The Opportunity Ahead - January 2023
Jonathan Haidt, the social psychologist, describes the significant deterioration in our country of the three major forces that have worked historically to collectively bind us together:
Social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust)
Strong institutions (trust in each major institution has declined, including the church)
Robert Putnam, the Harvard Political Scientist, also talks extensively about both the value of social capital, and the dangers of the deterioration of social capital in his book, “Bowling Alone.”
As followers of Jesus, we believe that building social capital among Christian leaders, is the mortar upon which all positive community transformation takes place. Psalm 133:1,3 – “How blessed it is when brothers dwell together in unity… there I command a blessing.”
As we know, we live in a confused and divided culture. The barrage of media focuses on what separates us rather than what unites us. However, ultimately, for believers, Jesus’ Lordship, His love, His sacrifice, His resurrection, and His offer of redemption and salvation to everyone is of greatest importance. Everything else pales in comparison. As believers, we should be able to rally around love… love for Jesus and love for our neighbors… and even love for our enemies. After all, this is what Jesus said we would be known for, “By this, everyone will know you are my disciples, if you have love one for another” (John 13:35).
At Vision Orlando, we believe that it is our mission has to encourage and inspire believers in our community to be counter cultural agents of change by being agents of love and unity. Our collective choice for unity will, as scriptures tell us, command a blessing on all of us from God.
In Peter Blocks book, “Community, the Structure of Belonging” he identifies intentional efforts to build social capital as the most powerful strategy for community transformation. He talks about how culture tends toward isolation, silo’s, and dividedness. And only thing that can reverse this are “intentional and focused efforts to have people who may have little connection with one another, and may be on different sides of issues, to determine to come together for the common good.” So building relationships for the common good is the key to building social capital.
And James Davison Hunter, a Distinguished Professor of Religion, Culture and Social Theory at the University of Virginia adds some more understanding in his: “To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World” he writes that “Culture changes by influencing the influential.” In other words, he says, culture changes top-down.
Dr. Hunter encourages us to build relationships with leaders in the Marketplace, the Government, and the Church. His findings make it clear that we need to be intentional in our efforts to identify and build relationships and engage with leaders in all seven mountains of cultural influence: in religion, in family, media, in education, in the marketplace, in law and government, in health care, in arts and entertainment. And as we come alongside these leaders, to encourage and strengthen them, and to connect them with other Kingdom leaders, social capital is built, and the community is positively transformed.
George Cope, our Church Network Director, has done a fantastic job of building social capital in our city, focusing primarily on pastoral leaders in the city. He has worked to intentionally build bridges of relationship across racial, political and theological lines. We want to see this happen across the entire region between followers of Jesus who are leaders in the marketplace and the government as well.
It only takes a small committed group to transform a culture. David Pawson published some research by the UK’s Evangelical Alliance some years ago. His research indicated that all that it takes is 5% of the population to be committed to change to influence the culture. And research by Erica Chenoweth, Professor of Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School seemed to confirm this concept, and found that that no government can withstand a challenge of a committed group of at least 3.5% of its population without either accommodating the movement or (in extreme cases) disintegrating.
This should be encouraging news for those of us committed to community transformation. A study by the PEW Research Center in 2020 showed that 65% of Americans identified themselves as Christians. It follows then that with a population of 2.3 Million in the tri county area, potentially 1.5 Million people in our community identify as Christians. And while we know that many of these 65% would be cultural Christians, certainly many would be committed followers of Jesus (certainly well over the 3.5%-5%).
So the challenge and the opportunity before us is centered around “social capital…” The followers of Jesus in this city are largely divided and in silos, and to the extent we can build social capital, and unify around those things with which we agree, and a common purpose, we can help bring change to our city.
So, while it certainly appears that our culture is headed in the wrong direction, transformation is still possible. We know this, for transformation has happened before, when things looked very dark.
The First Great Awakening began in 1734.
At that time, moral conditions in the colonies were dire. Less than 5% of colonists claimed to be a Christian. Samuel Blair, a pastor of that day, said that “religion lay as it were, dying and ready to expire its last breath of life.”
Then the preaching of Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley and George Whitefield led to the First Great Awakening, after which a majority of the colonists became identified with a Christian church.
By the time of the Declaration of Independence and the Founding of our country, we know that eleven of the 55 signers of the declaration of independence (20%) were Biblical Christians, while the rest were apparently either deists or theological liberals.
And after the War for Independence, in the 1780’s, the social conditions in the country were often deplorable. Drunkenness was epidemic and women were often afraid to go out at night due to fear of assault. Bank robberies were common place.
The Chief Justice, John Marshall, wrote to James Madison, that “the church was too far gone to ever be redeemed.” A poll taken at Harvard University found that there wasn’t a single believer, and two were found at Princeton. Thomas Paine said that “Christianity will be forgotten in thirty years.”
Nevertheless, in the 1784, prayer groups began praying for an awakening. And in 1792, revival broke out on college campuses, and camp meetings began to spread across the frontier. William Carey began the modern missions movement, and a variety of missions organizations were founded.
Then in the 1840’s and 1850’s, conditions in the country had deteriorated again. The Gold Rush of the 1840’s collapsed and at the same time, there was fear of civil war building.
So in 1857, a group of laymen began meeting for prayer on Wednesday, September 23, 1857 at the Old North Dutch Church in New York City. This was led by a businessman named Jeremiah Lanphier. The first day, six people came to his prayer meeting. The next day 23, and then they began to meet daily. They began filling churches and meeting halls throughout the city, and spread across the country. One million people were converted in a single year, and this awakening continued into the Civil War.
And the fourth Great Awakening began in Wales in 1904. A coal miner named Evan Roberts began preaching to young people and calling them to prayer and repentance, and a revival began which spread to America. Ministers in Atlantic City, New Jersey, said that of their 50,000 residents, only fifty were left unconverted. And the Azusa Street revival began in America about the same time.
In the late 1960’s and 1970’s, the Jesus movement began in California and spread around the country and around the world. It was called a Christian Youth Revolution.
Each time our nation has descended into spiritual decline and moral depravity, a Great Awakening has helped to turn us around.
It can happen again… roughly every fifty years… it’s time!