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How is God Changing People and Places?

This article was originally published at The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation & Culture, was written by Abe Cho and Gregory Perry, and is being reposted by Until Zion. Though longer and approached differently than most UZ content, the article provides some of the context for UZ.


Early on a Sunday morning in East Harlem, a young couple and their two daughters wait for the elevator up to the second-floor space where their church meets above the neighborhood laundromat. Their youngest, dressed in all white, sleeps–for now–peacefully in her stroller. Sundays like this have become especially meaningful, not only because they gather with their church in worship but also because their church has become the primary place where their two foster daughters can see their birth mother. On this particular Sunday, they arrive to present their youngest to be baptized, and her birth mother, though herself not a Christian, enthusiastically supports her baptism. For her, the baptism signifies that her daughter will be raised in this family and within this broader community of faith, even beyond the formal timeframe of a foster care arrangement. The sacramental life of the local church–found in the life-giving bread of the shared table and the life-giving waters of baptism–weaves their lives together and resituates them within the central story of God’s redeeming grace. And it not only resituates the life of the infant, not only the lives of her birth mother and foster parents, but also reweaves the life of the entire congregation, a congregation promising in their baptismal vow to care in a new way about the economic, social, and spiritual realities of unplanned pregnancies, like those this neighbor and this new covenant child face.

On a Wednesday evening in St. Louis, a homeowner reaches to the top shelf of his dining room cabinet to pull out extra place settings for dinner. He and his wife expect a new family they met at church on Sunday, one recently arrived in the United States from refugee camps, fleeing civil war in their home country. Breaking bread in their home over the years with newcomers to their church, those were experiencing forced displacement, has transformed this man and his family–not only how they think about immigration policy, but also how they read the accounts of migrant peoples in Scripture, biblical heroes like Abraham and Ruth. They have discovered how much of the Scriptures were written from the perspective of those on the margins. As they receive these saints not only as guests at their table, but also as honored teachers in their midst, they are brought into the testimony of those who know what it is like to follow the God who promises exiled peoples that he will never leave nor forsake them.

Grant-makers often ask not-for-profit leaders, “What is your theory of change?” They use this question to sift out proposals with more idealistic notions about “changing the world,” to zero in on the seasoned practitioners with real-world experience in plowing and planting for real growth. They look for those who have learned to be attentive to the climate and conditions in their fields, those with dirt on their hands and fruit in their baskets to show for it. The two ordinary vignettes of church life above exemplify the main argument of this essay: the formative practices of a barrier-crossing, power-inverting, margin-centering ecclesial community are essential to a genuinely Christian view of cultural change.

This essay seeks to articulate a dirt-on-the-hands, real-world Christian theory of cultural change. Simply put, our article probes the age-old missionary question—how is God changing people and places?—by providing a brief reassessment of common grace insights from the social sciences, the particular grace revealed in Scripture, and testimonies from the mission field of North America.

First, we will revisit James Davison Hunter’s account of social change and his call for Christians to be a “faithful presence within” culture. More specifically, we will engage what Hunter himself identifies as “a central dilemma” in To Change the World. Second, we will consider the kind of community needed to form those who can embody this “faithful presence” without losing its distinct identity and practices. We argue that participation in the Lord’s Table with Christians from a variety of backgrounds and social classes (1 Cor 11:17-34) reshapes our appetites and practices around our dining room and boardroom tables. These shared tables are a primary place where this re-formation occurs. Third, we will listen to the witness of Christians from communities that have been pushed to the margins of their culture(s). Finally, fourth, we will draw on Peter Leithart’s notion of “middle grace”—the unique convergence of common and particular grace—as a way to synthesize Hunter’s insights with this wider cloud of witnesses from the margins. We believe the result is a more nuanced, yet practical Christian theory of change that can be readily employed in the church’s mission. Specifically, how does the power-inverting manner of saving grace interact with the principles of common grace to “disciple the nations?”

