TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE: The Secret of Dense Networks
July 2, 2020
More than likely, in twenty-five years, I know exactly where you will find me: Mountain View Memorial Park, Black Mountain, North Carolina. I know this because that is where I will be buried. In two month, I will have finished paying for the plot beside that of my father and mother. Buying a burial plot is not a life phase that many talk openly about. But there comes a time when the sands of time make it a necessity. There comes a time when the story is winding down to its final few chapters. The choices one makes in these closing pages becomes heightened with significance. There is no time for a do-over. There is no time to retire. Yet I am aware that there will not be many more books penned by this author.
My life has been committed to working with people and projects that fostered human flourishing and the common good. The point was to make a kingdom difference through meaningful cultural change. No one life can really move the needle very much. Nor does one have the historical perspective to assess the meaning or significance of one’s small efforts at kingdom faithfulness. But a lifetime of study and experience has taught me that we do not make a real difference by working alone. If we are to leave a legacy it must be the legacy of a dense network. Dense networks are the main actor on the stage of cultural change. It is through a network of collaborating friendships that lasting cultural change happens.
There is some irony in my admitting this, as I am not a person gifted with a host of close friends. I have been betrayed by some and abandoned by others. I am not the victim here. For whatever reasons stemming from my uprooted missionary background, I’m not the best friend. A loner by temperament… to the degree that I’m social is a benefit of being married to Kathryn. I could very easily be a lighthouse keeper. And in all honesty the life of a writer is pretty much like that, holed up in an office, sitting in front of a laptop day after day—much to my wife’s chagrin. That said, I have been put in positions of leadership through out my life and have loved the team building aspect.
It is said that every book that an author writes is a veiled autobiography. And so I’m weeks away from completing the writing of a new book whose working title is To Make a Difference: The Secret of Dense Networks. Its aim is to unpack what makes dense networks effective. It also derives lessons from The Clapham Circle, Black Lives Matter, the gay rights movement, The Teneo Network and Q. The book aims to make practical Archimedes famous quote, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.”
This quote frames the book in four sections: catalyst, lever, fulcrum, and world. Any person or organization that is keen on making a difference within a particular arena of society must take the necessity of dense networks seriously. Without engaging dense networks in service to your cause or organizational mission, you will tend to spin your wheels, talk only to yourself, while making no appreciable long-term social difference. Put bluntly, social engagement without the power of dense networks is not really social engagement. Catalyzing a dense network around your mission is the first step of effective organizational leadership. It is in this manner that leaders serves the cause and mission, rather than merely themselves. This is the starting place for making a difference.
We are hardwired for significance. We all want our lives to count. A characteristic of modern life is the feeling that we make no difference. We feel we are nothing more than an anonymous cog in a giant wheel that is unknown and insignificant. Modernity accentuates this feeling of isolation and impotence.
There is a narrative that seeks to counter these feelings. There are those who want to underscore that your life has a purpose. An entire industry of self-help motivational instruction has been created to further this counter-narrative. While there is truth in this counter-narrative: every person has a calling and this calling has eternal significance for all who believe in a loving sovereign God. But the stumbling block to this counter-narrative is its emphasis on the individual. It is not the individual that matters most, but the group, and in this case a particular kind of group, a dense network. It is the dense network that leverages a cause within a particular social world. The laws of a dense network are just as rooted in reality as the physics of leverage.
My life has been involved in efforts of social change: the first amendment religious liberty clauses with The Williamsburg Charter, recapturing the priority of culture with the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, reforming life-transforming kingdom-oriented education with The Cambridge School of Dallas, celebrating the life of William Wilberforce through the movie Amazing Grace at Walden Media, investing in cultural engagement with The Templeton Foundation, and celebrating the potential millennial and Gen Z contribution in the church in The New Copernicans. I am certain that my work would have been more effective if I had known the lessons of dense networks earlier.
Over the course of a life lived as a cultural renewal entrepreneur, I have learned something of the importance of dense networks. This book, To Make a Difference, is my attempt to pass on these insights. It is a book written as the shadows grow long. It is a book that affirms our cultural exile status, the challenges of living in a post-Christian society, and the prospect of being an agent of shalom in the midst of the chaos of advanced modernity. It is a book about hope for the coming generation. I’m not moving to Black Mountain just yet. I have a dense network to build and lessons to pass on.
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