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The Church is Flat





How globalization is shifting the power structure of the worldwide church.

A missionary in China sends a text message to his home church as if he were just across town. In Europe, immigrants from the Southern hemisphere plant churches with huge success. In Saudi Arabia, families with satellite dishes access Christian television and hear the gospel. In the United States, Anglican congregations place themselves under the authority of African bishops. Welcome to the global church. Or, as I prefer to call it, the flat church.

Most North American Christians are aware of the global church, but we still view Christianity through Western-tinted glasses and assume we are the dominant players in the kingdom of God. We don't realize how proportionately small we actually are, even among our own denominations.

Did you know that 88 percent of the members of the Assemblies of God live outside of North America? Of course, the Western church has always had a greater influence than the numbers of its congregations. But the world is changing, and the church is changing along with it. Globalization is making the world smaller and more connected.

Thomas Friedman's book The World Is Flat famously documented these changes a few years ago, and Christian writers like Philip Jenkins and Andrew Walls have chronicled similar patterns in the worldwide church.

Through these readings and personal observations around the world, I am coming to a conclusion. If the world is flat, so is the church. The same factors that are impacting the world are also impacting the worldwide Christian community.

Since its release in April 2005, Friedman's book has brought the challenges of globalization to the popular stage and continues to prompt discussion, and sometimes disagreement, over the significant impact of globalization that has occurred in our world since 1989.

Though others had often recognized various aspects of globalization, Friedman, the foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times, compiled in a readable style a variety of factors and conclusions that helped focus attention on our rapidly changing world.

The first part of the book describes the "ten forces that flattened the world," beginning with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Friedman's list of flatteners is insightful and relevant to what is happening in the church world. Without attempting to duplicate his entire list—some of the points are more relevant than others—I am going to use it as a loose guide to show the various factors of globalization that are contributing to the changing landscape of the global church.

It's a Flat World After All

Flattener No. 1: The fall of communism. In a belated answer to Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev began to "tear down this wall" in 1989. The church of the Soviet states, thought to be dead under the iron weight of atheistic communism, was actually very much alive, and, like Lazarus, waiting to come forth. And come forth it did.

In Kiev, Ukraine, Valeriy Reshetinsky founded the Christian Hope Church in 1990 and has planted 150 churches in the country. In 1993, Sunday Adelaja, a Nigerian, founded The Embassy of God in the same city. His church has planted other ministries in 22 countries.

Flattener No. 2: Worldwide immigration. A report by the International Organization for Migration in 2000 revealed there were 175 million international migrants. That means one out of every 35 persons in the world is an immigrant. The report projected the number will rise to 192 million by 2005.

In terms of international money flow, only oil exceeded the money remitted from immigrants back to their origin countries. For example, in 2003, Indians from around the world sent back $15 billion to India, more than the total revenue of the Indian software industry.

The church is not ignoring these patterns. London has numerous immigrant congregations providing fresh spiritual vitality for the historic city. A Pentecostal Holiness church in Hong Kong has planted a Chinese congregation in Kenya to serve the growing Chinese population in East Africa.

In the 40 years since U.S. immigration quotas were eased in 1965, the world has come to the United States. By November 2006 there were more than 560,000 foreign students on 900 U.S. campuses. Those students will be the next leaders of government, business and education in their countries of origin.

Flattener No. 3: The South has risen. The 20th century began with Christianity's moral, theological and missional impetus flowing from the West (Europe and North America). Though weakened by theological liberalism and the dominance of secularism in many institutions, the 1900s ended with Christianity still growing in the West. Europe (including Russia) and North America had more than 700 million Christians in 2000, compared to 427 million in 1900.

Yet there is no question that the influence of the West has waned in global Christianity. In fact, the terminology has changed in missiology from comparing "First and Third World Christianity" to "North and South Christianity." Latin America, sub-Sahara Africa and much of Asia—all part of the Southern Hemisphere—constitute the rising force in 21st-century Christianity with more than 800 million members. Global South Christianity currently sends out 53 percent of the missionaries in the world.

In 2006, Philip Jenkins contrasted the North and South churches in terms of how they read the Bible. In general, the North leans toward a liberal interpretation of Scripture, while the South reflects a conservative view.

This contrast was apparent when African and Asian Anglican Bishops rejected the liberal North American accommodation of ordaining homosexual priests. The Nigerian Anglican Church called the U.S. Episcopal Church a "cancerous lump" that should be "excised." Numerous Episcopal congregations have severed their relationship with the American church and submitted to the authority of Anglican bishops from Nigeria and Rwanda.

The fact that a Nigerian bishop is welcomed to exercise spiritual authority over predominantly white congregations in North America is indicative of the shifts that are occurring through the flattening of the church.

