Some scientists put frogs in hot water and heated it so gradually their nervous systems were unable to register a change – until it was too late and they were all boiled alive. This is the situation for many Christians today, there is mind – set working in our midst which if left unchecked could effectively disable the advance of the gospel across the planet. The virus – like influence of which I am speaking is called “globalisation”.
I am persuaded that the generally pathetic nature of the church in Western nations is due in large part to the influence of the forces associated with this “globalisation”. (Nevertheless, within the sickness of the Western church is the potential for an enormous gift to the rest of world Christianity. I will close the article by discussing this prophetic dimension of the future church.)
Globalisation occurs when the previous boundaries that separated human beings, such as nationhood, language, culture and values are broken down so that there is a meaningful global community. Whilst there may be other dimensions of globalisation, not all of which are negative, what I have in mind in this article is the economic dimension, or, more, accurately, the values associate with a global economy.
What are the Values of Globalisation?
The values of globalisation are dangerously familiar to the readers of this article. The economic dimension of globalisation, which is its dominant aspect, is materialism. Materialism is embodied in all those values that maximize the consumption of goods – individualism, self- interest, and self- expression. This can perhaps be summarized in one popular word – lifestyle. “Lifestyle” is all around us, from the multiplication of coffee shops to the marketing of fashionable retirement villas. Cars, homes, holidays, fashion and on and on are all embraced within the search for a better lifestyle. Take, for instance, the endless array of television programmes dedicated to home and garden renovations.
The goal of globalisation is to see the world become one great interconnected market where goods and services can flow across the globe seamlessly with the purpose maximizing human consumption. At the core of this world view is the belief that consumption can make human beings happy.
Globalisation carries its own culture. It is a culture that has been fashioned over the last three hundred years or so, carried on the back of the industrial revolution and now the knowledge explosion. Since these have been primarily Western phenomena, the culture of globalisation is pre – eminently that of the most successful of Western nations, the engine of world economic growth for a century or so, the United States of America. I used to be said, “What is good for General Motors is good for America.”, the motto for the global village is now, “What is good for General Motors, Microsoft, Coca – Cola, News Corporation….is good for the world.”
We are no longer in the age of political imperialism, this terminated with the victory of capitalism over communism at the end of the Cold War. We have well and truly entered into the age of an imperialism of culture.
Globalisation as a Corruption of the Kingdom of God
The English intellectual Os Guinness once said that the slogan for the modern world is a corruption of the words of the Bible, global consumer culture says: “Man shall live by bread alone.” This means that the spread of a global culture of affluence is not neutral with respect to the kingdom of God. It secularises society so that God is no longer accepted as at the centre of all meaning. In the words of an old proverb, “man is the measure of all things”. If man is the measure of all things, religion itself exists to serve humans. The god of a secularised Christianity exists for our benefit. This is what has happened in the traditional homes of Christianity, European and especially American civilization. The American Christian historian James Kurth has persuasively argued that the rise of the values of unbridled consumption occurred first in the United States because it was the great power where Reformed Protestantism was most influential.
“No other religion is so critical of hierarchy and community, or of the traditions and customs that go with them. Indeed, most other religions are based upon both hierarchy and community (in addition to Roman Catholicism, also Eastern Orthodoxy, Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism, and even, to a degree, Buddhism). At its doctrinal base, however, Protestantism is anti-hierarchy and anti-community. The removal of hierarchy and community, traditions and customs — of any earthly intermediaries between the individual and God— strips away, at least for the most important purposes, any local, parochial, cultural, or national characteristics of the believer. In principle, grace, faith, and salvation can be received by anyone in the world; they are truly universal or catholic, in the original sense of the latter term. The Protestant reformers saw the vast variety of cultures and nations through a universal perspective, one that was even more universal than that of the Roman Catholic Church.”
With a wide open frontier, and unrestrained by state – church ties, the Protest values of individualism and unrestricted personal judgement became deformed (“Protestant Deformation” – Kurth) and gradually shaped into the ideas that mark the globalisation of the world today. These are “freedom of choice” in politics, “consumer sovereignty” in economics, “questioning of authority” in attitudes and “self-expression” in ideology. These are all values that dominate contemporary Australia and come together in the drive for self -gratification.
How is this impacting the church in Australia and in what way does it pose a threat to the global expansion of the gospel?