In 2010, Hunter articulated a Christian theory of change he described as the church’s “faithful presence within” culture. Over against postures of “defensive against,” “relevance to,” and “purity from,” Hunter argued that, like the Incarnate Christ, the social Body of Christ and its members must pursue and identify with their neighbors, to “offer them life” in Christ through demonstrations of “sacrificial love” (241-243). Yet, Hunter’s biblical call to sacrificial love sits uneasily with his observations from sociology that change happens primarily through “overlapping networks of leaders” and resources “embedded in powerful institutions” that operate near the center of cultural power (44). Hunter is aware of this tension, describing it as “a central dilemma” in his theory of change.

… the ethic of care [is] central to Christian faith, [it is] an ethic that enjoins all Christians to serve the needs of the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, the weak, and the dispossessed … this biblical ideal finds its ultimate sanction in the life and words of Christ himself … This is why elitism … is so abhorrent for the Christian … [it] is despicable and utterly anathema to the gospel they cherish … At the same time, the populism that is inherent to authentic Christian witness is often transformed into an oppressive egalitarianism that will suffer no distinctions between higher and lower or better and worse … When populism becomes a cultural egalitarianism, there is no incentive and no encouragement to excellence. This too is to be bemoaned. This brings us to a central dilemma … Is it possible to pursue excellence and, under God’s sovereignty, be in a position of influence and privilege and not be ensnared by the trappings of elitism?” (93-94)

Hunter seems deeply ambivalent about his own thesis. On the one hand, common grace suggests to Hunter that social change moves from the institutional centers of cultural influence out to the periphery. Scripture, however, suggests to him that particular grace tends to flow in the opposite direction – from the margins in.

The biblical logic—of Israel’s election, the incarnation and ministry of Jesus, the life of the early church, etc.—all show how God’s particular grace tends to start in the lived realities of the weak, the sinner, and the poor and then move at times to influence the centers of power. Salvation by grace introduces a counter-current of cultural power where the foolish, the weak, and the despised are chosen to shame the wise, the strong, and the influential (1 Cor 1:26-31). Jesus, the One who is equal with God, did not consider that status something to clench for himself, but emptied himself to take on the status of a servant, caring for the needs and interests of far-gone sinners (cf. Phil 2:3-11; Lk 22:24-30). In other words, in God’s redemption, the first are last and the last are first (Matt. 20:16). This is the signature surprise of saving grace. The gospel reveals a counter-intuitive use of power, which God has ordained as his supernatural means of redemptive change. What is more, it is an approach to change that must be taken on faith, enacted by a people who “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7).

So, how do these disparate visions for change hold together? How do we make sense of this “central dilemma?” If general revelation and special revelation both find their source in the same self-revealing God, how do these seemingly contradicting visions of change cohere? How can followers of Jesus articulate a theory of change, rooted in both God’s common and particular graces, and practice it with integrity without getting co-opted by the ways of the world? Hunter rightly suspects that the answer to this dilemma will be found in a particular kind of spiritual formation embedded in a peculiar people, a local community marked by the “enactments of shalom” (227). This formation must be comprehensive in scope, “oriented toward the cultivation of faithfulness in the totality of life” (227). It will need to be counter-formative in nature and will require entire communities of resistance that are “learning to live the alternative reality of the kingdom of God within the present world order faithfully” (236). Yet for all these insights, Hunter curiously falls short of reflecting on what “alternative reality of the kingdom” must be embodied in these communities if they are to address his central dilemma. What concretely must be true of these communities of shalom if they are to form people who can “pursue excellence and, under God’s sovereignty, be in a position of influence and privilege and not be ensnared by the trappings of elitism?” (94)

