny to observe another boy, maybe around six, double-fisting his communion cups, gulping down the juice representing the blood of Christ first from his left hand, then from his right. This is the Lord’s table, where an abundance is found.
Writing is a skill that comes in handy in every discipline, every trade, every endeavor of life. Why? Because writing crystallizes thought. Most of us avoid writing, not because writing is hard (though it can be), but because writing requires us to order our thoughts. As William Zinsser observed, “The hard part isn’t the writing; the hard part is the thinking.”
I wasn’t very good at writing when I began, which means I wasn’t very good at thinking. I had not yet begun to work out the ideas that were swirling in my mind. In middle school and high school my parents had to help me complete more than one research paper. I was overwhelmed by large assignments. I struggled to develop a thesis. I had a hard time establishing structure. My attention flagged. I was easily discouraged. I was plagued by self doubt.
Things changed when I discovered that writing was a way I could share ideas. I could write to connect with friends. Chat rooms and email and bulletin board forums were settings for exchange. I shared a thought and others responded. Some of those thoughts were dumb or rude or ill considered. Many were underdeveloped, immature. Maybe something I wrote was occasionally bright or touching or radiant. My early writings could be juvenile. Of course! I was a teenager. I like to think I’ve grown since then, but old habits die hard.
I eventually discovered blogging. I had a friend who worked for a media company that was starting a magazine. I asked to contribute. I learned that a denominational publisher accepted devotional pieces. I submitted, was accepted, and I was given a small check for my efforts. I wrote devotional guides for larger curriculum bundles. I like seeing my stuff in print.
I found other reasons to write. As a church leader, I wrote pastoral letters and developed curriculum. I wrote discussion questions. I put together leadership training guides and wrote job descriptions. I wrote proposals for committees. I wrote memos. I wrote sermons. I wrote more emails. I wrote hand written, short notes. I used writing to reach out, to communicate, to build a bridge between minds, to coordinate, to lead.
As time has gone on I have become more and more convinced that writing is a skill that is useful in every field, for every person. But I have also become more and more convinced that it is a vital skill for ministry leaders, for pastors.
Why? Because a well written sentence reflects a well ordered mind. Ideas, when they are clearly expressed, are more easily grasped. Christian people claim their convictions are true. If they are true, they are true regardless of how well they are articulated. But if they are articulated poorly or opaquely, they will not be accepted. If arguments are made poorly, they will fail. If reasons are not compelling, they will not persuade. If invitations are not clear, they will not be heeded. If warnings do not pierce, they will not be considered. If good news does not penetrate the heart, hearts will not yield.
The best way to learn how to write is to write. The best way to learn to construct arguments is to put pencil to paper. The best way to compose a sermon is sentence by sentence, line by line, bathed in prayer. By God’s grace, there will be clarity on the page, and clarity in the mind of the reader.
That, finally, may be the key to good Christian writing. The technical aspects by necessity should be mastered; one must use the language well. But there is a divine dimension, an illuminating presence, the in-breaking of the holy, the gift of grace, going between writer and reader, allowing for transmission, communication, and transformation, new ways of seeing, perceiving, and being.
We make our offerings. God does with them what he wills.
The footprint of Trumpism in American Christianity, particularly among those we clumsily and vaguely characterize as “Evangelical,” is large and persistent. It is powered in part by genuine political disagreement, in part by cultural anxiety, and in part by a large and rapacious commercial apparatus that converts Americans’ fears into fortunes 30 pieces of silver at a time. (This makes more sense if you think of cable news, political radio, and social media as in effect one complex and recursive system of self-moronization.) And it grows in its opportunistic way because American Christians still, after all these years, have not quite figured out how to engage with politics without either drifting into some unholy compound of state-idolatry and theocracy or degrading the church to the position of just another special-interest group among many, a half-assed Chamber of Commerce for the faithful — God’s little lobbyists. Because they have been convinced that we live in especially critical times and that the other side is irredeemably evil and on the verge — always and forever on the verge — of achieving irresistible power, they are all too eager to subordinate eternal concerns to short-term political mandates, proclaiming themselves practical and hard-headed men of worldly experience.