Globalisation as a Threat to the Expanse of the Gospel
Economy is replacing community at the centre of life. The “American dream” has become the “Western dream” and is spreading over the world. This dream is to have a happy, comfortable and successful life. These goals are all defined in terms of material rather than relational prosperity. When this sort of perspective enters the church it leaves no room for the scandal of the cross. It is the cross after all that proves it true that God loves us (John 3:16; Rom 5:8; 1 John 4:10). The agony of the passion of Christ is the sole sufficient indicator in history of the depth of relationship God seeks with his children.
The proclamation of the power of the cross has become increasingly rare in our churches. Where it is mentioned, it tends to be in terms of the past acts of God upon which our easier life can be build. Practically speaking, this redefines what it means to be conformed to the image of Jesus (Rom 8:29; 1 Cor 11:1). The apostolic testimony of the indispensable need to be vitally sharing in the sufferings of Jesus in order that the church may mature (Eph 3:13; Phil 3:10; Col 1:24 etc.) is relegated to another time period upon which we may comfortably rest. This is undermining the ongoing apostolic foundation of the church (Eph 2:20) and producing a generation of malnourished Christians.
Whilst converts are being made in some churches, disciples are few. Men and women are increasingly led to believe they can embrace the gospel without a change of lifestyle. Indeed, a visit to the websites of many of our megachurches will show you the message is of a better life. The size, income, influence and charisma of these churches is then taken as evidence of the rightness of the message that is being proclaimed as gospel. There is another possible explanation however; it is that these churches are much more dynamic mirrors of culture than they are of Christ. What they are offering is a form of the gospel that echoes the longings of the globalised soul. This is perhaps most evident in the realm of music. Lest anyone think I am picking on the charismatic churches let me explore the wider dimensions of the influence of the cultural dimensions of globalisation with a different sort of example – Alpha.
There is no doubt that Alpha has been mightily used of God across the world; but there are other dimensions to the impact of Alpha that most Christians have completely missed. In the spiritual realm, and one can hardly hold Nicky Gumbel responsible for this, Alpha is partially responsible for a phenomenon some call “globalisation famine”. Just as the spread of English has progressively marginalize thousands of other languages, think of how many Aboriginal languages have perished in Australia, just as Western dress and music and …..are ever spreading entities, so the success of Alpha has stifled the creativity of the holy Spirit’s localized expressions of the gospel. Why prayer and seek local evangelistic forms when Alpha is so “effective”. The promotion of the Alpha franchise has simplified the Christian message and led to a uniform spirituality. All of this, and I could perhaps go on with references to Willow Creek, Saddleback Church and Hillsong, is a reflection of the power of market forces in the world today.
It is not merely despite our seeker sensitive churches, our purpose driven living, our award winning Christian singers and effective Alpha groups that the Western church is continuing to die, it is because we are captive to the underlying dynamics of transference and imitation of a “successful package” that we are perishing. We are the leading global consumers of spirituality in a manner that most of the church is blind to. How many millions of dollars are wasted on costly spiritual tourism by thousands of westerners who travel across the earth to the latest prayer – meeting, conference or revival experience? Are we really sure that all of these people, many of whom seem to have so little to offer at home, are called on short term mission trips,? The gospel we have become familiar with in the West has become more deeply inculturated by the economic and market forces of globalisation than most of us can imagine.
Before I press on to a positive conclusion I want to say a word about the relationship between politics and economics. The progressive swing to the right of the largest political parties in Australia is a mirror of what is happening on a much wider scale.
In a perceptive newspaper article headed, “Family First a sign Lucky Country is going American way” Greg Sheridan, a decidedly right wing commentator, ties the rise of the Assemblies of God based Family First party to economic growth. He sees this Christian phenomenon arising out of “suburbs whose residents dispose of a high degree of private wealth compare with a generation ago. They are defined by concern for their homes and their mortgage payments, social conservatism on crime and education, patriotism and support of our armed forces and interest in local issues.” It would not be difficult to show how all these elements can be tied together as a recipe for a healthier and more prosperous lifestyle.
Yet everywhere around us the depth of true Christian spirituality seems to be faltering. We simply have a famine of biblical holiness in the church. It is only a matter of time (I hope) before we realize that going the way of the world, however subtly it is marketed in the church, is leading to disaster. Virtually every index on Christianity in the United States, from Bible knowledge, to beliefs, to morality, to attendance shows progressive decline – why then are we following in the American way?
