Globalization & Unity in the Church

Woke up this morning thinking about how globalization affects churches. Tyler Cowen has an interesting notion of the impact of globalization on culture. He argues that we see both homogeneity and heterogeneity in cultures because of globalization.

The heterogeneity argument is the one that most critics of globalization focus on: in traditional cultures we now see a diverse set of options, which threatens the indigenous values, institutions and way of life. I ate at a McDonald’s in Moscow, and could probably do the same in Mumbai, Bangkok, or Guangzhou. Latin America’s fastest growing religious group is Pentecostalism. You get the idea.

Cowen’s argument about homogeneity cuts the other way. Just as each nation now has a more diverse set of cultural values, institutions and opportunities, the set of options available to it are increasingly the same as those options available to other nations. In any major city, one can eat a restaurants representing practically any culture in the world, not just the local fare. And so it is with churches also: in any major center, almost the same church options are available regardless of where one is located. (We could talk about how the availability varies between countries with “regulated” church markets, but that will have to wait for another time.) In many cases, those churches even operate in the language of their home; thus, the “joyful noise” offered to the Lord in Accra, Ghana each Sunday morning is almost as linguistically varied as that offered on the same day in Los Angeles.

What does this say about babel and ecumenism?

If the goal is one united church, then globalization does not seem to be helping the cause: we see the proliferation of diversity rather than an increase in unity. The increasing diversity of churches in any one place may be seen as a threat to those who have been there a long time (if you live in our town, you’re a Baptist). But it also increases the likelihood that all the churches will become more attuned to the needs of their parishoners and the communities they serve. Competition has a tendency to do that. The recognition that the increasing diversity of churches isn’t going away may also lead to another result: increased cooperation among the churches in a particular location for common projects. And increased cooperation may lead to greater reconciliation among the churches. [Check out the photos of 30 Lansing area churches working together: Love in Action, pictures by Brett Maxwell from the Riv.]

In other words, globalization may promote diversity among churches in any particular location, but the acceptance of that diversity may lead to a reconciliation to our common relation as members of Christ’s body. Without giving up our own traditions, working together with Christians of other traditions helps to reconcile our differences and promote unity.

I recognize that this argument runs the theological risk of claiming that human-designed institutions can ameliorate the consequences of our sin (in this case, the building of the tower of Babel, which led to the dispersion of the people into different language groups). T. Robert Malthus ran afoul of the same theological risk in the first edition of his Essay, on which I’m sure I’ll have occasion to write more later. But for now I can only point to Romans 5:20, and say, surely where sin abounds, grace abounds much more.


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