The (Christian) World Is Flat

A few years ago David Wells spoke in chapel at SEBTS. In his lecture he mentioned a book with a fascinating title: The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century by Thomas Friedman. The title proved too great a temptation so I ordered the book immediately and devoured it voraciously.
In case you haven’t read the book (you should) and you wonder how anyone could call the world flat when we of course know it is round, Friedman argues the world has been flattened not in its geography but in terms of proximity. We are much closer to everyone on the planet via technology than at any previous time in history. IA simple example: when your computer is on the fritz (for you PC users) and you call that 800 number on the back, you find yourself talking to someone with an Indian accent, because you just spoke to a call center in Bangalore, India. In the past two weeks I have received an email from a college student won to Christ during a mission trip to Thailand last summer and from a lady I led to Christ in Oregon a decade ago. We are closer than we have ever been globally.
Friedman offers ten “flatteners” that took the world from Gobalization 1.0 (led by nations and governments-AD 1400-WW I), to G 2.0 (led by multinational companies who “shrunk” the world-WW II-2000), to G 3.0 (led by individuals-2000-current). I won’t list all the flatteners but they include the following.
*WWW: Netscape and the Web broadened the audience for the Internet from its roots as a communications medium used primarily by ‘early adopters and geeks’ to something that made the Internet accessible to everyone from five-year-olds to ninety-five-year olds. The digitization that took place meant that everyday occurrences such as words, files, films, music and pictures could be accessed and manipulated on a computer screen by all people across the world.
*Open sourcing: Communities upload and collaborate on online projects. Examples include open source software, blogs, and Wikipedia. Friedman considers the phenomenon “the most disruptive force of all.”
*Supply chaining: Friedman compares the modern retail supply chain to a river, and points to Wal-Mart as the best example of a company using technology to streamline item sales, distribution, and shipping.
*In-forming: Google and other search engines are the prime example. “Never before in the history of the planet have so many people-on their own-had the ability to find so much information about so many things and about so many other people,” writes Friedman.
*”The Steroids”: Personal digital devices like mobile phones, iPods, personal digital assistants, instant messaging, and voice over Internet Protocol. And he wrote this before my son got an iphone and I got a Blackberry Storm.
These flatteners (including the more recent rise of social networks such as Facebook) have slipped into the Church as well. Part of the ecotonic culture in which we find ourselves today is because the Christian world has also flattened. Some examples:
*Flattening leaders/role models: When I was a seminarian my heroes were those I heard preach. That is much the same today. The difference is 90% of those I heard I either heard live or I never heard them. Today younger ministers are more likely to listen to a preacher they love on itunes than at a conference. They may never hear him live, yet may listen to 50 of his sermons. If I did not hear the great preachers live in my early years, I either had to get a cassette tape, which was not always easy to do, or wait till the next time I could hear them. So, our heroes were fewer in number and due to their relative inaccessibility often bigger than life. Today many younger ministers choose from a much wider variety of heroes.
*Flattening resources/tools: As a young pastor in the 1980s there were four main ways I learned about resources to help me: 1) mail (and boy did we get a lot of mail); 2) professors in seminary; 3) occasional times where we interacted with denominational or other leaders; 4) from friends (which was usually the pooling of ignorance). I heard a HMB rep speak about revival meeting planning once and used his tool. It was very helpful!
Today young ministers have the internet, email, blogs, and a variety of other means to access information. So they may be less likely to use denominational tools not because they hate them but because choices are abundant.
*Flattening missions awareness/involvement: I remember the annual Annie Armstrong and Lottie Moon emphases. They were so vital because they overwhelmingly provided the means to give missions awareness in our churches. There were others: materials sent to our church, bulletins with info on the back, etc. But those two annual emphases mattered much. They still do.
Now pastors can contact IMB missionaries directly and even talk face to face via Skype. A colleague of mine regularly has live interviews with Ms in his class for students. So, naturally churches have moved to partner more directly with those serving around the globe. This may mean a lesser dependence directly on the IMB, but it has actually led to greater involvement internationally in missions. The same thing is happening in church planting in North America.
*Flattening communication across traditions: When information was far less accessible churches naturally gravitated to their own tradition for initiatives, whether evangelistically, dealing with social issues, or impacting culture in other ways. Denominational evangelism conferences, Sunday school clinics, and missions events provided a focus for so many, from “A Million More in ’54” to simultaneous revival meetings.
Today the ability to network has formed a myriad of connections from Saddleback to Willow Creek, from Catalyst to Acts 29. This also affects areas of great consternation when changes are made in areas such as corporate worship as churches from Brooklyn Tab to Hillsong influence the songs in many churches. And that number is not declining anytime soon. Some perceive communicating and partnering with other groups as a sign of disloyalty, when it may just be a result of a flattening world. After all, in a world less flattened, Edwards interacted with those of other traditions in the Great Awakening, and Spurgeon had Moody in his church in London. Today that has multiplied because the world is flat.
Like it or not, we live in a different world. The church at another time of radical change, the Renaissance, also had to face a new world. At that time we saw a Reformation, for which we thank God. Could it be that the result of a flattening world will not be an abandonment of truth, but a seized opportunity to present that gospel more effectively and more globally than at any time in history?

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