Discover more from Church Talk with Todd Korpi
Why "Changing the World" Won't Change the World
Why the answer to social change lies in a different, counterintuitive approach.
I am a millennial. An elder millennial to be exact, as the youths these days call us (though, to be sure, we enjoy the airs of wisdom implied in the title—wisdom bestowed upon us by memories of childhood before the internet, life lessons from Mr. Feeny, and a couple wars and a cascade of economic instability).
If there’s one thing that is almost universally true about millennials is that we were raised to believe we can and should change the world. We could be anything we wanted to be in life (though my career in the NHL never panned out like I had hoped). We could do anything. All we needed to do was go to college and we’d get a job that could pay us a comfortable wage and we could head off to change human civilization for the better.
When you study cultural shifts between generations, this makes a lot of sense. We were almost universally raised to change the world because the Baby Boomer generation that raised us was the first youth demographic to be raised with screens (theirs, of course, were televisions). They watched the anti-war, environmental, feminist, and civil rights movements unfold throughout much of their childhood, molding a generation to see the fruit of massive and sweeping social change. It makes complete sense—and is even laudable—that new Baby Boomer parents in the 80s would look down at their little newborn nugget and think, “this kid is going to change the world.”
But that approach doesn’t seem to be working out. The world is changing, but most would agree that the change is not for the better. The social change is less in the hands of the masses and more so among authoritarian leaders, corporate interests, and an ever-expanding billionaire aristocratic class. By all appearances, Gen Z seems better equipped for large scale social action, such as the March for our Lives movement that arose in the wake of the Parkland, FL shooting, or the more recent Asbury Revival. But how much such Gen Z-led social action results in lasting social change remains to be seen.
What seems clear is that the plan to raise up generations that would go out and change the world appears to not be working. The world is what it is and my generation has been largely left disillusioned and disaffected by the immutable nature of society’s woes. This has most recently been expressed—as these things often are by the younger two generational cohorts—in a host of memes and reels shared on social media that express how the news of the possible existence of alien life is small potatoes compared to the crushing hardships afflicting society, namely healthcare and the student loan crisis (if there’s one thing you can say about millennials, it is that we pioneered the art of meme sharing as a form of political dissent).
We do this in church life as well. Our visions take us to the farthest ends of the earth, our pastoral titles get loftier and more hyperbolic, and our missional work takes us to far away places and to draw large crowds. Yet, in the West, Christian adherence (that is, nominal affiliation—not to be confused with genuine faith) is on the decline. People appear more disengaged. And there is a growing disconnect between the needs and longings of people coming out of COVID-19 and the desire among many churches to return to a pattern of holding excellent, event-driven, high-production services that will reach the nations for Jesus. Something’s amiss in this disconnect and I suggest that it has to do with this vision for macro-level, sweeping, widespread change. It has to do with the brokenness of our vision to change the world.
If we don’t change the world, then what?
In 1970, amidst all of the socio-political tumult in which Baby Boomers came of age, Wendell Berry wrote an essay entitled Think Little. In the essay, Berry critiques the over-reliance (note the existence of) upon large scale (often politically-focused) forms of social change. This was the “change the world” telos of the day, which he called “Think Big.” He argues that these large scale movements should not be disbanded, and are indeed necessary, but they must be complemented by—even rooted in, private social integrity of action and lifestyle.
In speaking toward bringing change to issues of race and war and environmentalism, Berry says:
If we are to hope to correct our abuses of each other and of other races and of our land, and if our effort to correct these abuses is to be more than a political fad that will in the long run be only another form of abuse, then we are going to have to go far beyond public protest and political action. We are going to have to rebuild the substance and the integrity of private life in this country. We are going to have to gather up the fragments of knowledge and responsibility that we have parceled out to the bureaus and the corporations and the specialists, and put those fragments back together in our our own minds and in our families and households and neighborhoods. We need better government, no doubt about it. But we also need better minds, better friendships, better marriages, better communities. We need persons and households that do not have to wait upon organizations, but can make necessary changes in themselves, on their own.
