RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Check which items apply to you:
— You compete daily for market share — or continued employment — with people who live 10,000 miles away.
— You talk to your text-message buddies more often than you talk to anyone in your actual presence.
— Cyberspace is more real to you than your physical location.
— Traditions you once assumed were permanent are dead or dying.
If you’re young or open to change, you might accept such things without question. Perhaps you even embrace them. If you’re a traditionalist, tech-challenged or a geezer in training (I’m all three), you struggle to adapt — and lament what is being lost in the avalanche of change. Community, for instance, and common courtesy.
Like them or not, the new realities of the technology and information revolutions are rapidly changing America –- and the world — in fundamental ways. Christians can evaluate which changes are good or bad in light of God’s unchanging Word, but we also need to seize every opportunity offered by them to communicate the Gospel globally.
In the July-August 2004 issue of The Futurist magazine, forecaster David Pearce Snyder identifies some “meta-trends” now changing the world. The Greek “meta” prefix indicates something that is transformational or transcendent, not just “mega” (large).
Such lists are often so obvious or vague that they resemble horoscope entries. Snyder’s trends may seem old news at first glance, too. But three merit attention:
1. CULTURAL MODERNIZATION — For a generation, the “tenets of modern cultures — including equality, personal freedom, and self-fulfillment — have been eroding the domains of traditional cultures that value authority, filial obedience and self-discipline,” Snyder writes. “The children of traditional cultures are growing up wearing Western clothes, eating Western food, listening to Western music, and (most importantly of all), thinking Western thoughts.”
Americans generally assume Western influence around the world is a good thing. Democracy, freedom of speech and religion, free trade and respect for the basic rights of women are all “benchmarks of social progress” in our eyes, Snyder acknowledges. But “the defenders of traditional cultures see them as threats to social order.”
Our own American “culture war” has been raging since the 1960s. But we’re still a young, dynamic society accustomed to debate. We can barely imagine the full impact of the modern mentality on older, profoundly traditional cultures.
The “defenders” of tradition in these cultures include headline-grabbing militants who preach violence and carry out terrorist attacks. But they also include countless family patriarchs, village chiefs and tribal leaders who fear the invasion of the outside world will eradicate their way of life. Their concern is well-founded: The combined forces of modernization are “likely to marginalize the world’s traditional cultures well before the century is over,” Snyder predicts.
The challenge for Christian missions: to enter doors opened by change — while demonstrating that the Lord of the Bible is the Creator and Savior of all peoples, not an imported deity brought in by cultural invaders to destroy old ways.
2. ECONOMIC GLOBALIZATION — “On paper, globalization poses the long-term potential to raise living standards and reduce the costs of goods and services for people everywhere,” Snyder says. “But the short-term marketplace consequences of free trade threaten many people and enterprises in both developed and developing nations with potentially insurmountable competition.”
Many people, in fact, see such competition as a greater threat than terrorism. If you’ve lost your job to offshoring, perhaps you can relate. Young Americans surveyed show few signs of resentment toward the millions of immigrant workers coming to the United States, reports Snyder. But they feel “hostile and hopeless at the prospect of competing with Chinese factory workers and Indian programmers overseas.”
The momentum of economic globalization is almost irresistible, however. We are rapidly becoming one world marketplace. It won’t be easy to adapt. But if we look at this trend through God’s eyes, we might see that He has brought the world to our workplaces and communities -– and opened wide the world beyond our borders to us. He expects us to use those opportunities to tell the world about Jesus.
3. UNIVERSAL CONNECTIVITY — Information technology has given a staggering new power to humanity: the “ability to communicate with each other, anywhere, anytime” — one to one, or one to millions, Snyder observes. Another writer has called this phenomenon “the death of distance.” Our ancestors never could have imagined it.
Many Americans have become accustomed to the daily advantages and irritations of cell phones, e-mail and instant messaging. So far, however, these tools have been limited to the relatively affluent of the globe. Soon, many more will join us. In less than a decade, “one-third of the world’s population — 2 billion people — will have access to the Internet, largely via Web-enabled telephones,” Snyder predicts. “By 2010, we will truly be living in a global village, and cyberspace will be the town square.”
What would the great apostles and evangelists of church history have done with such opportunities? Connectivity alone won’t lead to real communication. Paul comes to mind; he tailored both his message and his delivery to “connect” with the cosmopolitan culture of the Greeks of Athens.
“I doubt seriously that cell phones in the hands of Chinese farmers change their Taoist belief system,” says Mark Snowden, a mission communication specialist for the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. “Christians in America think all they have to do is put a message before an audience and if it works in Bugaloosa, it’ll work in Outer Slobovia. Yet tightly held belief systems abound that openly contradict Christianity. The growing intolerance toward Christianity [at home] should awaken Americans to what missionaries have faced for centuries.”
In other words, the medium is not the message — nor will it necessarily get the message across. If we shape the message as Paul did, however, we’ll get a hearing in the many marketplaces of the new global village.
Erich Bridges is a senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board whose column appears twice each month in Baptist Press.