Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Local in an Age of the Global

I have spent the last few months on a semi-sabbatical so I thought I would write a few reflections. I  continued to teach (a light load) and to do some forward planning for the School but most of my administrative work was taken on by my colleagues (thanks Cor and Tibbie). I had grand ideas of writing a book but with hindsight that was exceptionally idiotic. Oh well, I am still learning. I did manage to write an article for Transformation as well as putting the finishing touches on another for the International Journal of Frontier Missions.

What made the semester so refreshing for me were the opportunities to travel that mostly came unsought after. After 8 1/2 years I took a trip to Nepal with my two eldest kids. We had a great time catching up with old friends and completed it with a trek up to Annapurna Base Camp and a couple of nights in the jungle at Chitwan National Park. A month later I was in Helsinki for a long weekend for meetings with the Agricola Theological Institute and United Community Church; my first time in Finland. Then last month I was in Lausanne, Switzerland at the invitation of Westlake Church for their first Global Mission weekend.

My first reflection is on the global/local tension that is everywhere the same and everywhere different. In Helsinki I was sitting in a Chinese restaurant talking theology with a handful of Finns, an American and a Canadian, in English. The restauranteur was Chinese and seemed at ease in Finnish and English as well as her native tongue. I suppose most of the ingredients of the dishes we ate were imported from elsewhere. At one point a song by English rock band Bastille was played on the hifi (thanks kids for educating me). All such restaurants and cafes in Finland have wifi - of course - so you can connect with anyone anywhere anytime.

Well, that may not sound so strange but just reflect on that a bit. Even a decade ago that would have been unusual. And it is not just highly connected countries like Finland that exhibit this phenomenon: we even got wifi half way up the Himalayas! This has huge implications. One of these is that if you have English a whole world of opportunity opens up as English is by far the lingua franca of globalization. When I arrived in Nepal nearly 30 years ago hardly anyone spoke English (unlike India where even illiterate rickshaw-wallas could ply their trade in the old colonial tongue). Now nearly everyone seems to be able to. Of course it is not always the Queen's English but the beauty of English is that even if you speak it badly most people can catch on to what you are saying. That is not true for all languages. (Not that I know all languages, you understand, but that is what I am told!)

I had the opportunity to preach in a number of international churches during my travels (more about preaching in another post). I am sure there are Korean churches and Chinese churches in most of these places as well but I am equally sure they don't have the incredible kaleidoscope of ethnic groups that the English-speaking churches have. One thing I am fascinated with is that a number of locals also worship at each of these churches. What makes them want to worship in English rather than their mother tongue? At least a part of the answer to that question is that for many locals at such churches the English language is the medium in which they have come to know Christ and in which they pursue their discipleship. That may not be very adequate from a missiological perspective but it is the ground reality.

But all this talk of globalization must not mask the continued significance of the local. Even while the world becomes increasingly homogeneous the local takes on even greater importance. Whether it is fondue and tress bread in Switzerland, or reindeer sandwiches in Finland (yes, really), or dalbhaat in Nepal there is nothing quite like home cooking, and the drive to connect with the other must never be confused with a denial of home. The most significant thing Joel Morris (COO of WEST) and I did in Finland was to brave the hottest sauna our Finnish host had ever experienced, taking dips in the ice-fringed lake in between sessions! Our reception by the pastors the next morning was about as enthusiastic as a group of phlegmatic Finns could get I would imagine. Shaun Rossi, Director of OM Europe Church Planting, reckons that a number of church planting efforts by expatriates in Finland have foundered because the workers have not taken to the sauna. If that doesn't demonstrate the significance of the local in an age of the global, what does?