We contend that, to do this, the social body of Christ must be a community with its congregational life and mission centered on the voices and lived experiences of those on society’s margins. Because the gospel is God’s counter-intuitive exercise of power for the salvation of all who believe, it produces an unusual kinship between those who were once strangers, even enemies, enemies of Christ and of each other. Under Christ’s royal law of love, these twice-born sisters and brothers share with one another both their power and need, their gifts and burdens. It is this Spirit-birthed community that socializes us in the upside-down ways of Christ’s kingdom. When we move toward the margins, break Eucharistic bread with the poor, receive the hospitality of the immigrant, and sing psalms with the voiceless, we experience the counter-formative power of God’s Word and Spirit which retrains our instincts with the values of his kingdom. We are formed to use power in the way of the kingdom and then are sent out into the institutions of the world to foster the kingdom’s counter-cultural ways in society as a whole.

Jesus himself set the pattern of this peculiar exercise of social, economic, spiritual and cultural power. He ate with the very people that those near the center of his society had excluded from their tables (Mark 2:16). As master of the banquet, he washed the feet of his guests like a non-Jewish slave and taught them to do the same (John 13:1-17). The meals he shared with sinners anticipated and reflected the supper he shared with his disciples. Jesus’ way of loving-enemies-and-neighbors-into-friends-into-family is the biblical pattern of faithful witness to the kingdom of God. But, sociology and Scripture, general and special revelation, lead us further. If we are to become more like Christ, we must not only include; we must also honor others as “more significant than ourselves” (Phil 2:3). We must share power and resources in the same way he did. To that end, shared meals in particular provide an interpersonal, cultural, and spiritual space, noticed as such by both sociology and Scripture, where we find more concrete answers to the questions we have posed about how God changes people and places. Sociologists tell us meals not only provide nutrients to our bodies; they provide micro-dramas of family and community values about sharing resources and forming cohesive relationships. In other words, meals are important learning resources in the curriculum of social formation, and Jesus the Teacher made good use of them. Jesus broke with the table etiquette of his Palestinian Jewish setting (Luke 14:15-23) and, later, his first followers took things further in the direction he had set.

For example, in Acts 6:1 we learn that, whether due to administrative incapacity, cultural bias or both, Greek-speaking widows in the church at Jerusalem “were being neglected in the daily distribution.” Remarkably, the Aramaic-speaking apostles empowered the Greek-speaking members of the church community to lead a process of social and structural change that would rectify the injustice. In other words, those at the center of power in the early church not only acknowledged the harm they had caused, but they also delegated their authority to those they had marginalized to lead redemptive change. It is important to note that the apostles remained involved in the exercise of power, but they shared it in a way that required them to change. They did not appoint one or two members of the marginalized group as representatives they could control. Instead, they asked the offended party to choose a sufficient number, seven in fact, whose wisdom and lived experiences of the Spirit (6:3) they dared not ignore.

What do we learn from what Michael Rhodes calls “formative feasts”? Sociologists like Hunter know that social change does not come easily. It requires the coordinated exercise of power by leaders of institutions near the center of dense, overlapping networks of social resources. What makes some social change redemptive and distinctly Christian (that is, Christ-like) is that neighbors who have been marginalized or completely excluded are not only invited to the table, in both the literal and figurative senses, but that they are invited in sufficient numbers and delegated enough authority to move social change in the direction of justice, mercy and, thus, a truer peace. Feasts in Christ’s kingdom include people from both the center and the margins of society–because the Host of the Banquet is the Lord and Maker of all. Moreover, our Lord and Host uses his table to socialize us in the ways of his kingdom. He retrains the muscle-memory of our souls to conform to the rhythms of heaven, what Dr. King calls “the beat of a more distant drum.” Only then can we be sufficiently counter-formed to enter into powerful common graceinstitutions and not be ensnared by the “trappings of elitism.” Only then do we have the necessary new instincts to influence institutions to work toward the kind of human flourishing that approximates the shalom of God’s kingdom.

