Global Gospel, Global Era: Christian discipleship and mission in the age of Globalization

Os Guinness & David Wells 13 Jul 2010

Editor’s Note: This Cape Town 2010 Advance Paper was written by Os Guinness and David Wells as an overview of the topic to be discussed at the related session on “Globalization” at the Cape Town 2010 Congress. Responses to this paper through the Lausanne Global Conversation were fed back to the authors and others to help shape their final presentations at the Congress.

“Globalization” is a monumental challenge that represents quite simply the most pressing face of “the world” in our time, as well as the greatest opportunity for mission and the greatest challenge for discipleship the church of Jesus Christ has faced since the Apostles in the first century. Never has the vision of “the whole Gospel for the whole world through the whole church” been closer yet more contested.

The double-edged strength of the church

As Christians, and as the church of Jesus Christ, we are called by our Lord to be “in” the world, but “not of” the world. “No longer” who we were before we came to Christ, we are “not yet” what we will be when Christ returns. This bracing call to tension in both time and space lies at the heart of our faith. Individually and collectively, we are to live in the world in a stance of both Yes and No, affirmation and antithesis, or of being “against the world/for the world.”

This tension is crucial to the faithfulness of the church, and to her integrity and effectiveness in the world. When the church of Christ remains faithful to this calling, she lives in a creative tension that is the prerequisite of her transforming power in culture and history. For the Christian faith is unashamedly world-affirming, and has a peerless record in contributing to education, to philanthropy, to social reforms, to medicine, to the rise of science, to the emergence of democracy and human rights, as well as to building schools, hospitals, universities, orphanages, and other beneficial institutions. Yet at the same time, the Christian faith is also world-denying, insisting on the place of prophets as well as priests, on sacrifice as well fulfillment, on the importance of fasts as well as feasts, and on the place for exposing and opposing the world when its attitudes and actions are against the commands of God and the interests of humanity.

Not surprisingly, the church’s constant temptation has been to relax this tension from one side or the other, so that the Christians in different ages have sometimes been so much in the world that they are of it, or so much not of the world that they were “no earthly use.” Either way, such unfaithfulness means that the church grows weak, but unfaithfulness in the direction of worldliness is worse than weak, for it puts the church, like Israel in the Old Testament, under the shadow of the judgment of God.

This challenge carries an inescapable implication: Christian faithfulness in any generation requires a clear-eyed understanding of the world of its day. The biblical view of “the world” has several dimensions, ranging from the world that God created and loves to the world that is “over against” the kingdom of Christ, and we in turn should have several appropriate responses. Seen positively, understanding the world is assumed and required by our desire to witness, for communication always presupposes understanding of context. Seen negatively, understanding the world is assumed and required by vigilance against the danger ofworldliness, for we can only avoid what we accurately understand.

We meet in Cape Town in October 2010 one hundred years after the great world missionary conference in Edinburgh in June, 1910. It would be true to say that Edinburgh’s missionary vision and enterprise has been gloriously vindicated and fulfilled in the emergence of the burgeoning global church over the last hundred years. But it must also be said that the tragic blind spot of the Edinburgh Conference was its lack of self-criticism of its own position in the world, and in particular its failure to recognize its captivity to the powerful delusions of European “Christendom” just before its titanic collapse in the Great World Wars, the repudiation of imperialism, and its own self-induced secularization. While we today are no more omniscient than our sisters and brothers who met in Edinburgh, we must endeavor to be more self-critical through understanding our world and our own place in it.

Coming to terms with “globalization”

What, then, is “the world” of our day? Beyond any question, the single, strongest expression of the face of the world in our time—the advanced modern world of the early twenty-first century—is globalization, the process by which human interconnectedness has expanded to a truly global level. There are many people, such as the writers of The Economist magazine, who attribute globalization to the spread of market capitalism throughout the world, and use the word only as a synonym for this expansion. But this is self-interested as well as wrong. Globalization is a multi-dimensional process, and the decisive driver in its present expansion is not capitalism but information technology, powerful and important though capitalism is. At the centre of the current wave of globalization are “the triple S-forces” of speed (with the capacity for instant communication), scope (the capacity to communicate to the entire world), and simultaneity (the capacity to communicate to everywhere at the same time). Together, these forces have shaped our “wired world” and led to an unprecedented triple impact on human living: the accelerationcompression, and intensification of human life on earth in the global world.

