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WORLDVIEW: Location, location, location

EDITOR’S NOTE: An audio version of this column is available here.

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–The lightning speed with which the global economic crisis has spread from one financial capital to another — heedless of national borders — seems to confirm a basic tenet of globalization: The world is flat.

Writer Thomas Friedman made that proposition famous with his influential book of the same name. The basic idea: Interconnected technology, trade, communication and mobility have tied us all together so tightly that national and cultural barriers are becoming increasingly porous, even irrelevant.

Not so fast.

In a new book, “The Power of Place: Geography, Destiny, and Globalization’s Rough Landscape,” Michigan State University professor Harm de Blij argues that location still matters — a lot.

“Earth may be a planet of shrinking functional differences, but it remains a world of staggering situational differences,” de Blij writes. “From the uneven distribution of natural resources to the unequal availability of opportunity, place remains a powerful arbitrator. Many hundreds of millions of farmers in river basins of Asia and Africa live their lives much as their distant ancestors did, still remote from the forces of globalization…. In their lifetimes, this vast majority will have worn the garb, spoken the language, professed the faith, shared the health conditions, absorbed the education, acquired the attitudes, and inherited the legacy that constitutes the power of place: the accumulated geography whose formative imprint still dominates the planet.”

“Global playing fields” are leveling for many, de Blij acknowledges. But he warns that assuming a homogenized, borderless, ‘flat’ world is now the rule — just because you can find identical high-rises, malls and office parks “from Minneapolis to Mumbai” — is a mistake. The urban economic boom of China and high-tech industries of India get plenty of publicity. Out in the rural vastness of both Asian giants, however, countless millions continue to struggle for existence — seemingly a universe away from the growth centers of their own nations.

Despite modern mobility and massive migrations, fewer than 3 percent of human beings are “mobals” who live in a country where they were not born. An even smaller minority make up the “globals” who have access to all the advantages of modern technology and travel. The rest of us are “locals” — still tied, for better or worse, to the cultures that spawned us.

So why has the International Mission Board begun to move away from dividing its missionaries by location or region — South Asia, West Africa, etc. — and toward “global affinity groups” that focus on peoples sharing the same language, culture or ethnicity?

Because “place” is a state of mind and heart as much as a physical location. The most powerful “place” is culture.

Even though the vast majority of humans still are “locals,” their migrating “mobal” cousins often hold the key to reaching them. The new “global affinity groups” will be designed so missionaries can more effectively engage unreached peoples regardless of their location.

“This move recognizes the mobility of populations,” explains Gordon Fort, IMB vice president of overseas operations. “(It) allows us to focus on peoples wherever they are in the world.”

Missionaries will still focus on peoples living in specific locations — most unreached South Asians still live in South Asia, after all. But they won’t be “artificially limited by geopolitical considerations,” as Fort puts it. Millions of South Asians have migrated to other parts of the world and often are more accessible in their new homes.

Christians must continue to traverse both literal and figurative back roads, dirt tracks, mountains and valleys to take the Gospel to every people — even in the chaotic cultural environment of megacities. There is no “flat” superhighway to world evangelization.

“In our current rush to embrace the rewards of global ‘flattening,’ it is worth reminding ourselves that point of entry continues to matter when it comes to opportunities in reach,” de Blij writes.

For transmitting the love of Christ to all peoples, our key points of entry are language, culture and ethnicity. That means mobilizing churches, missionaries and local believers to take the Gospel to every part of the globe’s “rough landscape” — whether the “place” is a physical location or a cultural/spiritual stronghold.
Bridges is global correspondent for the International Mission Board. Visit “WorldView Conversation,” the blog related to this column, at http://worldviewconversation.blogspot.com/.

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  • Erich Bridges