In short, we believe the pivotal missing piece in Hunter’s theory of change is the definition of the specific kind of community that will be able to form people deeply enough in the ways of particular grace that they will carry and employ those ways in common grace institutions. This formation is what will prevent them from being co-opted by the trappings of elitism. In our experience as practitioners in the local church, we believe the force that most effectively socializes disciples in the upside-down way of particular grace change is a local community that centers the witness of those on the margins and brings the cultural elite and the culturally marginalized into real, mutual relationships.

But…is the aim of a Christian theory of change to get our common grace institutions to embody the ways of particular grace in the kingdom of God? Doesn’t this amount to a Christendom vision of cultural domination? Isn’t it misguided to take the supernatural values of particular grace, which must be taken on faith, and try to embed them into the common grace institutions of a pluralistic society? These questions are addressed with a kind of “middle grace.” Peter J. Liethart coined the term “middle grace” in his work, Did Plato Read Moses?: Middle Grace and Moral Consensus. He explains that much of the moral consensus we experience with a non-believing world, particularly in the West, is “not a product of pure ‘common grace’ (devoid of all contact with revelation), nor of ‘special grace’ (saving knowledge of God through Christ and his word), but what I call … ‘middle grace’ (non-saving knowledge of God and his will derived from both general and special revelation)” (4-5). In other words, “middle grace” is a non-salvific knowledge of God and his divine will produced when elements of general revelation and special revelation intermingle with sufficient density in organic, ongoing relationships.

Middle grace is where the two exercises of the Holy Spirit’s power—saving grace and common grace—interact in the relational and cultural space between believers and their non-believing neighbors, between the local church and its community, and even between believers from different cultural backgrounds. The Holy Spirit energizes a unique local cultural field when a developed network of Jesus-followers in that workplace, school, industry, city, or nation enacts gospel power-sharing, proclamation, and practices amidst those who live and work in close proximity. Non-believing neighbors find themselves drawn to the life-giving ways of Jesus and his peculiar exercise of power, becoming enmeshed in the Spirit’s field of work and enriched by his fruit and his gifts.

Middle grace is where the salt and light of the gospel interacts with the earth and atmosphere of local culture(s). While some come to receive saving grace, being reborn and baptized into Jesus’ family, a wider circle of people and places are nevertheless drawn into and seasoned by the church’s fieldwork of cultural discipleship, producing this “middle grace.” The lives of followers and non-followers alike are altered by changes in cultural values, practices, and systems catalyzed by the church’s public witness and renewing practices. In many ways, “middle grace” is what a culture looks like when it is changing toward shalom.

For example, social reform movements like the early civil rights protests that grew out of the African-American church and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s work in post-apartheid, South Africa led by Bishop Desmond Tutu were not the outworking of common grace alone. Rather, their rationale and practices were deeply shaped by God’s particular grace. Concepts and practices of confession, repentance, forgiveness, love for enemies, restorative justice, and restitution are not only deeply biblical, but rooted in the gospel itself. This fruit of “middle grace” that profoundly shaped the culture at large was cultivated at the intersection between common grace and the particular grace found in the lived experiences of unjustly marginalized communities. Common grace alone would not have been sufficient—indeed had proved insufficient—either to envision or enact these reforms. What was required was a “middle grace” in which the revealed truth of particular gracebecame so powerful and undeniable that it shaped the public’s common grace vision of what it meant to be a just society. And while elements of these social reform movements did eventually need leaders in the centers of cultural power exerting influence in overlapping networks, their impetus and moral force came from communities on the margins. Indeed, it was the witness of those on the margins that forced the hand (and in some cases re-formed the consciences) of networked elites to seek just reforms.

In these examples, nearly all the crucial elements of the kind of Christian theory of change we are suggesting were present in powerful ways. The values of particular grace were embodied and embedded in the lived experience of faith communities, in particular those on the margins of profoundly unjust societies. The common grace importance of tightly networked cultural elites in social institutions then engaged to enact and enforce lasting structural change. Thus, we see the moral power of “middle grace” as it emerged at the intersection of particular grace communities on the margins and common grace values of a broader society.

