Culture Change Happens Slowly, Then All at Once

Culture change can seem to happen quickly, but in reality, it happens slowly, all around us, all the time. Patient, faithful commitment to creating for change can surprise us by happening slowly, slowly, slowly, then all at once. Learn how Lila Rose, Martin Luther King Jr, and Barack Obama all exemplify this principle of culture change.

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How fast does the culture change around us? How involved can we be in changing the culture around us? On what timetable should we expect “results”? Culture change can seem to happen quickly, but in reality, it happens slowly, all around us, all the time. Patient, faithful commitment to creating for change can surprise us by happening slowly, slowly, slowly, then all at once.

Lila Rose, Live Action

“How could anybody do this to a baby?” – Lila Rose, age nine

Have you ever come across a news story so shocking, so emblematic of larger, previously unrecognized cultural changes shifting beneath you that you stopped and asked yourself, How did we get here?

For Lila Rose, at the age of nine, it wasn’t a news story but a simple image of an aborted baby in a book in her home. Taken aback, she asked herself, How could anybody do this to a baby? [1] She would go on, not many years later, to start the pro-life non-profit organization Live Action when still a teenager.

Now, fifteen years later, Lila’s tireless efforts to advocate for the unborn in a winsome and compelling way and create for change is beginning to bear fruit in an age of improved ultrasound technology and the worldwide reach of social media. But for many of us, these moments of confrontation with a culture that is changing all around us can stop us in our tracks.

Creating for Change vs Reacting to Change

In our age of accelerated-information flow and twenty-four/seven news coverage, this feeling can be head-spin-inducing. When you regain your bearings, what emotions and attitudes do you feel?




Maybe even a sense of betrayal at the country that has let you down? A renewed purpose to make things right again? Or maybe you just want to give up? You want to wipe your hands clean and withdraw, isolating yourself in a cloistered Benedictine bubble over which you think you can control.

These feelings are only natural. But the message of the Created for Change movement is that true cultural change doesn’t happen because of emotional, reactionary pronouncements, nor by standing up and speaking out for what you believe in (though that’s important), nor even by supporting a political figure who will act on your behalf (you hope), nor by separating from culture and checking out (giving up), and certainly not because of a determination to wage a culture war, but rather: culture change happens when we participate in, and create more of the culture all around us.

Yes, it can certainly seem that culture changes all at once around us, but we are missing the first part of the equation. Culture change happens slowly, then all at once. When we recognize and commit ourselves to the long, toilsome work that goes into creating culture day by day, by faithfully and creatively participating in the public square of ideas and the marketplace of goods, products, and services, then, and only then, do we lay the groundwork for some all-at-once moments of our own.

Discover How You Can Create for Change

More than voting. More than arguing on social media. Committing to real cultural change requires so much more. Discover your creative calling today.

The Iceberg Theory of Culture Change

There is a common illustration that describes success as an iceberg. The tip of the iceberg is what everyone else can see: the accolades and awards, the finish line, the published book, the championship, the graduate degree, the thriving business, and the like. But what lies underneath the surface, making up the bulk of the iceberg’s mass and totally obscured from view, are all the things that prop up and support the tip of the iceberg, making the success possible in the first place: the failures, the sacrifices, the late nights, the frustrations and disappointments, the three manuscripts that ended up in the trash, the five business ideas that lost money, the doubts, the risks, and all of the grit and discipline that are necessary for success.

Changing culture is an iceberg. When we see great cultural shifts happen seemingly all at once around us, we are seeing just the tip of the iceberg. In 1863, when Abraham Lincoln gave the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that all persons held as slaves shall be free, that was the tip of the iceberg of years of abolitionist work to win over the hearts and minds of a tipping point of people, demonstrated most notably by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the numerous abolitionist pamphlets containing poems, songs, and stories strategically and intentionally created to change public opinion. (Read: The Book That Started a War and The Properties of Propaganda)

In 2015, when the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex couples should have a fundamental right to marry, what many believers caught off guard by the “sudden” change did not fully appreciate was that this was actually the tip of the iceberg of decades of LGBTQ+ social activism in the media, entertainment, and other positions of cultural influence where the day-to-day creative work of portraying the stories of LGBTQ+ characters in a winsome and compelling way via movies, books, TV shows, and other cultural goods was done in an intentional and strategic way so as to change public opinion (Read: The TV Show That Changed a Nation). All this while believers in God’s plan for marriage had essentially checked out of participating in popular culture, abdicating their responsibility to paint their own picture of the good life, and what it looks like to follow God’s design for the family.

