In his recent, provocative book, To Change the World, University of Virginia sociology professor James Davison Hunter states that cultural change nearly always comes “from the top down”, i.e. cultural elites located in centers of cultural, political, and economic power –and almost never “from the bottom up,” i.e. common people on the periphery.
Cultures change from the top down, rarely if ever from the bottom up… The deepest and most enduring forms of cultural change nearly always occur from the ‘top down.’ In other words, the work of world-making and world-changing are, by and large, the work of elites: gatekeepers who provide creative direction and management within spheres of social life. (p. 41)
At one level, there is no question that people of power and influence have a profound effect on culture. But are common people really so impotent when it comes to changing culture?
In Scripture, God often uses the person without a name or title to shake the world.
Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” (1 Co 1:26-29, NIV)
God used …
- Gideon to rout the Midianites. Gideon was the least in his family, which was among the weakest clans of his tribe (Judges 6:15).
- David, a shepherd and the youngest, least-likely son, to rule over Israel as king.
- the disciples to confront the cultural elites in the temple. “When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13).
Hunter’s thesis doesn’t explain the capacity of Christ-followers who work together, in faith, through the power of the Holy Spirit. God, working through ordinary people, changes the world! God is no respecter of social standing. He works through rich and poor, powerful and weak, to accomplish His purposes.
Even Jesus, the founder of the greatest movement of cultural transformation the world has ever known, was a common man. He was a poor refugee, raised in Nazareth, a dusty outpost far from centers of power.
“He never owned a home. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family. He never went to college. He never put His foot inside a big city. He never traveled two hundred miles from the place He was born. He never did one of the things that usually accompany greatness.” (One Solitary Life, adapted from a sermon by Dr James Allan Francis)
Quite apart from Scripture, it’s hard to make an airtight case that “culture change nearly always occurs from the top down.” Whatever you may think of it, the now-famous “Tea Party” movement seems a clear example of a “bottom up” phenomena. It certainly didn’t begin in New York City, Cambridge, Massachusetts or Washington D.C. You would be hard pressed to find many elites among its ranks, yet it is posed to exert a huge influence on the political agenda in the United States.
The Disciple Nations Alliance has always worked with the “grass roots” rather than the “grass tops.” We train pastors of the poor and missions and relief-and-development professionals serving the poor. The transformation of a society requires social, political and economic leaders, and if such leaders have found DNA material helpful, we have stood ready to serve them. But we have never sought to penetrate elite circles.
Dr. George Grant, in Carry a Big Stick: The Uncommon Heroism of Theodore Roosevelt quotes President Roosevelt:
The nameless pioneers and settlers, the obscure mothers and fathers, the quiet craftsmen and tradesmen; it is only among these that … the brilliance of liberty may be comprehended.
Grant comments further:
G.K. Chesterton, one of Roosevelt’s favorite contemporary writers, often asserted that, “The most extraordinary thing in the world is an ordinary man and an ordinary woman and their ordinary children.”
DNA has been blessed to serve with ordinary men and women. We salute them.
- Darrow Miller & Scott Allen