This is a particularly acute institutional problem for Evangelicals, because they do not have the Catholic Church’s history of wielding real political power, and — perhaps more importantly — because they do not have its hierarchy. The Catholic Church discovered many centuries ago that if an organization is going to cultivate princely power, then it had better have some princes. The pope can meet any head of state — including heads of officially atheist states — as a peer, and in most cases something more than that. Lesser princes of the church have sufficient status and prestige (purely secular qualities but necessary ones) and, in some cases, enough plain political clout to meet any legislator and most heads of state eye-to-eye. But without a hierarchy of that sort, American Evangelical leaders most often come to wide influence only as political pundits or operatives (Mike Huckabee, Ralph Reed), or as a familiar species of self-help guru (Joel Osteen, T. D. Jakes). A very few, such as Tim Keller, achieve some intellectual influence as clergymen, but that is a bit of a high-wire act: Almost invariably, they end up politically neutered by a too-scrupulous bipartisanship or else are spiritually evacuated by factionalism and the unclean hurly-burly of democratic action in the real world.
Williamson’s critique of evangelicalism is interesting, but wrong. Yes, Catholics have had political power, and yes, Catholics have a hierarchy. More importantly, the Catholic Church is an institution and a corresponding tradition. It has the advantage of a priestly class that can focus its efforts on intellectual work. Catholicism has resources devoted to intellectual life. Evangelicalism, overwhelmingly, does not.
Stanley Hauerwas once relayed a quote by James William McClendon concerning the intellectual tradition of baptists that has hung with me through the years. McClendon authored a three volume systematic theology. Systematic theologies have rarely been produced by baptists. Asked why this was the case, McClendon noted that baptists, throughout their history, have been a mostly poor, marginalized, and persecuted minority among Christian movements. To produce something as complex as a systematic theology, one must have the leisure, resources, and time to dedicate one’s research and writing toward that end. Baptists, mostly, have not been afforded such a luxury.
That said, I have often remarked to friends that one of the most underdeveloped areas of theological reflection among American Christians is with regard to political theology. I have also lamented the fact that we have not done a better job of calling out the called among us with intellectual gifts and encouraged those individuals–both male and female–to use those gifts for the edification of the church. There are many reasons for this–complacency, anti-intellectualism, and even idolatry.
The church does have opportunities, even today, to further develop its intellectual capacities. The first setting is the sermon. Ministers do often preach them every weekend, and it is within the sermon that not only the Scriptures can be exposited and the gospel announced, but some serious thinking can be offered about the times we live in and the challenges we face today. Pastors, to preach these kinds of sermons, must read and study, and have the support of a congregation who will encourage them to do so–and to share with them the other burdens and responsibilities of the ministry, in order to meet the needs of the congregation as a whole.
As Williamson phrased things, I do not think the goal of the clergy should be intellectual influence per se, but rather to reflect the mind of Christ to the world, to articulate the truths of Christianity with clarity, to be “scribes of the kingdom” bringing forth treasures old and new, and to offer reasons for the faith Christians profess, knowing that disagreement and opposition will come. If minds are changed and influence results, praise be to God, for these changes will, in the end, be a display of the gift of grace.
Looking for ways to make a difference, younger Americans therefore tend to think in terms not of channeling their ambitions through institutions but rather of going around them. Because our politics has always rewarded those who can successfully claim the mantle of the outsider–now even more than usual–the temptation to approach our institutions antagonistically, or to avoid them altogether, has grown very strong. When we look for solutions, we tend to look not to institutions but to individuals, movements, ideals, or maverick outsiders.