Caught off guard, believers rallied in a too-little, too-late, get-out-the-vote counterattack that illustrated our failure to grasp the fundamental issue that our abdication of cultural storytelling responsibility for decades prior had already resulted in a generation of Americans whose hearts and minds had been captivated by a different story. Is it any wonder that the culture-war approach to culture change is an iceberg that melts so quickly?

So, what sorts of things contribute to forming a cultural-change iceberg, and why is time such a necessary and important—and often missing—ingredient?

Forming the Culture Change Iceberg

The first thing that can be difficult to wrap one’s head around is that the things that are needed to get to the tipping point of cultural change are quite different than what we can see above the surface. This has similarities with the success iceberg, too. Have you ever seen a very successful person accept an award, give a speech, explain how they got to where they are, and you find yourself thinking, Hey, that doesn’t look so hard? I could do that …?

It’s a common enough feeling, but misguided. The fallacy is in thinking that the publicly visible part is all that is needed for success all along the entire journey. But the award-accepting, the speechmaking, the story told with the benefit of twenty-twenty hindsight that gives you a false sense of confidence (Of course it was going to be a success. Why didn’t I just invent the iPad?), that is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s all the failures, heartbreaks, false starts, long nights, the writer’s block, the toiling in relative obscurity for years, the trying one thing and then another and hoping for traction but never giving up—that is what success is made of.

So, too, the cultural-change iceberg is made up of one thing above the surface and often other quite different things below the surface. James Davison Hunter writes that “The idea, suggested by James Dobson, that “in one generation, you change the whole culture” [2] is nothing short of ludicrous. Change in political systems and economic conditions can occur relatively quickly but the most profound changes in culture typically take place over the course of multiple generations.

The most profound changes in culture can be seen first as they penetrate into the linguistic and mythic fabric of a social order. In doing so, it then penetrates the hierarchy of rewards and privileges and deprivations and punishments that organize social life. It also reorganizes the structures of consciousness and character, reordering the organization of impulse and inhibition. One cannot see change taking place in these ways. It is not perceptible as an event or set of events currently unfolding. Rather, cultural change of this depth can only be seen and described in retrospect, after the transformation has been incorporated into a new configuration of moral controls.” [3]

What’s under the surface is often not apparent until long after the existence of the iceberg is revealed. From above the surface to below the surface, the cultural-change iceberg is different in both quantity and character. There is a qualitative and a quantitative difference. In other words, the mass of cultural change happening beneath the surface are the types of things that don’t even look like cultural change!

I Have A Dream

A Baptist minister who preaches in small churches across the South, who is active in his community, and who organizes local coalitions of people in his community for causes he believes in could certainly be admired for his attempts to make a difference and might even be considered to be changing his city or even his county, but it would seem a stretch to say that this pastor was creating culture change in any grand, world-changing way.

And yet those are exactly the ways Martin Luther King Jr. spent his time leading up to his tip-of-the-iceberg moment—and possibly one of the single greatest oratorical moments in modern American history—when he delivered his seventeen-minute “I Have a Dream” speech before the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. It is well known that the most famous portion of the speech is a departure from his prepared remarks and was delivered impromptu, possibly as a result of the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who was heard shouting behind him, “Tell them about the dream!”

King rose to the occasion. But grand speeches, in isolation, are rarely culture-shifting, no matter how stirring or provocative they might be. Years of hard, toilsome grassroots organization led King to this tip-of-the-iceberg moment. Did the speech change public opinion and pave the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Yes, absolutely. But, in a vacuum, the speech, though still a triumph of oratory, would not have been positioned to change the world. In some ways, this creating the mass of the iceberg places a movement in a position to capitalize on its tip-of-the-iceberg moment, though it’s often only seen in retrospect.

