It seems, at times, that our local churches resemble more and more a religious version of business enterprises. We compete for customers by improving the marketing of our Christian product. We look to the business gurus to help us recreate our churches in terms that make sense within modern economic trends. The more our ecclesiology resembles in practice the commercial world around us, the more it fits the terminology and worldview of global economic trends. Unless we review our ecclesiology and restore it to its biblical foundations and conceptual language, we will not be able to judge the trends that surround us, and the churches may in fact become simply one of the many sub-elements of that trend. We have already seen the marketing of the church. Soon we may see the next development, the globalization of the church, along the same driving concepts of economic globalization: rapid numerical growth and efficiency defined by return on missions dollars.
Though signs of a global economy and accompanying value systems can be seen nearly everywhere, it is important to understand that globalization is not experienced equally by everyone. Globalization has expanded the free-market economy into world scale. That means that those societies with a longer history of an innovative free-market economy have a decided advantage. They set the pace, and the others must work very hard simply not to fall further behind. Americans, we have seen, are at the front of the tidal wave, with some European and Asian countries close behind. But the vast majority of the peoples of the world are lumped together in a very distant third place. Though people from all countries can experience globalization, not all can participate in shaping it or reaping its benefits.
Globalization is experienced differently by people near its front and people at the rear. Like the paralytic at the pool of Siloam, those in weaker and less stable economies are too far from the water's edge, and there is always someone who plunges in first whenever the angel stirs the water. That someone will most likely be an American, Japanese, or Northern European.
Globalization is predominately a Western concept, shaped and defined by Western paradigms. It is not surprising, then, that it is the Westerners in the missions movement that seem more at home with the subject and more likely to engage it. What does globalization look like to those near the rear? What perspective can they bring to the missions movement and the remaining task of world evangelization? Perhaps they can help us see world evangelization as more than a task we must accomplish. They can help us to see where the competitive urge of free-market economics contradicts the scriptures and can help us to correct our thinking. They may also help us, among other things, to see that things that seem like virtues for those living at the front end of globalization may not look like virtues at all from a biblical perspective. And the fact is that both in scripture and history, most of the advance of the people of God has taken place in contexts of weakness, poverty, and uncertainty.
We must rediscover the non-numerical language of the gospel. Evangelicalism has flourished predominantly in Western and North American societies during the last two centuries. This flourishing coincides with the development of the free-market capitalism that is now both the driving force and the essence of globalization. It has given Western society a numerical language that is particularly suited to business transactions, but terribly poor to describe the worth and experience of the gospel. Recently I attended a missions consultation. At least two speakers described the success of the mission in a given area by indicating the percentage of growth of the church in the last ten years. It was interesting that this growth was described in percentages rather than absolute numbers, which allowed them to say the church grew twenty-eight times in ten years--an impressive growth rate. This way of reporting growth has a much greater impact on the churches back home than if the growth were described in absolute numerical terms: from fifty to a few thousand in ten years.
The Lord Jesus used very different language, perhaps shocking to our ears, when he said that there is more joy in heaven for one sinner who repents than for ninety-nine righteous. He also gave us a very humbling picture of the growth of the gospel in the parable of the narrow way and the broad way. And he never promised that Christians were to become a national majority population.
I am not arguing for a total abandonment of numbers in assessing and reporting our missions work, but I suggest that statistics and numbers for the most part be presented as footnotes to our field reports. The actual language with which Christ described matters of the kingdom was quite different, and we need to rediscover it.
I recently attended another missions consultation. In the midst of field reports by various missionaries, a woman believer from the region was asked to give her testimony. She spoke from the podium about how the gospel came to her family. As she elaborated, her testimony became increasingly an emotional expression of deep gratitude to the Lord and to the missionaries he had sent to her country. She finished unable to speak, her eyes flooded with tears of gratitude to her gracious God.
I was myself deeply moved by such a beautiful reminder of the reason for missions. In my heart I deeply hoped the moderator would interrupt the formal agenda with a time of praise to God. Instead, as soon as this sister finished, the moderator announced the next presenter, and we went on with the report. Where was the rejoicing in the church for the one sinner who had repented? Can it be that we have become so shaped by the pattern of this world that we don't even recognize the full impact of our own service to God in the lives of those we touch?
The church in mission-sending countries must be careful not to export such culturally generated distortions to emerging churches. Yet the Western church may not be able to escape the strong grip of economic globalization without the help of the emerging church. What does the church look like when it is not so heavily influenced by material affluence and driven by the mechanistic values of growth and efficiency? How do brothers and sisters who live at the margins of this worldwide globalization pattern experience communion with Christ and his family? We must learn to listen to and learn from them.
Missions today still can perform a significant service to the nations by giving them a new set of values--God-given values with which they can judge all economic systems, including the alien incursions of global market forces. Are new believers resulting from our missions work becoming equipped to judge the pattern of this world, or is our missions work merely helping make them more compliant with it? This equipping of the new saints is not a peripheral by-product of missions, but central to it. But in order to equip effectively, we must ourselves:
Understand the nature and power of globalization, not merely separating the products that are beneficial from those that are harmful, but discerning the value system that is communicated by globalization's very existence and nature.
Recognize the degree to which globalization may have already begun to reshape our worldview and take steps to renew our minds through the scriptures.
Reaffirm (for some of us, perhaps, even rediscover) a biblical worldview that places Christ and his church above world trends--economic, political, cultural, or religious.
We must abandon, through newly acquired mental and spiritual disciplines, any trace of paternalism, cultural resentment, or cultural blinders that might cause us to miss the blessing that comes from brothers and sisters from other cultures. In contrast to the doomed Babel of our day, we live like strangers in a foreign country, looking forward to the "city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God" (Hebrews 11:10).
Globalization is a logical development of a secular world system. It is the best one can expect of a world resistant to the love and the kingdom of God. As such, it is grossly inadequate to answer the pressing deepest anxieties and despair of humanity. The church must be careful not to be too comfortable in the company of globalization. The church is the worshiping community of God, the one legitimate unifying structure for the peoples of the world. I believe the history of Babel was recorded precisely to help us understand this. It was humankind's best effort to unite all peoples into one world community. God rejected it as unfit for the purpose. He offers instead a new community through the seed of Abraham, the church. We are the alternative.
This article is an excerpt from "Globalization and World Evangelism," in Global Missiology for the 21st Century: The Iguassu Dialogue, edited by William D. Taylor (Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, Michigan, $35) Copyright ?2000, World Evangelical Fellowship.