Thursday, December 28, 2006

The World is Flat, but the Church is Flatter

I have just finished reading Thomas Friedman’s bestseller, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, which I highly recommend to everyone. Over the next couple of days, I want to reflect a bit on Friedman’s thoughts, especially related to my position as a missionary in West Africa.

First of all, reading a book like this is a little like eating ice cream – it’s exciting stuff, and makes your mind race with possibilities; but if you eat it too fast, it gives you brain freeze.

Here is Friedman talking about uploading, digital revolutions, companies which are making millions of dollars by creating global supply chains, website innovation … and here I am sitting in an underdeveloped West African country where you can’t even rely on the electricity to stay on through Christmas Eve!

I had the same feeling when reading church growth books (especially those written by Leonard Sweet, Bill Easum, and Tom Bandy!) while serving small churches in North Texas. Yes, it was pretty exciting to see what this church was doing with digital worship and what that church was doing with innovative neighborhood ministry, but the truth was that I couldn’t even get my Church Council to agree on whether to have pews or chairs in the sanctuary. It can be extremely frustrating to know what the possibilities are and to have big dreams, but to be stuck in a place where vision is narrow and limited.

Anyhow, I think Friedman is essentially right with his claim that the world today has been flattened. What he means by this is that “we are now connecting all the knowledge centers on the planet together into a single global network, which – if politics and terrorism do not get in the way – could usher in an amazing era of prosperity, innovation, and collaboration, by companies, communities, and individuals.” And, as I am prone to add, by Christian communities, too.

The book is filled with examples and stories of how diverse peoples and communities have been linked together by the various flattening forces of the last ten years. Suddenly, the world seems smaller than ever. Centers in India now field customer service calls from Indiana; an earthquake in Taiwan is reported instantly worldwide via television news; you’re reading my writings and viewing my pictures from Cameroon, literally seconds after I post them.

And Friedman contends that this new sense of connectedness might even help prevent global conflict in the future. But I would contend that, while the world is only just now becoming flat, the Church has always been flat. I’m speaking here, of course, of the universal Church, the complete and total body of Christians throughout time and space.

This is the meaning of All Saints’ Day; we are connected in a very real way with all those who have gone before us, with the multitudes of Christians who are alive today, and even with those who are still to come, waiting to be born, justified and sanctified in this world. In chapter 11 of Hebrews, we get a stirring list of our ancestral heroes and saints. But the chapter ends with a stunning admission: “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.”

Only together with us, claims the author, will their mission be complete. The Church is flat in chronology … it extends backwards to the faith-filled voyage of Abraham, forward to this particular day and place, and on beyond us.

But the Church is also geographically, liturgically, and even theologically, flat! We often fail to truly take notice of the Christians who live side-by-side with us, but in different liturgical traditions. Aren’t Greek Orthodox Christians our brothers and sisters? What about Coptic Christians? Seventh-Day Adventists? And, gasp and horror, what about … Southern Baptists?!!

This is the truth that the ecumenical movement discovered and championed in the early twentieth century. I’m afraid that the movement has waxed and waned in recent days, simply because most congregations fell into the alluring traps of church growth and local church competition. They stopped seeing themselves as partners in ministry for the sake of the kingdom of God, and instead as champions of bigger, snazzier, and better models of church.

In his book, Friedman advocates the Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention, which states simply, “No two countries that are both part of a major global supply chain, like Dell’s, will ever fight a war against each other as long as they are both part of the same global supply chain.” In other words, once we really see how closely we are connected, then violence will simply fade as an option.

There may be a lot of truth to that theory. But what if Christians simply clung to the Church Theory of Conflict Prevention: “No two countries that both have Christian churches or communities will ever fight a war against each other as long as they both have Christian churches or communities”? I don’t say this in order to thereby justify war against non-Christian peoples or faiths, but instead to challenge us to take seriously the idea that we are truly connected as the body of Christ.

Could we United Methodists, for instance, seriously entertain the notion of attacking another country which also had Methodist churches? What if we had partner churches in that other country? What if our teenagers had made mission trips to that country, made friends of their people, done acts of mercy and kindness there? Wouldn’t that make a difference in our international relations?

What about the Christians of Iraq? What has been their lot since the American-led invasion? Does anybody know, or even care, of their fate?

The Church has always been global in nature. It just hasn’t acted that way. If it had, then perhaps the world would have been flattened years ago. Perhaps the earth would already overflow with justice and compassion, righteousness and truth. And perhaps we’d have finally realized that violence against any person, of any faith or color or race, is a crime against a brother or sister, since God is truly the Divine Parent of us all.