Flattener No. 4: The rise of the Internet. Today we take the Internet for granted and are frustrated if we can't log on anywhere in the world. Our cell phones send and receive e-mails, and we talk while searching the Web on the same device.

In underdeveloped countries, dilapidated shacks advertise "international calls and Internet available here." In Muslim countries, young people fill Internet cafes seeking the latest news, fads, information and contacts. Asia now has 399 million Internet users compared to North America's 233 million.

It's difficult to underestimate the impact the Internet is having on the church. Pastors from El Salvador to India can have access to the same materials and connections. They can communicate to exponentially more people and raise funds in new and creative ways.

I visited a Pentecostal national bishop in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in January 2006. While riding in his Ford Explorer, I was amazed as he coordinated his numerous churches in Kinshasa using three cell phones that rang almost nonstop. All this while we rode through a city and country devastated by civil war.

The flip side of this, of course, is that the Internet is a ripe field for the enemy as well. In March 2007, an article in The Washington Post observed that "the boom in online religion comes at a time when people, especially the young, are questioning traditional institutions... Many are interested in religion, but they want the freedom to fashion a personalized style of worship."

Flattener No. 5: The influence of television. In September 2004, I was in the home of a black African pastor near Rustenburg, South Africa, when I heard his children laughing in another room. I found them watching satellite television and giggling at the antics of World Wrestling Entertainment.

As television's global audiences increase, so does its impact on the cultures of the world. Viacom's huge media family, under the general name MTV, is one of several media giants that span the globe. The MTV music channel is found in 495 million households in 27 languages and in 179 territories/countries, including so-called "closed countries."

Conservatives from non-Christian religions are just as concerned as Christians about the impact of American networks such as MTV on values in the West. They also see the pervasive secularism and moral relativism of television as a serious threat to their young. Ironically, it's possible that the influence of these programs on the young around the world may actually undermine the foundations of non-Christian religions and ultimately make it possible for doors to open for the gospel. For Christian television, the technology revolution has made it possible to reach many homes around the world. Satellite and Web-based Christian television today make the gospel accessible in closed countries, including the 10/40 Window, with Web sites such as Persian Christian TV and Arabic Christian TV.

This doesn't affect everyone, because there are significant parts of the globe that are without the benefits of modern technology. But one thing is certain: the same technologies and resources that fuel the Arabic-language TV channel al-Jazeera are also tools the Holy Spirit is using to reach millions in closed countries.

Flattener No. 6: The window to the 10/40 Window. The phrase "10/40 Window" describes the nations of the Earth nestled between 10 degrees and 40 degrees north of the equator. It is home to roughly two-thirds of the world's population and most of the Islamic, Buddhist and Hindu populations.

The vast majority of un-evangelized people live in the 10/40 Window, because many of its countries have been closed to Western missionaries. But these countries are often open to non-Western missionaries, giving the South Church a unique opportunity for evangelism.

Another opportunity afforded by globalization is to recognize the millions of immigrants from 10/40 countries who live in open countries. Seen in this light, immigration is not primarily a political issue for Christians, but rather a "kingdom of God" window of opportunity.

Linwood Berry, a missionary leader in Spain, refers to this window as "the transition belt" along the middle of the North/South divide. "Transition states are especially critical to the globalized world," he writes. "There are three major reasons for this: this is where the oil is, this is the gateway where immigration occurs and this is where the major religious sites are found."

Flattener No. 7: Global problem awareness. There are certain global issues that determine whether the world even recognizes us, much less takes us seriously. AIDS, poverty and ecology are the headliners.

Far too often American Christians have defined these issues by political affiliation rather than biblical imperative. Rodney Stark's book The Rise of Christianity has shown that the way Christians responded to health crises in the Roman Empire was one of the reasons the church ultimately prevailed.

The church's failure to take the lead in these global problems has been inexcusable. Will the close of the 21st century find us with the same lame excuses?

A Triple Convergence

Friedman closes the list in his book with what he calls the "Triple Convergence:" "New players, on a new playing field, developing new processes and habits for horizontal collaboration." This is a great description of what is happening in worldwide Christianity. The new players have African, Asian, and Latin American names and accents.

The new playing field may still be financially funded by the North (I suspect that will change in this century), but the field now includes the North as the new players are coming to save us.

Sunday Adelaja's church in Kiev attracts mostly Ukrainians, not displaced Africans. We are seeing "missions in reverse" as the new players seize a unique opportunity to spread the gospel among those who have gone astray.

This is not a time for us to remain nationalistic, culturally homogenous and fearful of others. God has given us a "kingdom passport" that knows no boundaries. Only those who discern that passport will find it easier to serve the 21st-century church.


Doug Beacham is an author and the executive director of world missions for the International Pentecostal Holiness Church. He and his wife, Susan, live in Oklahoma City.

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