The “Overnight Success” of Barack Obama

This dynamic is not unique to Martin Luther King Jr. After President Barack Obama, at the time just a relatively obscure state legislator, gave the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, also seventeen minutes of masterful oratory, the media furor catapulted him onto the national stage, but his wife, Michelle Obama, recounts that “He’d been working at this thing, quietly and meticulously, as long as I’d known him. And now maybe the size of the audience would finally match the scope of what he believed to be possible.

He’d been ready for that call. All he had to do was speak…

The media response to Barack’s speech was hyperbolic. ‘I’ve just seen the first black president,’ Chris Matthews declared to his fellow commentators on NBC. A front-page headline in the Chicago Tribune the next day read simply, “The Phenom.” Barack’s cell phone began to ring nonstop. Cable pundits were dubbing him a “rock star” and an “overnight success,” as if he hadn’t spent years working up to that moment onstage, as if the speech had created him instead of the other way around.” [4]

When the Moment is Right… Act!

It’s worth pointing out that, though the real mass of culture change usually happens slowly, there still comes a time when all at once is needed. Great speeches alone don’t change culture, but when the moment is right, give the speech! Passing legislation alone doesn’t change culture, but when the time is right, pass that law!

Give the speech, but don’t pin your hopes on a speech. Pass the law, but don’t think that top-down legislation alone will change culture if the mass of the iceberg has not been formed yet.

Slowly, Slowly, Slowly, Then All At Once

Change happens when William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect toil for years to change public opinion on human chattel slavery. Change happens when Lila Rose and Live Action work for years to expose the evils of Planned Parenthood and the abortion industry to the American public. Change happens—and is happening—all around us, in small, unseen ways that are slowly, slowly, slowly accreting, and then, when the time is right, cultural change happens all at once.

Finding Your Culture Change Creative Type

Throughout the Created for Change framework, we discuss ways you can identify your own Creative Type and implement your own Personal Creative Action Plan for effecting cultural change that make the best use of the gifts, talents, opportunities, and callings God has given you. Our goal is to help you begin to construct your own Personal Creative Action Plan and by then hopefully you will be able to identify your own Creative Type to bring it all together into something specific and actionable just for you.

Discover How You Can Create for Change

More than voting. More than arguing on social media. Committing to real cultural change requires so much more. Discover your creative calling today.

Culture Change Foundational Principles

The specifics of what this looks like is different for everyone, but there are some key culture change principles that we can all learn from:

Time: We’ve seen that cultural change happens slowly over time, then all at once. A focus on just the tip of the iceberg is shortsighted and neglects the types of things that work slowly but surely.

God-Ordained: Only God can change people’s hearts. We have a responsibility to steward what we’ve been given, but in the end, it’s not up to us, but God. We create for change, trusting Him to accomplish His sovereign purposes.

Multifaceted: The Body of Christ is not all arms or all noses or all elbows, but we each play a part, and we work best when we work together. All throughout this website we cover key examples throughout history of important ways people have contributed to cultural change, but never let those examples serve as a limiting factor to what God has called you to do. Cultural influence comes in many different varieties.

Be who God has made you to be and use who you are for His glory and for the good of those around you. In learning more about your Creator and yourself you will be able to better understand your creative calling and identify which of the Nine Creative Types you are.

Get started finding your Creative Type today!

Discover How You Can Create for Change

More than voting. More than arguing on social media. Committing to real cultural change requires so much more. Discover your creative calling today.

[1] National Catholic Register (February 3, 2012),, Last accessed August 4, 2019.

[2] Quoted in an interview with John Hockenberry, Day One, ABC News, 21 September 1995.

[3] James Davison Hunter To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World Oxford University Press (April, 2010) p 44-45

[4] Michelle Obama, Becoming Crown Publishing Group, 2018. pp. 214-215

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Joel Ohman

Joel Ohman is a serial tech entrepreneur, author, and the chief creator at Created for Change. You can connect with Joel at or via LinkedIn.