To call the present levels of globalization “unprecedented” is accurate, but it must be qualified at once. Today’s globalization is unique in history so far, but there are many earlier precedents of movement toward globalization, including the missionary expansion of the great world religions, the impact of the advances in transport and the widening networks created by trading, and the expansive effects of military conquest and imperialism. Equally, there are grand advances in earlier times that can claim a similar revolutionary impact on human life, such as the invention of writing, the alphabet and the wheel.

Thus, if viewed from the longer historical perspective, advanced modern globalization is only the latest of a series of waves of expanding human interconnectedness. But if viewed from the shorter perspective of the modern world, globalization represents a decisive shift from the Industrial Revolution, centered on production and epitomized by the factory, to the Information Revolution, centered on communication and epitomized by the computer. Either way, we must take into account both continuities and discontinuities with the past, and we must make our claims about the present with accuracy and humility.

Needless to say, globalization poses a sharp challenge to both accuracy and humility, and we need to start by avoiding the two equal and opposite pitfalls into which so many fall: the excessive “Wow!” attitudes of the cheerleaders and the excessive “gloom and doom” of the curmudgeons (who in their Christian form view globalization as the precursor to “the end times”). In any age, there are three tasks facing Christians who would wrestle with the world of their day and live faithfully as followers of the Way of Jesus.

The first task is to discern, and so to make an accurate description of the realities of the world in which we find ourselves.

The second task is to assess, and so to evaluate the pros and cons, the benefits and costs, of the world as a whole as well as of individual items and aspects of that world – all assessed within the framework of the biblical worldview.

The third task is to engage, and so to enter the world as disciples of Jesus called to be salt and light, gratefully using the best of the world as gifts of God and vigilantly avoiding the worst of the world. Or as the early church expressed it, we are to “plunder the Egyptian gold,” as the Lord told Israel to do, but we are never to set up “a golden calf,” as Israel was later judged for doing.

Easy to say, these basic Christian tasks are harder than ever to do because of globalization. History is always more complex than we can understand, and it proceeds not by the simple influence of certain factors but by their complicated interplay and through the ironies of their unintended consequences. Globalization only compounds our difficulty in understanding, for by its very nature, globalization means that we who are finite now have to deal with the whole world—in other words, a world that is always far beyond our full comprehension. And we are dealing with the world when the world is communicating and changing at an unprecedented speed—in other words, when the world may have changed even before we have finished describing it.

One safeguard is that to remember that many of our best descriptions always require immediate reminders. First, globalization almost always involves two countervailing forces, and not simply one—if the world is “universalizing” in new ways, it is also “localizing” in new ways (which has helped coin the odd term “glocal,” used to describe the impact of the global on the local and the local on the global). Second, in every new trend there are always both winners and losers—and Christians who honor their Master must never lose sight of the poor, the oppressed, and those left behind economically, especially those caught by the savage inequities of the globalized world. Third, there are “multiple modernities,” or different ways of being modern—so that the old adage that “Globalization equals Westernization equals Americanization” is not only wrong but a dangerous conceit. Different cultures, with their own history and their own values, are able to adapt to the modern world in their own way, and may always attempt to say No to what is considered “progress,” and not simply Yes.

The Global faith par excellence   

The crucial and supreme point of the whole discussion is that globalization has a special relevance for Christians because the Christian faith is an essentially global faith. To any observer of the global scene, certain facts are evident and beyond question: The Christian faith is the world’s first truly global religion. Christians are the most numerous of religious believers in the world. The Christian church is the most diverse community on earth. The Bible is the most translated book in history. And in many parts of the world, the Christian faith is the world’s fastest growing faith, especially when growth is through conversion rather than birth rate. And so on.