But far more instructive than what was present is what was too long absent. Imagine the kind of transformation that could have occurred—or the kind of atrocities that could have been prevented—if those on the cultural margins and those at the cultural centers of these societies had been deeply formed together in the ways of Christ’s kingdom through local churches that centered the stories and lived experiences of those on the margins. What if more of those who held the power to change unjust laws had shared bread and wine at the Lord’s Table with those who were disenfranchised by those laws? What if more of those who wrote the contracts and covenants of neighborhood associations had read the laws of Jubilee, confessed their sins, and received forgiveness alongside those who wanted to live in the same community as their sisters and brothers in Christ? What if these communities were “enactments of shalom” engaged in the kind of power sharing we saw around tables in the ministry of Christ and in the life of the early church. What if?

What is a distinctly Christian theory of social change? We have argued it would be a theory that accounts for common grace insights about cultural change while keeping central the special revelation that, in Christ, the Spirit of God is renewing all things by grace alone, according to the power-inverting way of the kingdom. We believe that the account presented in James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World is best understood as a brilliant exploration of common grace insights on cultural change–the Spirit’s work in creation. However, we have sought to show that Hunter’s “central dilemma,” is precisely the tension introduced into creation by the Spirit’s work of salvation through particular grace alone. A Christian theory of change needs to account for tensions that emerge at the interface of these two works of the Spirit.

Furthermore, we have argued that Christians serve as agents of redemptive change in the world to the degree that they have been deeply formed according to the power-inverting ways of the kingdom in the context of a local church that honors the lived experiences of marginalized sisters and brothers around shared tables in its worship and witness. We believe the “central dilemma” in Hunter’s theory cannot be resolved by a broad call for spiritual formation in the church at large. This is all the truer given the extent to which Christians congregations have too often passively reproduced the social hierarchies of the world.

As such, we believe one of the most important ways to bring about redemptive change in our society is to plant and nurture local congregations that are able to bring together Christians from among the elites and Christians from among the marginalized—to socialize them all into the ways of the kingdom. These congregations must be marked by a distinctive use of power in which wise, Spirit-filled, servant leaders from among cultural subgroups are empowered to overcome old habits of “distance and dissolution” (Hunter). Around shared tables, they must forge new practices of presence and interdependence—sharing power and needs, gifts and burdens. When these congregations enact these distinctly Christian practices of “particular grace” with enough volume and density “between” themselves and their neighbors in shared social spaces, a new “middle grace” can emerge. This “middle grace” makes the gospel more plausible in the wider culture, because it not only benefits the church but also fosters greater access to the shared table of “common grace” resources and provides an appetizing taste of their more equitable sharing in the kingdom that is “now, and not yet.”

We have included here, all too briefly, courageous enactments of gospel-show-and-tell by our African American, immigrant, refugee, and black South African siblings that God has used to foster wider experiences of justice, social reconciliation, and peace both inside and outside the church. The Lord’s Table is the central piece of furniture in this kingdom of grace. This table of the sacrament not only nourishes the fellowship of Christians from the elites and Christians from the margins; it also shapes their appetites and practices out in the world. It then fashions tables of hospitality in their homes, where Jesus’ peculiar exercise of cultural, economic, and spiritual power is made visible to non-believing neighbors and strangers, a “middle grace” they can taste and see. And, as we reflect further on what a Christian theory of change might entail, we can imagine what it might look like for the micro-drama of this table of grace to fashion more equitable tables of shalom in the board rooms, council rooms, court rooms, and conference rooms of our society. As the great civil rights activist, Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, sang in hope,

“I’m gonna sit at the welcome table one of these days, ‘Hallelujah!’ I’m gonna be a registered voter one of these days, ‘Hallelujah!!’ I’m going home to live with Jesus one of the days, ‘Hallelujah!’ All God’s children gonna sit together one of these days, ‘Hallelujah!’”


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