Globalization is great news for some, but devastating for others. The upside is weighted toward owners, investors, customers. Technology makes globalization possible if not ubiquitous. And the church world is not immune to its presence. A couple of months ago I was attending a leadership conference via satellite – a remarkably helpful technological innovation for training – yet, odd at the same time. One of the speakers, a Pastor of a very large church, told the story of an encounter with a pastor in Africa. The African pastor introduced himself to the speaker and told him a rather moving story about downloading the speaker’s weekly sermons at a postal office that he would then preach to his African congregation the following Sunday. The crowd was moved.
Technologies allow us to “do” and “be” the church differently, but in the midst of innovation I hope we are thinking about the things that get lost in translation. I am not against technology. I am thoroughly accommodated to technology as a way of life. I can’t imagine a home without high-speed service of some sort. I even post on a blog. But I wonder if a globalized sermon is a good thing.
Within a global economy economic gain becomes the driver. The losses that occur around globalization are considered small relative to the great gain. But this is the economy. What happens when churches go global? What happens when a sermon designed for a particular people ends up somewhere else?
In a staff meeting of my church last week someone mentioned that house churches in China
were listening to sermons from our web-site each week. That’s great –
because we like our church, and we like our preaching. This
globalization was unintentional – perhaps the way I might read an old
sermon of John Calvin. Technology makes this possible. Other churches
are intentional about globalization or usually, regionalization. I was
speaking with a friend in a small college town of 60,000 last week and
he told me that a nearby mega-church of 25,000 recently opened a branch
in their town. Nearly 400 people were attending the new branch. The
same suburban church opened a downtown branch in the year before and
had over a thousand in weekly attendance. Each branch has separate
music and pastoral staff, but the sermon is global – on a pull down
video screen each week. “It’s devastating to the smaller churches,” my
friend explained, “because they can’t compete.” The new branches “suck”
up musicians from the other churches because they pay more, and they
begin to “suck” up people from other churches because they deliver
more. Is there any loss in this equation that we can’t live without?
After all, more people are hearing the gospel – arguably, even a better
version. But I was discouraged – because it
sounded more and more like Wal-Mart or Barnes & Noble. Mom and Pop
can’t compete at their level of service. But that is the economy.
losses are real, but are we talking about them? A globalized sermon
hovers over its various audiences -- it can do nothing else. Yes, there
are common themes of fallenness and struggle that run through humanity
and the societies we have created. The letters of the New Testament
illustrate that clearly enough, but they also evidence great
particularity – conversations directed toward real people, real
communities, real problems and sin. A globalized sermon either
abstracts itself to broad themes with few clarifying details about our
particular expressions of rebellion against God, or they simply assume
the particularity of one place is equally applicable to everyone else
as well. I wonder what the African congregation thinks as they listen
to a sermon preached from the American West. I wonder what the Chinese
gathered around a New York
sermon think about our particular issues and struggles. Are the African
and Chinese Christians as enamored as we are with identity issues,
psychological peace, sexual preoccupations, wealth, appearance,
careers, singleness and marriage? Do they experience these struggles as
we experience them? Do they envy us – thinking
that our struggles are the normal and good ones? I realize these
questions are absurd, but that is the point.
God wanted to make a lasting impression on us, he came in person.
“Adam, where are you?” he asked as he walked in the garden looking for
the wayward first couple. He showed up for a face to face encounter.
Questions about some very specific activity came next. The Word became
flesh and lived among us, John wrote. And more than that, “we beheld
his glory.” The Bible is replete with evidence that God is a God who
shows up in personal and particular ways – salvation isn’t simply an
idea or even a future reality – salvation means something for today and
tomorrow and the day after. God’s presence alters life now. So James
could tell the church that stopped taking care of the real orphans and
widows around them something was wrong with their religion. The church
is the personal way in which God keeps this conversation of hope and
salvation with real people in real places alive and moving forward. And
in this age of globalization, I am not sure video projection, or
internet downloads accomplish the same thing. The loss of
particularity, of context, of incarnation as method, may betray a
deeper loss of hope itself -- which may be the greatest loss of all as
the church goes global.
© 2005, Tuck Bartholomew.