Managing the Tension: Global and Local (Part 1)

Managing the Tension: Global and Local (Part 1)

This post is part of an ongoing series about grappling with paradox, contradiction, and mystery as it relates to church leadership in today's world. Find the rest of the series here.


"Think global, act local."
—origins unknown

“Paint your little village and you will be painting the world.”
—A favorite quote of Argentine film composer, Gustavo Santaolalla

“Properly speaking, global thinking is not possible. Those who have ‘thought globally’ (and among them the most successful have been imperial governments and multinational corporations) have done so by means of simplifications too extreme and oppressive to merit the name of thought…Unless one is willing to be destructive on a very large scale, one cannot do something except locally, in a small place.”
—Wendell Berry, “Out of Your Car, Off Your Horse”


In 1968, American astronaut William Anders took a photograph of earth from space - as in outer space - as in beyond the earth’s atmosphere. If that doesn’t blow your mind right out your ear holes, that’s probably because, like me, you were born in a post-“earthrise” world. Looking at the earth in that photograph - like a blue marble against the vast darkness of outer space - it’s easy to see how the late 1960s and 70s gave rise to an increased global consciousness. All humanity and all creation are interconnected with one another. We share one home on planet earth. And that home is small, fragile, and vulnerable when placed against the backdrop of a large, dark, mysterious universe.

By contrast, the Navajo word for “Navajo” is not “Navajo.” That’s a name others - oppressors - gave the tribe. The Navajo have always called themselves, “Diné” which I’m told translates to something like “The People.” As in - if you’re not “Diné,” you’re not “people.” Now, I certainly don’t mean to pick on the Navajo. Lord knows that’s happened too much already. That’s just an anecdote I happen to know offhand. The same general principle applies to the self-understanding of most tribes and people-groups. If you’re not “us” you’re not really a person, or at least a whole person. “Jews” and “Gentiles,” anyone? [1]

These are the extreme edges of thinking globally and thinking locally about human identity. One, which we’ll call “globalization,” speaks to the truth that all human beings share this planet and all earthbound environments are interrelated. This is very significant! At no point in human history have we ever been as aware of our interconnectedness as we are right now. The second, which we’ll call “tribalism,” is the human tendency to cluster into groups of people that are “alike” in some way. Tribes can form around any number of shared characteristics - some biological, some physiological, some psychological, and all sociological.

Here’s the rub: both ways of thinking have significant implications for churches. Without a global conscience and a sense of interconnectedness, churches can be navel-gazers, “country clubs,” and - in the worst sense of the word - tribalistic. It’s pretty easy to imagine the dangers of a failure to cultivate a global consciousness in our churches, because we have seen this sad and dangerous reality play out in churches over and over again. “They think they’re the only ones going to heaven,” is an insult that continues to be hurled at Churches of Christ because of tribalistic tendencies in our past and present.

However, if a church has no local and particular identity, there is no meaningful sense in which a true “we” exists. Without a local and particular identity, there is no real community! Wendell Berry’s caution against “thinking globally” expressed in his 1991 essay “Out of Your Car, Off Your Horse” is worthy of consideration. Berry argues that global thinking always and necessarily leads to abstraction. And abstraction leads to violence and injustice toward local communities. To Berry, the purest expression of global thinking is not the environmentalist who plasters “think global, act local” bumper stickers all over their bicycle, but the globo-national corporation destroying local communities in the name of profit and progress. Berry urges local communities to ask “the Amish question, ‘What will this do to our community?’” He reasons that local communities asking and answering that question in their decision-making will tend to make the right decisions for the world.

How do we manage the tension here? Is it possible to have a global consciousness without leading to abstraction and violence toward local communities? Is it possible to have a strong, tribal, sense of “we” and not become exclusivist and small-minded?

Globalization isn’t going anywhere. Neither are our local communities. What’s a church to do? We know the dangers on the extreme edges of local thinking and global thinking when it relates to our churches.

How can we manage global thinking and local thinking within the life of our congregations?

How have you seen churches manage this tension well?

Leave a reply in the comments section below.

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[1] For a great resource on the psychology of scapegoating and “other-ing” people, check out Richard Beck, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality (Wipf & Stock, 2011).

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