Such facts are not accidental, for globalization is integral to the Christian faith. For one thing, the Christian faith was global before the term, beginning not simply with the Great Commission to the whole world but with the promise to Abraham that he would be the father of the faithful and a blessing to the whole world. For another thing, the Christian church has been one of the great “carriers” of globalization throughout history, such as in the missionary expansion of the first century church, the Protestant missions in the nineteenth, and the reaching out to the whole world today by the churches from all around the world—the remarkable enterprise of the Korean churches is a shining example. For yet another thing, Christian NGOs (non-governmental organizations) such as World Vision, Opportunity International, Compassion, Food for the Hungry and the International Justice Mission are often the pioneering carriers of globalization in the world today.

Put these factors together and it is clear that, if the Christian church lives up to its calling and proclaims the Gospel in its fullness, it is the natural carrier of a global Gospel for the global era—“the best news ever” for all humankind. No less than that is our privilege and our responsibility in the global era.

Grand transformations

Our core focus at the Lausanne Congress in Cape Town will be on the implications of globalization for discipleship and evangelism. But it is crucial to underscore that globalization is transforming almost every aspect of human life on the planet, and all these transformations have a bearing on discipleship and evangelism in one way or another. Some of the major transformations that require further exploration can be summarized briefly as follows:

  • Our sense of time, in a world of “fast-life,” so that we are the first generation to live at a speed beyond our human comprehension (“business at the speed of light,” and so on)
  • Our sense of place, when space is “compressed” and geography “abolished,” and we can communicate anywhere in the world instantly, and travel anywhere within 24 hours
  • Our sense of reality, as more and more of life is “mediated,” the “virtual” replaces the natural, and face to face relationships give way to virtual interaction
  • Our notion of identity, as the fixed and enduring shifts to “the endlessly protean,” and numerous “identity movements” offer collective identities for those suffering from the dislocation of traditional identities
  • Our experience of families, as binding social ties are “melting down,” traditional gender roles are challenged and replaced, and the dysfunctional becomes the normal
  • Our experience of community, as the face-to-face shifts to “the virtual and the imagined”
  • Our experience of work, as globalization makes job security fragile, and “portfolio careers” become the norm
  • The place of religion in modern life, when the traditional religion is “de-monopolized” and “de-territorialized,” and religion becomes “religiosity” or a vague “spirituality”
  • The challenge of other religions and especially of “living with our deepest differences” in the emerging “global public square”
  • The place of politics, as the “supra-national” supersedes the national, and nation states are rivaled by many global actors
  • The challenge of working toward “global governance without a world government”
  • The task of leadership in an interconnected age, as leaders now grapple with “the whole world the whole time”
  • The nature of knowledge, as information explodes, “generalism” replaces specialization, and the Internet becomes a “garbage can” as well as a “goldmine”
  • The power of consumerism, and its transformation of human desire, its drive to “commodify” everything, and its grand accumulation of debt and junk
  • The proliferation of ideologies, and especially the new ideologies that are rampantly pro-globalist, such as neo-liberal capitalism, or rampantly anti-globalist, such as “post-colonialism”
  • Modern travel and the vast global tourist industry, which has spawned evils such as “sex tourism,” and modern migration and the “manufacture of waste people” such as the millions who have been left homeless, identity-less, jobless, and stateless in refugee camps
  • Our attitudes toward the earth, when degradation exposes its non-renewable fragility
  • Our sense of generations, when fast-life encourages “generational conceit” and the myopia that cuts itself off from the wisdom of the elders and the past
  • Our attitude to tradition and change, when novelty and fashion trump wisdom, custom and “the habits of the heart”
  • The dominance of worldwide emotions, such as fear and the shameless pandering to fear-mongering and alarmism
  • The significance and scale of globalized evil, suffering, crime and oppression, and the multiple consequences for justice and compassion – supremely the global trafficking in sex, human body parts and humans themselves
  • The exponential rise of global side-effects, and therefore of unintended consequences, unknown aftermaths and “black swans”
  • The prospects for the human race, including the degradation of the earth, the potential destruction of the planet and extinction of the human species, and the question of a “post-human future”

A proper description of these profound transformations is far beyond the scope of this brief introductory essay. But such consequences must never be forgotten, for they define the world in which we live and in which we bear witness to our Lord. Our focus, here, however, is on two central areas: globalization and discipleship, and globalization and mission.

