Although it has been written out of most secular accounts, historical evidence demonstrates that Christians have had a culture-shaping influence on Western Civilization. Sociologist Rodney Stark writes,
The success of the West, including the rise of science, rested entirely on religious foundations, and the people who brought it about were devout Christians.
Despite this historical influence, James Davison Hunter notes in To Change the World that Christians have employed several failed tactics in an effort to influence cultural change. Hunter specifically mentions evangelism as one of these failed tactics. For many people, evangelism is not only about saving souls. It’s a strategy for changing hearts and minds. When hearts and minds change, culture changes.
Except that, over the last 100 years, evangelism has failed to be an effective strategy for shaping culture. The reason why is found in Genesis 1.
God gives Adam and Eve their job description in Genesis 1:28. He tells them they were created to fill the earth with his images and subdue it, making it useful for the benefit and enjoyment of humans. The gospel of Jesus Christ redeems us, empowers us, and calls us back to this original calling.
It is important to understand both parts of this calling and see the difference between them. The church has been faithful to the first part of this calling to fill the earth with God’s (redeemed) images. This is evangelism and discipleship. These are vital activities.
But the church has forgotten to subdue the earth. Carrying out this second responsibility changes culture. Shaping, changing, and directing culture results from the work of our hands. It is not what we believe but what we do that transforms our institutions, communities, and families.
As I write in IFWE’s new booklet, All Things New, we have reduced the gospel. We have made it all about us. To quote Dallas Willard, “We have turned the gospel into the gospel of sin-management.” God did not save us, as Richard Pratt writes, “to forgive our sin, make our souls sparkle, to sprinkle us with peace and joy so we can sprout wings when we die, grab a harp, and join the eternal choir.”
God brought each of us out of darkness and into the light so we might be the light of the world (Matt. 5:14-16). He intended for us to impact the world with the truth of the whole gospel. This is why having a correct view of work is so important.
In an essay titled “Catechesis, Preaching, and Vocation,” Gene Veith writes*,
The task of restoring truth to the culture depends largely on our laypeople.
He then says:
To bring back truth, on a practical level, the church must encourage Christians to be not merely consumers of culture but makers of culture. The church needs to cultivate Christian artists, musicians, novelists, filmmakers, journalists, attorneys, teachers, scientists, business executives, and the like, teaching its laypeople the sense in which every secular vocation…is a sphere of Christian ministry, a way of serving God and neighbor that is grounded in God’s truth. Christian laypeople must be encouraged to be leaders in their fields, rather than eager-to-please followers, working from the assumptions of their biblical worldview, not the vapid cliches of pop culture.
The work of Christians down through the ages has built the great architectural structures of the West, constructed hospitals, founded schools and universities, abolished slavery, created great inventions, and written and painted and composed the incredible works of art civilization has enjoyed for centuries. These Christians saw all this work as part of subduing the earth.
Evangelism and discipleship are vitally important. Nothing we build matters without a personal relationship with the One who built the universe. But once we know him, everything we do is filled with a special purpose, a calling to use our work to glorify him, serve the common good, and further his kingdom. In other words, to radically impact our surrounding culture through the work of our hands.
God put us here to change the world. We have a lot of work to do.
*The original version of this post was published with these quotes mistakenly attributed to J. Gresham Machen. We regret the error. Veith’s essay can be found in Here We Stand: A Call from Confessing Evangelicals for a Modern Reformation, a collection of essays edited by James Montgomery Boice and Benjamin E. Sasse. Our version of the collection is P&R Publishing Company’s 2004 reissue. Veith’s quotes can be found on page 95.