Top Down or Bottom Up?

Top Down or Bottom Up?

Do movements spread from the top or from the bottom?

As a part of my PhD research I have been studying the phenomenon of how movements take root and spread.  Lately, I have been challenged by James D. Hunter's book, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World.

For a review of Hunter's book, this Christianity Today review is excellent.  There has been some excellent "back and forth" between some authors.  Both Andy Crouch and Chuck Colson responded (they get a rather strong critique in Hunter's book).

The premise of much Christian writing and thinking has been that if you change the hearts and souls of a people, their culture will change.  Hunter disputes this premise.  He notes that if it were true, American culture would be far more Christian, as the majority of people in the US claim to Christians (yes, he does deal with the argument of people saying they are Christian but not acting like it).

He notes that subgroups within cultures often have more sway than the majority group.  He cites Jews and homosexuals as subgroups that have far greater cultural influence in America than Christianity does.  He makes the argument that one must capture the hearts and minds of the elites in order to have real and lasting impact.

In the end, he takes the "easy way" and combines both the "top down" and "bottom up" approach into what he called "Faithful Presence."  It is a focus on both institutional and personal renewal.

This has great implications for those seeking to foster Christian movements globally, if true.

As I have read this book one movement has stood out to me that is not a good fit for his model.  The church in China has not been a movement of either elites or of institutional reform.  From the perspective of this outsider at least, the growth of Chinese Christianity has happened in an almost completely grassroots fashion.

I am grappling with these ideas.  The Pioneers' missionary force, at over 2,000 strong, is mostly aimed at the grassroots approach.  Should we press on in this mode?

2 thoughts on “Top Down or Bottom Up?

  1. This sounds suspiciously like an attempt to find a "model" of cultural influence. I enjoyed Richard Lovelace's take on cultural renewal (Dynamics of Spiritual Life) when I had a class with him a few years ago. As a good reformed theologian/church historian, Lovelace sees God's sovereign hand in almost all cultural shifts–not just the ones that seem to lead directly to a more "christian society". Some movements are used by God to bring judgment. Others to bring blessing. With that in mind, he sees "renewal" reflected in the in work of Bach, Dylan, Scorsese, T.S. Eliot, MLK, etc. In other words, the work of the engaged Christian is not simply to work toward overtly christianizing a society, but to attempt to discern the work of God and follow his lead on an individual level in bringing his Kingdom to bear in his/her context, whether that means top-down engagement or bottom-up–or "bottoms up" in the case of the Guinness family. It seems this will look different, depending on the context, which explains the supposed "anomaly" of China.

  2. Ted, I agree with you that Hunter really challenges some of our assumptions–Christians in the west tend to believe that God roots for the underdog. I tend to think the idea should not be either/or but instead, both/and. The area we need to do some catching up in is the area of seeing the gospel affect those who have influence/power in societies. Just as we believe that salvation doesn't exist in government or any human power base, we must also be careful to not exalt populism or grass-roots movements. God is the bringer of salvation to the slave and the king.

    So while Pioneers ought to maintain a focus on grassroots, we ought also be open to and encourage a focus on those who do have, in human perspective, influence and power. Apart from Christ, both the poor and the rich are needy.

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