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The Global and the Local in Christian Mission

by John Nuessle

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The Methodist “connexion” as envisioned by John Wesley in 1738, and extending over the years intothe twenty-first-century United Methodist connection, is founded upon a model of Christian conferencing as a spiritual discipline. This means that we engage in missional decision making through the gathered community of believers of any particular geographical or thematic setting.

This process is simultaneously global and local. It derives from our theological understanding that church membership begins with our baptism and confirmation as Christians, and then progresses toward commitment to The United Methodist Church as a denominational tradition. Placement in and identification with a particular congregation follows, and this order is reflected in the ritual for admission into church membership. Here we have theological movement which goes from the global to the local in church affiliation.

Theology, which deals in Christianity with the revealed truth, originates from the universal and moves toward the particular. Energy and operation, however, move from the particular to the universal.“Think globally, act locally” was the twentieth century phrase; but it is now necessary to move beyond that to the phrase “understand locally, witness globally.” It is a yin and yang type of movement for mission, expanding our understanding ofthe local and global realities of the world for which God sent his only Son. We are local, but still called by God to reach beyond ourselves.

Missiology, as a theological discipline, begins with global understandings and universal teachings, with operational energy moving from local activityback toward meeting universal need. Bishop LesslieNewbigin puts this global/local ecclesiastical issue this way: “I would plead that the focus must be this:to help the whole Church to bring the whole gospel to the whole world by helping each local Eucharistic community to be faithful to that gospel.”1

Centripetal and Centrifugal Forces for Mission

Missiologists Robert Gallagher and Paul Hertig identify a specific set of forces at work in the Book of Acts. These are the centripetal and centrifugal forces for mission. The process begins with the gathering of the community to receive the power of the Holy Spirit, and then moves outward in mission with power. “The church begins in Jerusalem with a centripetal mission, attracting people lovingly into its dynamic community, and then expands to Judea and Samaria with a centrifugal mission that boldly ventures into the Gentileworld.”2 These same forces can be the power that moves our contemporary church into global ministries, from a local base of empowering support by the Holy Spirit within the community of faith, and on toward increasingly outward movements to the ends of the earth.

Bishop Newbigin rightly sees us—church members—not as the actors of salvation but as the messengers of salvation. The local congregation is not a private club for a personal religion, concerned only with inner centripetal forces and caring just for one another. Rather, every local Christian church is a universal fellowship existing for people not yet in the fellowship.3 The centripetal forces give impetus for a centrifugal force outward into the world. The parish is not our world—the world is our parish.

The account of the feeding of the 5,000 is the only miracle of Jesus that is recorded in all four Gospels.The story is also a quintessential statement of the nature of mission that is understood as a global life lived out locally. In this account, Jesus teaches us that by meeting local needs we are living into the reality of the universal reign of God, the coming kingdom. By relating to some, we relate toall, for all people have the same needs and basic life situations. Again, the world is our parish.

Wherever one is in the world is the site for mission and ministry, as John Wesley stated, and that place is where one works to alleviate human suffering and bring the experience of new life to God’speople. This reality arises out of the twin missional forces of thinking globally as we act locally, while we understand the local through witnessing globally. In this inward and outward movement, the centripetal and centrifugal forces for mission, we enter into the coming kingdom which Jesus announced.4

A Global and Local Church

Borrowing a term from the corporate world, but giving it a noncommercial meaning, Dr. Robert J. Harman, as a former deputy general secretary wrote of the glocal church—truly global and truly local.

Glocalization is a term used in the 1980s in Japanese business practices and was first popularized in the English-speaking world by the British sociologist Roland Robertson in the 1990s. For Robertson, the most interesting movement of our globalized world is the way in which a global consciousness has evolved for people almost everywhere. Glocalization is an historical process whereby localities develop direct economic and cultural relationships to global systems through information technologies, by passing and subverting traditional power hierarchies such as national governments and corporate markets. To be glocal is to develop diverse and overlapping global-local linkages. This, in essence, describes the United Methodist connectional structures.

By contrast, globalization is the historical process that encourages only one-way relationships between the global world, represented and controlled by multinational corporations and the Western news/entertainment industry, and a dominated local world. In the latter, the identity-affirming sense of place and locality barely survive against the onslaughts of corporate capitalism and media. Thus, instead of furthering globalization, the church is called and created in mission to engage in glocalization, where the global and the local are in creative tension and beneficial mutuality.

A Global-Local Church as a Community in Communion

Professor Andrew Kirk also identifies this tension of the global and the local as a crucial ecclesiastical understanding for the church in mission. It is necessary to have an operative balance in order to guard against destructive in culturation of the gospel so tied to one cultural reality that it has no meaning elsewhere or, worse, encourages oppressive and unjust mission practices. To be fully global and local would tend to mitigate these tendencies. The church is a local community. As such it possesses a mission mandate for its own particular situation. It has to identify with the people in whose midst it is set. It is called to meet local needs and bear local burdens.

The local church also belongs to a communion of churches which bestows both great benefits and responsibilities. Some how the local community has to commit itself to national, regional, and international structures which make it accountable to the wider communions of which it is, in a sense, a representative. In this way it embodies the permanent tension between the particular and the universal inherent in being Church.5

The Kingdom Is Not Economic Globalization

The church of the twenty-first century must studiously guard against becoming too closely tied to the rapid globalization process of the corporate economic structures, and this applies to our “goodworks” as well as to our organization. At a 2002 Consultation on the Great Commission at Emory University, Dana Robert, a United Methodist missiologist from the Boston School of Theology, said,“We should break the connections between globalization in an economic sense and the theological vision of the kingdom of God.”6

Robert was calling our church to a more thorough and deeply understood theology of mission, one that moves away from the urge to move around the world with our money and technology, seeking to do some good for God. She reminds us of Paul’s confessional statement that, “we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5). “In an age in which the church has finally spread over most of the world, it behooves Western Christians to focus more on what it means to be faithful to the God of Jesus Christ.”7

We need to have those centripetal and centrifugal forces for mission to be alive in our lives as Christians. Neither one way nor the other will do. It is the movement of the Spirit in the process of mission that ensures we are a whole people, living in and for the sake of the whole world that God so deeply loves in Christ Jesus.

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  1. Lesslie Newbigin, A World in Season (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994), 200.

  2. Robert L. Gallagher and Paul Hertig, eds., Mission in Acts: Ancient Narratives in Contemporary Context (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, American Society of MissiologySeries, 2004), 9.

  3. Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978), 16-17.

  4. For an inspiring sermon on this topic, see Frederick Buechner’s “The News of the Day” in Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2006), 245-250.

  5. J. Andrew Kirk, What Is Mission?(Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 94.

  6. Quoted in W. Stephen Gunter and Elaine A. Robinson, eds., Considering the Great Commission (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), 35.

  7. Ibid., 36.