Maybe what we resist most is the idea that we would need to be formed by institutions at all. The liberal idea of freedom, which has often been at the core of our political imagination, is rooted in the premise that the choosing individual is the foundation of our social order. Liberating that person–whether from oppression, necessity, coercion, or constraint–has frequently been understood to be the foremost purpose of our politics. Our parties have argued about how to do it and about what kind of liberation the individual most desires or requires. But they have agreed, at least implicitly, that once properly liberated, that person could be free.
Yuval Levin, A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream
I feel these tensions, having been formed within them. I value institutions. I value individualism. I’m skeptical of institutions. I’m aware of their failures. Early in my ministry I was drawn more toward movements and mavericks, those seeking to reform or to build something new.
But as the years have gone on, I’ve become more skeptical of radical individualism. It can pull us away from community, history, or tradition. I’m wary of those who build their own cult of personality.
In A Time to Build, Yuval Levin makes the case for our institutions. Levin argues that we should recommit to them, highlighting the positive ways they can be formative. He’s right. They can be. As a child of a stable family, relatively healthy churches, and a vibrant university community, I’ve seen the positive effects institutions can have.
But as an observer of unhealthy institutions, I’ve also seen how difficult it can be to reform a decaying institution from within. There are moments when it is easier, better, healthier, and more generative to leave an institution and blaze a new path, begin a new movement, or chart a new course. A new church, college, university, or other association might be just the thing to renew an existing institutional form. Older institutions see it is okay to try new things, make certain changes, or launch new initiatives. Those who go around institutions and who begin to build new organizations are like a research and development division.
These breaks can be messy. Knowledge can get lost, overshadowed, or put aside. But new expressions of existing institutions can, at times, not only serve to bring forth new life in a new place with new people, but it can inspire older institutions to break free of their ruts and enact needed reforms.
I agree with Levin. We need more people to commit to our existing institutions, to be formed by them, and to make their mark through them. But I’m not discounting the fact that some will need to go around our institutions for the good of us all. We need mavericks, too, who help us not only see how we’re getting it wrong, but where we’re getting it right.
The leader’s main job, through his or her way of being in the congregation, is to create an emotional atmosphere in which greater calmness exists–to be a less anxious presence. “Knowing everything” is not necessary to be a healthy, competent leader. When you can be a less anxious presence, there is often enough experience and wisdom in the group for the group itself to figure out its own solutions to the challenges it faces. When a leader cannot contribute to this kind of atmosphere, the thinking process in the group are short-circuited, and people become more anxious and more emotionally reactive and make poorer decisions.
Ronald W. Richardson, Creating a Healthier Church, p.173
Try it. Take the emotional temperature, then do what you can to drop it a few degrees by being less anxious than the people around you. You can start by saying, “We can figure this out.” Then, define the problem, weigh your options, and seek input on the best way forward. Finally, get to work.
If you’ve spent much time discussing any ethical issue of great import, you know there are times when it’s appropriate to ask someone, “What if it was your kid? Would you still take this position? Or hold it this way?” as a way of personalizing and putting flesh on the dilemma under discussion. Nevertheless, there are corresponding moments where you need to ask, “Okay, what if it wasn’t your kid? Would you still look at it this way?” as a way of prodding folks to recognize the way their own personal commitments might be obscuring and biasing their view of the objective issues at hand. Which is to say, both personalization and abstraction, or depersonalization, have their place in the reasoning process.
He’s right. There are times when it is helpful to think about an issue up close. There are also times when it is helpful to examine a question only after stepping back. It is also helpful to remember that our judgment can be affected by being too close or too far away from a given problem.
When debating any important question, think about where you’re standing. Try to take stock of the problem from various angles and vantage points. Subjectivity is part of every evaluation you make. You’re an element in the equation, so make that a factor.
But a measure of objectivity can be established. Work toward that goal. After taking various perspectives into account, measure the whole by a clear set of criteria, and make a call. Offer a conviction. Take a position. Make an argument for it, humbly, and charitably, and as persuasively as you can.