A “globalised church” will be short on self –sacrifice and less able to give financially to the work of God because increasingly in credit –card debt and mortgage blow out. Such a church will be made up of consumers rather than worshippers, people who are seeking entertainment rather than the discipline of the Lord. They will thrill quickly and bore easily – who is to say that such a church is not already upon us! All the illnesses of spirit that we see in the Western church will gradually overtake our brothers and sisters in increasingly affluent economies across the globe – China, India and so on. As their passion for comfort increases their spiritual health will diminish. The result for world evangelization will be disastrous. The gospel cannot be effectively preached to all nations without the finances, prayers and sacrifices of the wealthy church.
However, there is no going back, only going forward. I now want to prophetically suggest what Jesus is seeking to draw out of this scenario.
The Revived Western Church, Leaders in the Global Goal of God
When we come to the end of the biblical story, “the glory and the honour of the nations” is brought into the New Jerusalem (Rev 22:26). Symbolically, this represents not only heaven but the final state of the church. (The New Jerusalem is the church - Rev 21:2.) This means that it is part of the church’s service of the kingdom of God to ensure that the wealth of diversity that God has imparted to communities all across the globe (Acts 17:26) be preserved for his glory.
The way to participate in this end – time purpose of God is not to become politically motivated in a partisan sense, this is a major error that has been repeated throughout the course of Christian history, allying the church with the state (See my article Warning: Power Politics and The Cross are a Fatal Combination.), but by rejecting the idolatry of any particular culture. In this case, it is not the cultural imperialism of any particular nation but the dominant cultural value of globalisation. If the British, French and other European powers were often assisted by the church in their task of colonisation, it is imperative that the church of the twenty first century not assist in the new forms of multinational colonisation associated with globalisation.
This must mean taking a stand within the church as the light of the world against all forms of consumerism. If we are seeing the church in Australia and other affluent lands gradually corrupting from the inside it is important that we ask “not what is wrong with the meat but what is wrong with the salt” (Stott). It is this very thing that is not being addressed from the pulpits and platforms across this land. Ultimately, this issue is not about cultural preferences but about the supremacy of Jesus. The key question in all languages, nations and cultures is not that of the advertisers: “What is your lifestyle?” but Christ’s: “Who do you say that I am.” (Matt 16:15).
If Jesus really is “the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16) then it cannot possibly be the case that the globalisation of culture that has been described in this article will triumph over the divine purposes. There are many signs that God has a special plan for the Western church.
In the first place, it is becoming increasingly evident to mission – minded Christian thinkers that if secularised Christianity does not appeal to the non – material values of local culture and language another force that will – Islam. Part of the deep undercurrent of feeling beneath Islamic terrorism is the notion that the first step in the Christianisation of the Middle East, Indonesia and other places is the exporting of secular – material values. Osama bin Laden’s labelling of the “Coalition of the Willing” in Iraq as “crusaders” may be an error but it is understandable from an outsiders perspective. It is highly public that George Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard understand themselves to be Christians and receive so much support from conservative Christianity.
For the appeal of Islam as a politico- religious force to be effectively broken in the spiritual realm will require a clear differentiation between Christ – centred biblical Christianity and popular forms of globalised Christian expression in the West. As I see it at the moment, this is likely to involve some sort of polarisation to purify the church. Sad as this may be, such a pattern seems inevitable when we look back on the Protestant Reformation, the evangelical revival of the eighteenth century and so on.
It is not easy to stand up against the current of both the emerging global culture and the triumphalist churches of the West who are riding its wave. The battle of “mustard seed versus McWorld” (Sine) must however be engaged. At this point things become very exciting.
Who is it that can herald to the church throughout the world that the tantalizations of material affluence are hollow and fruitless but a matured church of the West? We alone are those who have lived for generations with ever increasing prosperity and are in a position to warn our brothers and sisters of the tide that is coming their way. An Australian church that has repented of the tyranny of materialistic culture will have prophetic authority to speak to the rest of the body of Christ from the experience of its own heart. I believe this is our prophetic destiny. We have no guarantee that we will see in Australia the outstanding miracles and mass conversations happening in Asia, Africa and Latin America, but we can surely shine as a community freed from gross idolatry and immorality.
God can purify us (Titus 2:14) into a church that hates the graceless Babylonian system of competition for world markets that treats humans as commodities rather than made in the image of God (Rev 18:9- 13). Such a church will reach out to marginalized wherever they are found, such a church will enjoy the manifest presence of God (Isa 58:8- 9), such a church will be free from the predictability and control of so much of contemporary institutionalised Christianity and such a church will know that the blood of the martyrs is always the seed by which God converts the world (Rev 12:10-11). Is this the church we want? Much more depends on our response than we imagine.