Drawing upon history and Wilberforce's fight against slavery in England, Eric Metaxas wrote a brilliant essay here on what he characterizes as the "trickle-down culture" and the importance of reaching the cultural elites with the gospel. It is must-reading in entirety. (He is quickly moving into my top-five picks for contemporary authors/apologists.)
.... my favorite smartguy didn’t know what most American fifth-graders know. Why? Because for the last fifty years he had been living among the intellectual and cultural elites of Manhattan ...
... What does this have to do with changing the world? Everything. Because, for good or for ill, it is the cultural elites who determine much of what goes on in the rest of the culture, who can set the tone and content of the cultural conversation. They can determine what we sneer at and what we ooh at and ahh at. Not that they are trying to do this. It’s just the way things are. They tend to have the tv pulpits and the Conde Nast photo spreads. And the folks in Topeka who watch them… don’t. You’ve heard of trickle-down economics? Let me introduce you to trickle-down culture.
... As we have said, the first aspect of their success has to do with their theological view that one must prove one’s faith though one’s works, that the two cannot be separated. Wilberforce and his friends lived at a time when there was no false division between faith and works, or between evangelism and social outreach. These were simply two sides of the coin that was the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The great 17th century evangelist George Whitfield spent as much time establishing orphanages as preaching – and he preached 18,000 sermons. Caring for widows and orphans, feeding the hungry, and helping the poor were all explicitly and exclusively Christian ideas, so atheists, agnostics, and nominal Christians were neither involved in them, nor in abolition.
... Wilberforce and his network of friends are a model of how Christians can and should engage culture. But since the his time – alas – serious Christians have fallen far from that high-water mark of cultural engagement. So how has this happened? And how might we return?
... Christians have always struggled with how much they should be separate from the wider culture. It’s a crucial balance to strike. It’s tempting to mock those who today or in the past have separated themselves entirely, but often they’ve done so with good reasons, such as a desire to preserve their faith, to keep the secular or pagan culture from destroying it. Of course that’s why God called the Israelites to be separate from the pagan cultures around them. Another good reason has to do with wanting to protect one’s children from harm. Nonetheless, in the last century, Christians on the whole have pulled back too much from the wider culture, retreating when they ought to have advanced, or at the least, held their ground and fought.
... Wilberforce shows us that we mustn’t buy into the silly Hobson’s choice of being either “in the world” or “not of the world”. Christians with integrity need to figure out how to be both simultaneously. We cannot escape God’s command that we be holy, even as He is holy. Being hip may not by itself lead those we meet closer to Jesus. We may have to be authentic and courageous, too, and may have to take stands against things in our culture, risking unpopularity. Striking the right balance may be even more difficult than deciding whether to shave our heads or use mousse.
... Often we have engaged the culture – if it can be called that – only for the purposes of evangelism. We’ve sometimes acted as though “getting everyone saved” was the only real project we should be involved in, as though that would solve all of the other, larger cultural issues. Perhaps if we led enough people to faith – the upsidedown McCulture, like a flipped kayak, would at some point suddenly right itself with a single Super-sized McSplash. But often we have not even cared about the culture at all. Many of us have thought that since the Lord would be returning around the year 1994–2000 at the latest – what did it matter if everything was going to Sheol in a handbasket? This is the standard Dude-it’s-all-gonna-burn theology, which permits complaining about the culture, but not doing anything about it – besides, of course, rescuing people from it before it all burns. This tack has the double disadvantage of being unbiblical and not working. Indeed, it has backfired badly, because without Christians involved in it, the culture only got worse.
... But when we hide in a separate Christian subculture, with its own celebrities and music and “literature” and “Paintings” of LightTM, we often lose the ability to communicate effectively with those who are outside. We begin speaking to ourselves, often with kitschy inside-the-camp aphorisms (“Commission: Possible!”) – and become less and less able to speak to those who are different from us. That, of course, is the enemy of evangelism. We grow more and more fearful and suspicious of those outside the camp, until we slowly begin to think of them as a hostile “other” whom we must destroy, rather than broken and exiled parts of our own selves, whom we are commanded by God to heal and restore. Within the plastic palisades of Fort ChurchianityTM, we will care little if the world outside perishes. We’ve put in our stock of Slim Jims and water purification tablets, and are content to wait for the Rapture, perhaps even gleefully wondering what all those fools who didn’t listen to us will say once they realize we were right and they were wrong. But what is that but a nerd’s revenge fantasy cast in religious imagery?
... having an us vs. them attitude toward the wider culture is unbiblical. Paul quoted pagan poets and philosophers to put his points across. He didn’t advocate their worldviews, but he took from them what was valuable, what was universally true, and he used it to point to the one who is Truth.
... People who thought they could hide in small towns far from places like New York – found that their children were going upstairs to watch their own tv’s, and getting the values of New York and Hollywood elites anyway.
... Among the most crucial moments in history was when Wilberforce, newly converted, went to talk with his old friend, John Newton, the slave trader turned pastor. Wilberforce was sure that becoming a Christian necessitated retreating from the world, and his elite circles. He knew that his friends in high society and politics would now mock him and his beliefs, and he knew that the temptations of the world were powerful, too, and would be easier to avoid if he retreated from the world. But Newton famously told him not to do this. Newton suggested that perhaps God would use him in politics and high society. Perhaps God had given him his talents and position for that reason. Wilberforce’s assent to Newton’s advice led to all that followed, led to the Clapham Circle, and to the end of the slave trade and slavery, and to the improvement of life among the poor, not just in Britain, but around the world. The social conscience we think of as a given among most people in Western societies can be traced back, in large part, to that conversation and that decision.
... To reprise our cultural trickle-down theory, the worst thing about the anti-elitist approach is that it most hurts those at the bottom of the social ladder. By giving in to our pride and abandoning the elite culture of places like New York City Christians have hurt the rest of the culture by allowing a secular worldview to dominate the whole culture, just as it did in England before. Surely a God who would have us humble ourselves and pray for demon-worshiping cannibals would have us humble ourselves and reach out to pro-choice television anchors, too.
... I hope that by bringing a higher level of cultural conversation to New York City, in a small but significant way, we are blessing the city and the culture and those within it – these elites who have education and wealth and power and influence, but many of whom have never seen or heard this wonderful Gospel that some of us have had the infinite privilege to have seen and heard and accepted. By sharing it with these in a way that humbly attempts to communicate in a language they might understand – and by risking their scorn – we hope to honor the One who risked our scorn when he humbled Himself to communicate it to us. This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There is no other. Amen.