Forget grassroots revival—widespread change is best achieved by a narrow focus
There is a seismic shift taking place today in the marketplace and the church. We need to understand how to respond if we are going to bring systemic transformation. There are ways the church should apply the gospel in response to cultural shifts.
First of all, it is a mistake to believe the culture will shift because of a church revival or a societal awakening. Often, we as believers think the key to societal transformation is to convert masses of people. But the truth is that culture is transformed by a small percentage of the population who make up the cultural elite in a society. Thus the only way to affect cultural change is to convert the elite who formulate culture in every sphere of society.
Second, it is a mistake to think that political victories will bring transformation. For example, abortion was legalized in 1973 yet the fight still rages on. Same-sex marriage has been legalized in several states in the Northeast, but the battle continues. Homosexuality has been normalized by art, media and entertainment, yet a large percentage of Americans still refuse to consider it as normative behavior.
Politics is only one expression of societal power. We need to influence the other mind-molding sectors of society if we are going to dictate the direction of culture. For example, we need to influence the Ivy League universities like Harvard, Yale and Princeton to change public policy, education, philosophy, science, the arts and economic theory. Leading Christian thinkers also need to write editorials for newspapers such as the New York Times, and opine on television news media like CNN and C-SPAN if we are going to influence global trends.
Training the Ekklesia
We need to train the ekklesia—the Greek New Testament word for church that historically described the Roman senate and Greek citizens who assembled to frame public policy—to take the lead, not only in spiritual matters but by becoming professors in elite universities, and serving as board members and chief executives of leading elite entities in the arts, music, entertainment, education, media and public policy such as the Hoover Institute and the Manhattan Institute.
Instead of focusing on erecting our own buildings, we need to fill everyone else’s. Instead of insulating ourselves in our little subcultures, we need to engage and transform the culture. We need revivals and multi-generational strategies to place our leading thinkers and practitioners in the highest levels of highbrow culture—like God did with Daniel and the three Hebrew youths in Babylon—if we are going to see systemic cultural change (see Daniel 1).
Third, we need to nurture and/or convert those who are part of the emerging “creative class,” who comprise between 12 to 30 percent of the population, but are the most wealth producers, and will drive the economy for generations to come.
Those in the creative class had been considered mavericks and non-conformists, but are now part of the mainstream and a movement that has radically shifted the future of business and culture. Many leading organizations are now encouraging creative people to join their ranks who are semi-autonomous and self-managed with leverage to set their own hours so they can continually pursue their own creative instincts.
Furthermore, businesses are moving toward creative urban centers such as New York, Seattle and San Francisco. Geography is essential because businesses are moving from corporate driven to people driven; companies are moving to where the most creative people live—not just where there are tax incentives and highways.
So how should the church respond? First, the church should build authentic communities to model the city of God before we attempt to transform the city of man. We must honor family and kingdom unity with churches in our regions before we can transform the pagan systems and cultures around us.
Second, world-changers need to experience creativity, leadership, covenant, unity, purpose and kingdom power in the church community, so they can be adequately discipled to recreate these things in the secular arenas to which they are called.
Third, we need to start investing a good portion of our funds toward educating and cultivating the most creative people in our churches, and place them in every leadership sphere of society starting with the Ivy League schools.
Fourth, we have to understand that prayer, fasting and revival among masses of people will not shift the culture. The 1857 Prayer Revival, Azusa Street Revival in 1906, and Voice of Healing, Toronto Blessing and Pensacola revivals have not shifted culture. Only when revivals affect cultural thinkers who prove influential—like Marx, Lenin, Freud, Darwin and Gates—will culture shift. This is not to say that prayer, fasting and revival are not important. Of course, reaching and renewing masses of people and Christians is important.
Engaging the Cultural Elites
Even as we examine the Scriptures, we see how God has used people that were already in high places of authority before a nation was transformed. For example, Moses was a prince in Egypt before he was called to confront Pharaoh and deliver the people of God out of slavery. Daniel was serving as a top political leader in both Babylon and Persia, which positioned him to speak truth to power and transform culture.
Nehemiah was the cupbearer for the king of Persia, which enabled him to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. Samuel was both a prophet and political judge of Israel. David was not only a psalmist, but he became Israel’s greatest king. All the great prophets of the Old Testament—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Elijah, Elisha, Micah, Ahijah and Amos—did not only prophesy to small crowds of people in the temple, but spoke directly to the political and cultural elites.
Even church history reiterates this. For example, it took the conversion of Roman emperor Constantine to legalize Christianity, placing it in a position to transform the whole empire. St. Augustine was first the professor of rhetoric for the imperial court, the most visible academic position in the Latin world, before converting and becoming the Bishop of Hippo—which positioned him to become the greatest theologian and thinker of his age.
In 800 A.D., it was Christian emperor Charlemagne who laid the groundwork for the first cathedral universities, which were the forerunners for all modern universities. Both primary leaders of the Protestant Reformation—Martin Luther and John Calvin—received educations that included vast knowledge of the classics, not just the Bible. The leaders of the First Great Awakening—John Wesley and George Whitefield—not only knew the Scriptures, but they graduated from Oxford University, which gave them the respect of the top decision makers of society.
Additionally, American revivalist Jonathan Edwards was both a graduate and president of Princeton University. The abolition of slavery in the British Empire was affected by the Clapham Sect—a group of cultural elites—led by slavery abolitionist William Wilberforce, who was a parliamentarian and a close friend of William Pitt, the prime minister of England. Charles Finney, a lawyer whose preaching was able to relate to many attorneys, judges and top decision makers in culture, led the Second Great Awakening in the United States. His influence led to the abolition of slavery, implementation of child labor laws and women’s suffrage.
To be effective, we must understand the delicate balance between infiltrating and engaging the cultural elites and highbrows of society—without losing our souls and becoming elites in heart and purpose. We must also avoid the extremes of some in the Christian right, who view politics as the only answer for transformation; the Christian left, who merely accommodate mainstream culture; and the pietists, who insulate themselves from culture.
If we are going to transform culture, we need to engage and shift the influencers toward biblical values at the highest levels in every societal sphere. We also need to serve our cities, train high-capacity leaders and partner with like-minded believers. This is why I agreed to serve as a presiding bishop overseeing education for the International Communion of Evangelical Churches, so we can impact thousands of churches globally.
Joseph Mattera is the presiding bishop of Christ Covenant Coalition and senior pastor of Resurrection Church in New York City. A member of the International Apostolic Council of the International Communion of Evangelical Churches, Mattera is the author of several books, including Ruling in the Gates, Kingdom Revolution, Kingdom Awakening and his latest, Walk in Generational Blessing.