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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Think locally, period

First 3, then 12, then 120 can make a global difference

Issue: "The rise of localism," March 12, 2011

It's been our custom at WORLD in recent years to focus on cities as the winds of March blow in. This year instead of specific population centers we are focusing on a trend we believe demands attention, whether you find yourself living an urban, suburban, exurban, or rural life: localism. From politics, to media, to development, to food consumption, people are reacting against mass everything, searching for a reason to return to roots and to practice personal responsibility over government control.

But what about cultural localism? The high-school students I spend time with each week can recite the verses to Lady Gaga's newest hit and they know Justin Bieber's birth date. But the name of our local symphony conductor? The world-famous architect who lived and worked and died in our city of 80,000? These questions draw blank faces. Local culture often seems optional, even quaint.

Andy Crouch in his 2008 book Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling insists that all culture making is local. "Every cultural good, whether a new word, law, recipe, song or gadget, begins with a small group of people." He insists: "A small group is enough." This will be shocking news to those counting friends on Facebook.

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Crouch dubs his formula for culture-making "The 3, the 12, and the 120"­suggesting those are the optimal numbers for concentric circles of influence. The most obvious biblical examples are Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. From them the Judaic culture widens to Jacob's 12 sons and then to their families, the 120. Think of the world-shaping changes to geography, politics, government, architecture, philosophy, music, literature, and visual arts that flowed from those few.

Or turn to the New Testament and think of Peter, James, and John-the disciples (part of the 12) arguably closest to Jesus. Working outward, Jesus sent 72 disciples in pairs in Luke 10, and at Pentecost 120 believers gathered in Jerusalem to await the Holy Spirit. "Through these concentric circles of men and women," writes Crouch, "the kingdom's distinctive cultural good like parables, deeds of miraculous power, and new ways of organizing everything . . . reshape the cultural horizons."

It's fun to think of one's own culture circles and the possibilities reverberating outward. A family is one obvious starting point-mother, father, child. From these three extend more children, spouses, grandchildren. And a family of strong ties and biblical values will see its influence extend far into the culture. Think of Hudson Taylor, with his wife and daughter taking over a hospital in China and overseeing translation of the Scriptures, eventually enfolding 800 missionaries in the work of China Inland Missions and four generations later leading, solid estimates show, more than 20,000 Chinese to Christ.

Or think of a cultural entity as basic as a local restaurant. Michel Baudouin runs my favorite restaurant in town. He moves easily between the kitchen-where he, the chef, and sous-chef form the essential threesome-to the floor, where he employs about a dozen wait staff, and then he roams table to table (no joking, there are about 20 tables of four to six in the place) watching over his diners. All night long the place is full, cheerful, nourishing, and satisfying to all who pass through.

So, want to start a school, plant a church, run a soup kitchen, open a bakery, make a movie, change your community's perception of Christians, treat cancer, protect marriage, petition city council, launch a rock band, create a website, develop land, improve a city? Want to aim wide, invent the next social network, be president, solve gridlock, cure cancer, retrofit the multiplex? The pattern of the 3, the 12, and the 120 is good news to all. Faced with the immensity and impersonal nature of mass culture, we don't have to retreat, as Crouch says, into "postures ranging from condemnation to consumption." At the same time, there's no going it alone. Take two like-minded companions, add a dozen experts and loyalists. Watch what happens.
Email Mindy Belz


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