Christian discipleship in the global era

If globalization has both local and global dimensions, and if its enormous benefits are also trailed by extraordinary shadows, as they are, then it poses for Christian discipleship challenges that are complex.  How do we think about both the benefits and the costs as Christ’s followers?  And how do we think of this world that lives in our consciousness at both a macro and a micro level?

  • The Church, if it is true to its calling, will think globally because otherwise it will be more parochial than its non-Christian neighbors and, worse, untrue to its Gospel calling.
  • Global consciousness tends to “relativize” and therefore diminish all absolute truth claims because the awareness of other religions and worldviews erodes the possibility that any one of them could actually be really true.
  • Capitalism and technology are uniting to produce unparalleled abundance in developed countries and raising questions for Christian faith.  In these countries, paradoxically, people have never had so much to live with and yet so little to live for.  Never have they experienced such abundance through cheaply produced products from around the world and yet never have depression, anxiety and loneliness been at higher levels.  And all too often, Christians in these countries are not distinguished from non-Christians in how they think and how they live, first about affluence and then, beyond that, about the meaning of life and what constitutes a “good life.”  This consequence of globalization is now most obvious in the West but it will become a challenge wherever the world is modernizing.
  • In a world connected electronically and virtually, the trend is to diminish face-to-face human relationships and increase “virtual relationships” and “social networking.” Questions are even being raised as to whether anyone should “go” to church anymore.  But is the “church” merely an “imagined community” that exists only in the ether?  And how does this “mediated world” impact discipleship patterned on the flesh and blood realities of the Incarnation?
  • At a time when the power of “the world” is unprecedented in its pressure and pervasiveness, the tendency is for expressions of the Christian faith (and other religions too) to be pulled toward the extremes of a world-defying fundamentalism or a world-accommodating liberal revisionism. If the former develops ways of life that are a contradiction of the Way of Jesus, the latter leads to a brazen denial of the historic Christian worship of Jesus, the promotion of what the Bible anathematizes as “another gospel,” and to the end of Christian mission altogether. The faithfulness of the contrasting stance of being “in” the world, but “not of” the world, is more vital than ever.

Christian mission in the global era

The increased opportunities for mission and evangelism in the global era are obvious and huge. Christians are by definition great communicators, and the global era is by definition the great age of communication, so the potential for outreach in the global world can hardly be overstated. With the destruction of traditions, the collapse of traditional certainties, and the melting down of traditional roles and allegiances, there is greater political liberty, greater social fluidity, greater religious diversity and greater psychological vulnerability than ever before in history. As a result, human beings in the global era have been described as “conversion prone,” and more open than ever to consider new faiths. We therefore face the prospect of spreading the Gospel in a manner that is “freer, faster, and farther” than ever before in the church’s history, a prospect that must be seized with faith and courage.

At the same time, it would be naïve not to see that the increased challenges to mission and evangelism are equally powerful, and must be faced frankly. The following nine issues are examples of the sort of challenges we must consider in the global era:

  • The political temptation: With the general crisis of faith in the advanced modern world, the political temptation today is different from that of Edinburgh 1910 or the church under Constantine in 312 A.D. At one extreme, more common in the West, the temptation is to see the Christian faith as the best way to defend the status quo and bolster cultures under stress. At the other extreme, more common outside the West, the temptation is to see the Christian faith as a variant of post-colonial criticism, justifying prejudice, channeling outrage, and inciting resentment in the attempt to promote social change.

Either way, history shows that such attempts are almost always ineffective for the culture and disastrous for the church. And in the process, the Christian faith gets pressed into the service of some political ideology or other, losing the distinctiveness of the way of Jesus, and ending up as the court chaplain to the powers of the age. Both extremes must beware the idolatry of politics in the modern world, and consider the maxim: “The first thing to say about politics is that politics is not the first thing.”