For most of the history of this country our motto, implied or spoken, has been Think Big. A better motto, and an essential one now, is Think Little. That implies the necessary change of thinking and feeling, and suggests the necessary work. Thinking Big has led us to the two biggest and cheapest political dodges of our time: plan-making and law-making. The lotus-eaters of this era are in Washington D.C., Thinking Big. Somebody perceives a problem, and somebody in the government comes up with a plan or a law. The result is mostly, has been the persistence of the problem, and the enrichment of the government.
Again, Berry is not suggesting (nor am I) that there is no place for large-scale change movements in bringing about social change. To that end, my title and argument thus far have been slightly misleading. There is a legitimate place for a hope to change the world from a macro-level.
Berry’s point (as is mine) is that such large scale change can rob us of our localized, “little” responsibility. To modernize some of his examples, a person can be a “social justice warrior” on Facebook for climate change, and yet still have private inconsistencies that work against the social media advocacy he or she may be so publicly passionate about. He may harangue political officials on Twitter to pass legislation, yet personally contributes to carbon emissions by failing to compost his food. She may organize a protest or rally about the abuses of the food industry, but couldn’t grow a potato in her backyard if her life depended upon it. One may insist upon monetary reparations for slaves from the government, but would never think to give an extra generous tip to a black waitress or barber as a personal expression of that conviction. One may pound the pro-life drum in public, but is cruel to his or her children in private.
Instead, large scale change should complement and flow out of the abundance of convictional living. Part of the reason St. Francis of Assisi was such a profoundly impactful figure in Christian history is that he lived a life that had an internal consistency to the movement he build. The big movement was simply an overflow of a life lived little, with integrity. Francis thought little before he thought big.
Thinking Little and the Church
So what does this mean for ministry? Certainly there is a proper place for reaching the nations for Jesus. That, after all, is the foundational vision for our participation in God’s reconciliatory mission in the world. But, like environmentalism, peace protests, and the fight for racial equality, these grand “meta” works will result in precious little unless they are the overflow of lives lived with conviction in the “little.” A vision to reach the nations means little if sentiments of national and ethnic supremacy and poor hospitality govern our lives in our community at home.
A church that desires to have a global footprint will produce little lasting change if it is not first incarnated in the city in which God has called it. It must be a “parish” before it can be a “hub.” A Christian cannot bemoan the decline of Christianity when he is unkind to his neighbors (or perhaps, worse yet, doesn’t even know them). A pastor cannot be a “global” leader unless she or he is first and primarily a local shepherd. We never graduate from the basics of ministry. If we want to change the world for Jesus, change arises out of a plurality of faithful followers of the Jesus Way living as foretastes of the Kingdom of God in their families, in their neighborhoods, and in their workplaces. The internal consistency produced from a life that lives missionally in the little, first, substantiates the right to call for widespread proliferation of that missional living abroad.
So yes, we need large scale movements. That will never not be the case. And our culture is so pre-disposed to relying upon them (and, if Berry is correct, has been for the better part of half a century), we are in no danger of seeing the push for large, movement based, macro change from disappearing. But if we wish to produce lasting change, it begins with the little things immediately around us. The macro must be an overflow of the micro.
If you wish to see an end to the abuses afflicted upon creation: compost, recycle, grow your own food (or know the people who do), and know where your items purchased come from.
If you wish to see racial justice, build relationships with people from different backgrounds than your own. Support minority led businesses. Learn to care about what they care about. Learn to see the world more through their eyes.
If you wish to change the world for Jesus, share a meal with your neighbors, address the needs of your local community, build a flourishing marriage and family if you’re married, and (married, single, or celibate) foster vibrant friendships. Be a foretaste of the kingdom in the small corner of the world in which God has placed you.
It is through all of us thinking little that big change takes place.
Church Talk with Todd Korpi is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.