Thinking Small Can Change the World


S. Michael Craven

Mark Penn, author of Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes, was once regarded as one of the most perceptive pollsters in American politics. It was Penn who identified “soccer moms” as a crucial constituency in President Clinton’s 1996 reelection campaign. The unique feature of Penn’s approach is that he looks for and has been able to identify, with some success, small patterns of behavior that wield great influence in our culture.

According to Penn, “Microtrends is based on the idea that the most powerful forces in our society are the emerging, counterintuitive trends that are shaping tomorrow right before us … In fact, the whole idea that there are a few huge trends that determine how America and the world work is breaking down.” Penn points out that “changing lifestyles, the Internet, the balkanization of communications, and the global economy are all coming together to create a new sense of individualism that is powerfully transforming our society.

The world may be getting flatter in terms of globalization, but it is occupied by 7 billion little bumps who do not have to follow the herd to be heard. In fact, by the time a trend hits 1 percent, it is ready to spawn a hit movie, best-selling book, or new political movement.

The power of individual choice is increasingly influencing politics, religion, entertainment, and even war.” In summary, Penn writes, “In today’s mass societies, it only takes one percent of the people making a dedicated choice—contrary to the mainstream’s choice—to create a movement that can change the world.”

I find this assertion intriguing. It runs counter to popular thinking. I think we tend to believe that in order to effect long-term change, there must be a massive shift in thinking that achieves majority consensus before real change can occur. In other words, we gravitate toward grand initiatives that promise world-altering results and we’re generally not interested in anything less. (We do this in our increasingly program-driven churches as well.) I think this might explain, in part, why we are drawn to and often settle on politics as the solution to our social and cultural ills.

Political leaders promise these grand initiatives aimed at this or that problem with the implicit promise of producing cosmic changes. Framed in such altruistic terms as “Hope for tomorrow” and “Change you can believe in,” the promise becomes almost salvific. However, the sweeping benefits rarely occur and what we often discover is that the only real “sweeping” needed is that of removing self-serving politicians from office!

Politics, for many, offers an easy response to our social and cultural problems. However, in practice, most of us merely vote periodically, express support for a particular candidate or party, and sign the occasional petition. But given the massive complexities of a large-scale society such as ours, doesn’t this strike you as rather simplistic? How do these political activities actually shape the philosophy of public education or the philosophical worldview on our nation’s college campuses? How do these actions work to shape jurisprudence, or form the sexual ethics of society?

The battle to redefine marriage did not emerge as a political initiative—the politics of homosexual activism followed an earlier (small but well-orchestrated) shift in our culture’s moral philosophy. How can political activism counter the materialistic worldview that reduces life to its utilitarian purposes or redefines the meaning of human dignity? How do political activities actually shape any ethical matter? They don’t!

Politics can and often does become an endless battleground, warring over the same turf with control constantly being wrestled back and forth. Meanwhile, the institutions and mechanisms that actually shape our culture are ignored—except, of course, by those small movements of people committed to changing them. Our present drift toward state-sponsored entitlements and wealth redistribution is not the innovation of one political party or administration but rather the by-product of a generation that has been systematically conditioned to favor socialistic schemes.

Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying—I’m not suggesting that we stop participating in the political process. I am suggesting that we have to do much more. The fact is, by the time social issues manifest themselves in the realm of politics, it’s too late—by then you’re working from a deficit. The ideas that produced these political points of conflict began long before and the process of affecting real change occurs over a generation or more, not one political term.

Abraham Lincoln made this point quite succinctly when he said, “The philosophy in the classroom of this generation is the philosophy of government in the next.” Holocaust survivor Dr. Viktor Frankl underscores this point even more powerfully:

I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Maidanek were ultimately prepared not in some ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and in lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers (The Doctor and the Soul).

He is absolutely correct. The Nazi’s “Final Solution” did not emerge out of a vacuum; it began decades before, almost imperceptibly, as secular wisdom began to supplant Christian wisdom. By the time the National Socialist Party (Nazis) came on the scene, the Germans had already been inculcated with a view of reality that would render them receptive to racial arrogance and justify their barbarism. Consistent with Penn’s findings, these monstrous ideas began small—and they certainly changed the world!

However, this potential for social change is not only about moral devolution; there is a lesson here for Christians as well. This idea of “small movements” is consistent with the nature of God’s kingdom. The first-century Jewish expectation was a kingdom that would come in great power, changing the political order, displacing all human rule and authority. But, as George Eldon Ladd points out in his classic work on the kingdom:

The Kingdom of God is here; but instead of destroying human sovereignty, it has attacked the sovereignty of Satan. The Kingdom of God is here but instead of making changes in the external, political order of things, it is making changes in the spiritual order and in the lives of men and women (Gospel of the Kingdom)

This is the “mystery” of the kingdom to which Jesus referred. God’s kingdom is at work among us in two different stages. The world has yet to see the coming of God’s kingdom in its full and final power, but the mystery, the new revelation announced by Jesus, is that God’s kingdom has come to work among people but in an unexpected way. It has come quietly, unobtrusively offering to humanity the present blessings of God’s rule, delivering them from the power of Satan and sin. The kingdom is here not with power as when Christ comes again when every knee will bow, but with the counterintuitive display of love, righteousness, peace, and justice through a people set free, by grace, to live under His lordship.

As Penn notes, small things do matter. What if each of us started with the small step of truly loving our next-door neighbor? What if we just taught our own children to think Christianly?

What if we ran our businesses in such a way that they demonstrated what business should be like under the rule and reign of Christ? What if we were simply faithful in the small things—seeking first God’s kingdom? Would this change the world? Of course it would! Christ’s kingdom has been changing people and the world for more than 2,000 years. The ultimate question is this: “Will I enter his kingdom—follow Him—and be saved?” or will I, like the rich young ruler, cling to my earthly life and perish—knowing Jesus but never following Him?

Michael Craven serves as the Director of the Colson Fellows Program at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.


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