The starting point

We'll never change society until we ourselves are changed

Issue: "Social Security," Jan. 11, 1997

Having lived now through 12 presidential election cycles (those are the ones I remember; I don't recall two more during my childhood), I'm struck with at least these three responses among many of the Christians I know: (1) When election results aren't what we want, we act as if civilization is going down the tubes. (2) When results are what we want, we soon discover that things are almost as bad as if they'd gone the other way. (3) Either way, and chafing at how little appreciated we just were, we always serve notice how much of a force to be reckoned with we're going to be next time around.

I'm not pointing fingers when I offer this not-too-flattering profile; notice my use of "we" in the descriptions. But I'm also tired of the cycle. I don't want five or ten elections from now to have to draw the same picture. I'd like instead to say that I learned during my lifetime how to make a lasting difference in my society.

So here are three suggestions for breaking the sometimes dreary cycle:

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First, it's our culture-not the political process-that we've got to change. Mastering the political process, instead of the culture which that political process reflects, is about as effective as training a dog's tail. When you train the dog well, the tail tends to follow.

Because politics is visible and exciting and dramatic, we tend to get swept away with a sense that politics controls culture. In fact, it's the other way around. Why else do politicians spend such huge sums to keep up with the latest polls? The great tragedy of American politics may be that politicians don't lead, not that they do.

So if politics seems rotten, it's because the culture that supports the political system is rotten itself. It's the people who have lost all sense of supernatural standards, of transcendent values, and of lasting commitments. Politicians, eager to reflect the people from whom they derive their power, end up just as empty.

Second, Christians need to struggle in a fresh way with the sad manner in which the kingdom of God has become a culture coddler instead of a culture challenger. We have tended over the last few generations to show more zeal for discovering points of common interest with our culture than for highlighting crucial points of difference.

This is admittedly a hard issue. But maybe we've made it harder than it needs to be. We like to remember that the apostle Paul in his famous Mars Hill speech in Acts 17 was culturally relevant. We like to forget that he went on immediately to spell out the differences between the assumptions of the dominant culture and the assumptions of the gospel he was there to proclaim.

Our tendency has become to spend whole lifetimes making the kingdom of God culturally relevant, but never closing the sale. The real relevance of the message we've been charged to deliver is its stark difference from the dominant culture of our day. Every church, every Christian organization, every business run by Christians needs to ask two questions: Are we relevant to our culture? Are we using that relevance for its intended purpose?

Maybe, instead of spending the next four years organizing their political precincts more thoroughly than ever before, thousands of Christians should spend those same years trying to sharpen the contrast between themselves and everybody else they've blended in with entirely too well.

Third, none of this will happen on a grand scale until it has begun to happen profoundly with us as individuals. God uses structures, to be sure. But the structures he's typically used have been those that are built on individual men and women who have done business with him on a personal basis.

Doing business personally with God has little to do with political prowess. It has much to do with learning increasingly how to trust him when human wisdom and human evidence point in another direction. That's why the Bible has few stories about precinct meetings, but many about people struggling to learn how to trust God personally. Adam and Eve didn't, at least at one crucial point. Noah did. Abraham did, most of the time. David did and he didn't-and the Psalms are full of the tension between those two responses.

Most of us engage daily in those same struggles to trust God. By his grace and the patient teaching of his Spirit, we win more of those struggles than we lose. We learn, little by little, that his way is the best way-in every detail of life, whether it has to do with our families or our finances, our vocations or our vacations, our education or our environment.

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