  • Plausibility crisis: Whenever individual Christians and local churches have become worldly through falling captive to their surrounding culture and especially to the spirit and systems of the modern world, they represent a “plausibility crisis” for the Gospel at best and “hypocrisy” at worst.
  • The downsides of the age of communication: Among common features of the age of communication are many severe handicaps to mission—for example, the dominance of the entertainment mode, the sound bite style, the sensationalist claims, the common appeal to feelings alone, the widespread “inattention” of a world in which “everyone is talking and no one is listening,” the “inflation” of ideas and sources so that everything is “words, words, words,” and the general reliance on mediated communication rather than on face-to-face communication that is patterned on the Incarnation. To the extent that Christians use modern media uncritically, to that extent they reduce the Gospel to being one more sales pitch among many.
  • The lethal effect of secularization: “Man does not live by bread alone,” Jesus said, but thanks to the brilliance and power of modern insights and techniques, no generation has come closer to the illusion of being able to do so—including the ability to grow churches and conduct effective outreach on the strength of human ingenuity alone and without any genuine need for God at all.

Is not this partly why the single strongest difference between the early church and the modern church is the lack of supernatural power in the modern church, and there is such an attendant lack of prayer, spiritual discernment, and capacity for healing, deliverance, and supernatural warfare?

Secularization means that in the advanced modern world we live in “a world without windows,” so that for many modern Christians, the unseen tends to be also the unreal. Thus it is possible for us to live as “functional atheists,” and in more and more of life to have “no need of God,” so that mission is driven by statistics, demographics, and the “roll out” of the Gospel to the “unreached,” rather than by the traditional passion for Christ and for “the lost.”

At the same time, the pluralized world amplifies the fears surrounding the challenges of living with deep religious differences, so that religion is viewed as divisive and evangelism as unwarranted and politically incorrect “proselytization.”

  • The Midas touch of consumerism: In a world in which consumerism is the popular face of the dominant capitalist economy, marketing and “branding” are essential to economic growth, and everything can be bought and sold as a “commodity,” the Gospel can easily be distorted when it is presented or perceived as a “product,” and the stress on marketing can end up making “the audience” sovereign over the message. At best, the result is shallow evangelism and a deficient discipleship. At worst, it is unfaithfulness to the Gospel and confusion and scandal to those we are trying to reach.

Two particular dangers must be highlighted here. One is the subtle distortions of the Gospel in the various forms of modern “possibility thinking,” and the other is the crass and vile distortions of the Gospel in the various forms of the “prosperity” or “health and wealth Gospels” that are now exported from the USA to parts of the Global South, where their effects are pernicious to both the Gospel and the poor. 

  • The idol of chronological timeliness: In a world of “fast-life,” in which we care less about the past, more about the present that is brought to us via “instant, total information,” and most of all about the future, it is fatal to fall for the illusions and idolatry bred by advanced modern time—such as the seductions of “relevance,” the siren call to the ideal of ceaseless “innovation” (“There are two kinds of churches: those that are changing, and those that are going out of business”), and the appeal of unceasing novelty (“The newer is truer” and “the latest is greatest”). The old maxim still holds true: “He who marries the spirit of the age soon becomes a widower.”
  • The pressure of the “Movement of Movements”: The huge majority of the great movements of social reform in history, such as the abolition of slavery, have been inspired by the Christian faith and led by people of faith. This, however, has changed in the global era, when global problems of all kinds have inspired global movements of all kinds with participants of all faiths—the so-called “movement of movements.” In such a world, there has been a welcome return to the earlier Evangelical passion for social justice, as exemplified by such great Evangelicals as William Wilberforce, who is widely recognized as the greatest social reformer in history. But just as it was once a denial of the Gospel to stress the so-called “simple Gospel” at the expense of the “social Gospel”—a denial so well corrected at Lausanne I—so now it is equally a denial of the Gospel to stress the latter at the expense of the former, and to be vocal about justice while hesitant about the scandal of the Cross and the saving power of Christ.
  • Creating and contributing rather than critiquing and complaining: In a world in which the discontents of globalization are becoming more and more evident, and fear has become the most dominant emotion across the world, it is easier to be a critic and a complainer rather than a contributor and a creator. Yet not only does the world cry out for hope and practical solutions, so also does the imperative of the cultural mandate throughout the Scriptures.

