Americans enjoy relatively good health care, a bountiful food supply, and secure borders. What’s rarely recognized is that these three accomplishments, along with the rest of the greatest success stories in human civilization, used an identical approach. So it’s odd when faith organizations ignore this when seeking to change the world.
Americans owe their health care to the teaching hospital model. This system has three overlapping networks: research, teaching, and making the rounds. It’s a process that begins with theorists but is based in how effectively it helps practitioners (doctors) with real-life problems. This is a distinction with a big difference. You’ll see why shortly.
The teaching hospital model was developed in response to newly minted doctors wanting to apply the latest research coming out of research institutions to their practices. The new model coupled universities conducting research and development with teachers in medical schools. These teachers then translated research into a medical school curriculum for students. Residency programs in teaching hospitals then required newly minted physicians to make the rounds to apply knowledge in real-life situations under the supervision of a teacher-clinician.
This model changed the game. It accounts for why students from all over the world come to the U.S. to become doctors—and why the majority of graduates stay in the U.S. to practice medicine. In fact, the teaching hospital model created a problem of sorts: living longer means more mouths to feed. The solution was the second American accomplishment: a system helping farmers feed the world.
The American agriculture system uses the same approach as the teaching hospital. University-based departments of agriculture prepare research and advance knowledge for growing crops. This research is linked to Agricultural Experiment Stations, where county agents teach and tailor the findings to fit the needs of farmers. County agents do this by making the rounds and delivering the new technologies (seeds, methods of plowing, etc.) to the farmer in the field. This unique approach has been copied around the world. It has reduced food scarcity around the world. But not everywhere.
Food scarcity remains a problem in some places today. Think of North Korea. Scarcity threatens global security, making the agricultural problem political. Security in Western nations has been strengthened by a strong military presence, the product of the U.S. developing a system identical to the teaching hospital. The American advanced weapons system uses university-based departments of physics and engineering (research) to teach basic research to the military. This research makes the rounds in on-site testing and evaluation at federal weapons labs such as Los Alamos or Sandia, making sure the systems work in real-life conditions. This system has proven to be an effective deterrent against global insecurity. It’s why the West enjoys relative security.
All three culture-changing systems—medicine, agriculture, and weapons—share the same structure—educators, translators, and practitioners. In his book To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, James Davison Hunter writes that the decisive factor in changing the world is overlapping networks. But not just any networks. “In a very crude formulation, the process begins with theorists who generate ideas and knowledge; move to researchers who explore, revise, expand, and validate ideas; moves on to teachers and educators who pass those ideas on to others, then passes those ideas to popularizers who simplify ideas and practitioners who apply those ideas.” The upside of Hunter’s crude formulation is clarity: it’s the same system that advanced medicine, agriculture, and weapons.
There’s an irony here. Another institution committed to making the world a better place—the faith community—overlooks this model. It does start with theorists but rarely measures how effectively they help practitioners with real-life problems. This error derives from three assumptions in modem Western thought. The first is called “Hegelian idealism,” the view that ideas move history. Not so. Faith communities should be teaching hospitals—networking theorists with translators and measuring how effectively they help practitioners produce shalom in, say, Google. Measuring shalom would mean ascertaining whether Google takes a biblical definition of reality seriously and acts on it.
Faith communities also err when they look primarily to individual theorists to lead the way. This is “Lockean individualism”—an assumption that an aggregate of gifted theorists, leading “conversations” that rain abstractions from heaven like rain, will produce solutions springing from the soil of society. Not so. These theorists have no dirt under their fingernails. Faith communities should be agricultural stations, measuring how effectively they’re helping practitioners with real-life problems.
Faith communities commit a third error in assuming the key to culture-change is having one’s heart right before God. Not so. This is called “Christian pietism,” based on Hegelian idealism and Lockean individualism. There is significant truth in pietism, but winning the “culture war” is not merely a matter of hearts and minds. It’s also hands and habits—the stuff of culture. Faith communities should produce better weaponry.
These three errors prejudice our view of cultural change in ways that are fundamentally flawed. The reality is that the greatest success stories in human civilization have followed a teaching hospital model. To change the world, faith communities ought to measure how effectively they’re helping practitioners with real-life problems—not assess the ABCs (a faith community’s attendance, building, and cash).
“If one is serious about changing the world,” Hunter writes, “the first step is to discard this view of culture and how cultures change, for every strategy based upon it will fail—not most strategies, but all strategies.” Do faith communities believe this? How many are ready to discard the old model? Discarding might be easier if they knew why America enjoys good health care, feeds the world, and benefits from secure borders.