While doing some manual labor all week I’ve been thinking about words and how they are often containers into which we can pour new meaning.
Take “world changers” for instance. Ten years ago or so when Indiana Wesleyan University launched the new World Changer emphasis the meaning of the term was clear. Every faculty and student was expected to read Briner’s book—Roaring Lambs which has terrible ecclesiology but interesting ideas on the role Christians in the world. Briner represented the best of the boomer thinking—Christians didn’t have to be second class at anything but we can be just as successful in business, just as good a coach, just as rich and just as famous as anyone else in the world.
So IWU brought in examples of world-changers to speak in chapel: famous actors who had made it in Hollywood, writers who had made the New York Times bestselling list, rich businessmen, renowned surgeons or prominent politicians. These were “world changer models.” Missionaries, social workers, elementary teachers and nurses were not invited. We even started a hall of fame inducting famous world-changers and placed their bronze head in the library to remind students of what they were to try to become. The message so popular with boomer parents was: Be successful like these people.
We started the UNV 180-world changers course where we tried to convince freshmen students to go for the gold and change the world. While we never said so directly but the implication was clear: make it big time in the world. We were saying you should grab the gold ring of worldly success so some day you too might have a triumphal return to IWU as a true world-changer. For more than ten years this is what “World-changer” has meant.
But words do not have fixed meanings. The people of God have an uncanny way of pouring new meaning into old words. When you alums return to IWU in the future be prepared for this shift in what “world-changer” means. It may not mean what it meant when you were here. We now have a new generation of students and parents (and evangelicals) and this is changing world changers.
So, how is “world-changer” changing? It is coming to mean “making a difference where you live—one by one.” A world changer is coming to mean a person who works as a nurse serving others out of love even if you never get famous for it or write a best-selling book. A world changer is coming to mean a teacher who purposely chooses to go to a third-rate inner city school to make a difference in the lives of poverty stricken students. It is increasingly coming to mean doing something to address AIDS in Africa, stop sexual slavery, starting feeding programs for the poor, and developing the personal discipline of recycling and reducing one’s energy footprint. It has less to do with becoming rich or famous and more to do with serving and loving. You can be a world-changer now by serving as a youth pastor in South Dakota or by running a homeless shelter in Atlanta. The success content of the term is being gradually displaced with a new moral content.
Nowhere is this so clear as in the new book the UNV180 students now read calling for Christian action on behalf of the poor and needy (more on that book in September). I expect sooner or later we will induct someone into the WC hall of fame like this—some non-famous servant who loves and serves quietly.
Of course REL alums all recognize this is all about theology. Not just Briner’s poor ecclesiology, but good solid pneumatology. The church is guided by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is constantly prompting change and correction among the people of God. And, sometimes He does this by prompting us to pour new and better meaning into old words. That’s what seems to be happening right now with the term “World-changer.” My hunch is most of my former students thought this is what it should have meant all along.