Among many issues on which Evangelicals have both the biblical resources and the historical experience to speak out constructively is the issue of forging civility in the emerging “global public square.” Whereas some Western Christians are now widely attacked as part of the problem of religion and public life, the proper championing of freedom of conscience and religious liberty for people of all faiths would make us part of the answer—not only for our own good, but for the wider good and the shalom of humanity. Lausanne III at Cape Town could take a strong lead at this point.

In sum, while the global world offers unprecedented opportunities for reaching peoples and parts of the world that have never been reached before, it sharpens the contrast between the wisdom of the world and the foolishness of the Gospel to a daunting and uncomfortable degree. Evangelism in the global era appears easier, and in many ways it truly is, but discipleship is unquestionably harder, and so too is costly incarnational evangelism that is patterned on the life and death of Jesus rather on the brilliance of modern insights and techniques.

Serving God in our own generation

Every generation is as close to God as every other, and we are responsible only for our own generation. Yet it is claimed today that the generation of young people who are now entering adulthood are the “crunch generation,” in the sense that many of the global trends of our day are converging to create unprecedented challenges for humanity. Regardless of whether this proves true, it is not too much to say that globalization represents the greatest opportunity for the Gospel since the Apostles, as well as the greatest challenge to the Gospel since the Apostles, and that we must respond to both with faith and with courage.

Above all, we must face both the opportunities and the challenges of globalization as the united people of God. In particular, and remembering the tragic blind spot of the Edinburgh Conference in 1910, we must avoid the peril of two equal and opposite forms of the worldliness of power. On the one hand, we must not confuse the spread of the Gospel with the spread of Western power, and on the other, we must not confuse a prophetic stand against Western power with the premises and prejudices of anti-Western “post-colonialism.”

With Western power in visible decline, there is less excuse for the first confusion than at Edinburgh, though the economic and cultural power of the West may well outlast its political and military dominance. In many parts of the world, the current temptation is to fall for the opposite confusion introduced by post-colonialism, but this would divide Christian against Christian in the name of suspicion, envy and resentment. And it would also divide the church along such lines as “the West” versus “the Rest,” the “global North” against the “global South,” or the churches of the “more developed” world against the churches of the “less developed” world. Such “accidental” and extra-biblical definitions and boundaries were the very mistake that Edinburgh made in light of the artificial and territorial notion of “Christendom.” More recent missionary themes such as “The whole church to the whole world,” or “Everyone to everyone, and everywhere to everywhere” are not only more in tune with the global era but more faithful to the Great Commission.

We all thank God together for the abundant evidence of the spectacular growth of the churches in the global South, with all their courage, passion and spiritual power. They put to shame the all-too obvious contrast with the marked spiritual poverty of the churches in the West. But at the same time, we must all be humbly aware that much of the global South is not yet fully modernized, and therefore not yet fully tested by the coming challenges and seductions of modernity (to which the Western church has fallen captive). That test is still to come.

Equally, we all openly acknowledge and sorrow over the dire weakness and worldliness of much of the church in the West, and its profound need for revival and reformation. Yet its sorry condition can stand as a helpful warning to all the churches elsewhere in the world: Do not do as Western churches have done over the past two hundred years—falling captive to the spirit and systems of the modern world. Thus, all the global churches can join hands in prayer with Western churches in this hour of their greatest challenge.

Then, the global churches around the whole world can be true partners and join forces to face the task of recovering a faith with such integrity and effectiveness that it can prevail over the challenges of the advanced modern world, and so do honor to our Lord and bring his Good News to the world.

No less than that is the supreme challenge posed by globalization to followers of Jesus Christ, and no less than that is the urgency of the topic we will explore together in this Multiplex session in Cape Town in October, 2010. Plainly, the topic of globalization is too large and the session too short to do justice to its immensity. But whether then or later, as this extraordinary century unfolds, we may trust that God is greater than all—globalization included—so God may be trusted in all situations, and we may have faith in God, and have no fear.

© The Lausanne Movement 2010