Can Thinking Small Change the World?

Michael Craven | Center for Christ & Culture | Monday, October 1, 2007

Can Thinking Small Change the World?

Recently Dr. James Emory White wrote an article entitled Archery Moms in which he commented on the work of Mark J. Penn and E. Kinney Zalesne in their new book, Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes
. On the weight of Dr. White’s recommendation, I purchased a copy for myself. He was right; “every now and then, something truly worth noting comes along” in the world of cultural analysis and Penn’s work is certainly worth noting.

Mark Penn is widely regarded as one of the most perceptive pollsters in American politics. You may recall that 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 6 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.” Penn summarizes his observations as follows, “In today’s mass societies, it only takes 1 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 seems to run counter to everything we have come to think and believe about cultural change. I think we tend to believe that in order to effect long term change, there must be a massive shift in thinking or behavior that becomes the majority consensus before real change can occur. In other words, we seek grand initiatives that promise sweeping results and we’re generally not interested in anything less. I think this might explain, in part, why we gravitate to and often stop at politics.

Political parties promise grand initiatives aimed at this or that problem with the implicit promise of producing sweeping changes in the status quo. However, sweeping changes rarely occur and what we often discover is that the only real “sweeping” needed is that of sweeping wishy-washy politicians from office.

Practically speaking, politics offers an easy way to respond to our social and cultural problems. All we have to do is vote periodically, support a particular candidate or party, and sign the occasional petition.

However, 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 activities work to shape jurisprudence, or form the sexual ethics of society, strengthen the social commitment to marriage, or resist the cultural shift toward redefining marriage altogether? How do these activities counter the scientific worldview that reduces life to its utilitarian purposes or redefines the meaning of human dignity? How do these activities actually shape any ethical matter? Finally, how do these political activities recover an all-encompassing understanding of reality as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ? These are the questions that earlier formed the basis for today’s political positions.

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 that and much, much more. The fact is, by the time the aforementioned issues manifest themselves in the realm of public policy it’s too late. The ideas that produced these points of conflict in politics began long before and the process of affecting real change occurs over a generation or more -- not in 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.

He is absolutely correct. The Nazi’s “final solution” did not emerge out of a vacuum nor was it the idea of one madman; it was the belief of many who had slowly come to embrace ideas, which had emerged decades before. In essence, they had already been inculcated with a view of reality that would justify their barbarism. Consistent with Penn’s findings, these monstrous ideas did begin small and they certainly changed the world!

If Penn’s conclusions are correct then perhaps the Church should be encouraged and rethink its approach to society and culture. Apparently, small things do matter. If one percent is all that is needed to “change the world,” that is only 3 million people required to change America. That is less than the total audience for this weekly commentary! What if every reader determined that from this day forward we were going to live completely for Christ, following his example to truly love our neighbors? What if every one of us taught our children and the children of the church to understand all of reality in connection with the revealed Word of God, so that they might form a consciously Christian worldview? What if we then raised these children to fulfill the dominion mandate—pressing these truths about reality into the cultural arenas of philosophy, science, ethics, education and law—shaping the nation’s sexual ethics, society’s estimation of marriage, and defining human dignity?

What if we were simply faithful in the small things beginning with ourselves? Would this change the world? It did beginning in the first century and it has been ever since, as the Church has spread across the globe, being faithful, one by one, to take this new understanding of reality as revealed through the story and person of Jesus.

© 2007 by S. Michael Craven

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S. Michael Craven is the President of the Center for Christ & Culture. The Center for Christ & Culture is dedicated to renewal and discipleship within the Church and works to equip Christians with an intelligent and thoroughly Christian approach to matters of culture in order to recapture and demonstrate the relevance of Christianity to all of life. For more information on the Center for Christ & Culture, additional resources and other works by S. Michael Craven visit:

Michael lives in the Dallas area with his wife Carol and their three children.