Managing the Tension: Global and Local (Part 2)
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.
In last month’s post, we briefly explored the tension between globalism and tribalism as it relates to churches. We used a number of different resources from history, sociology, and psychology to explore this theme. One resource was noticeably absent: Christian Scripture. This is not because Scripture has nothing to say about how to manage this tension! In fact, the identity of God’s people and our relationship to all creation is a prominent theme throughout Scripture. This month, I’d like to bring Scripture into the conversation about global and local tension.
While studying at Abilene Christian University, I had the privilege of learning under Dr. John T. Willis. Dr. Willis often said that ancient Israel lived “in a fishbowl.” By this, he meant that Israel understood herself to be living life under the careful watch of the nations—i.e. all other people groups besides Israel—and for the benefit and blessing of the nations. In short, ancient Israel’s self-identity was both extremely local and extremely global—one that existed for the sake of all other nations.
This is a pretty crazy idea when you think about it. Ancient Israel wasn’t a very big deal within the globo-political power games of its day. Actually, Israel, spent much of its existence under the imperial rule and/or cultural influence of other more politically powerful nations. Still, Israel’s theology suggested that, because their God was the true God of all nations, Israel’s common life was at the center of all human history and activity.
“The fishbowl”—that is, the idea that God chose the specific nation of Israel for the sake of all the other nations—is perhaps not emphasized in most teaching about “chosenness.” But once you learn about it, you can’t help but see it in Scripture. If you don’t believe me, just do a quick word search for “nations” in the book of Psalms. The Book of Psalms is a collection of 150 songs or poems emerging from ancient Israel’s life and worship. It includes a number of different expressions of worship spanning a large portion of Israel’s national history. Within these poems, God promises the nations as a heritage to king of Israel (Ps 2:8), God rebukes and destroys the nations for their wickedness (Ps 9:5-6), God stops wars among the nations (Ps 46:9-11), God disciplines and teaches the nations (Ps 94:1-11), God is king over all the nations (Ps 47:7-9), and all the nations belong to God (Ps 82:7-8). That’s just scratching the surface. The Psalms also anticipate a future in which God’s saving power is known among all nations (Ps 67:1-3), God blesses the nations through Israel (Ps 72:16-18), and all the nations—who, by the way, God made (!)—will worship God and glorify God’s name (Ps 86:8-10).
The inclusion of “the nations” in so many of the Psalms may be a bit of a surprise for those of us who have been influenced by personal piety. By personal piety, I mean an expression of Christian faith that emphasizes God’s personal relationship with us to the exclusion of God’s relationship with groups of people, and even the whole of creation. Many of our worship songs today and throughout the past decades have been influenced by personal piety and tend to reflect an individual person’s relationship with God. This is not in itself a bad thing! I have a personal relationship with God and I hope you do, too. However, if that’s ALL we talk about when we worship, our scope is limited and our expression of faith, stunted. The Book of Psalms—and indeed, all of Christian Scripture—demonstrates a more robust and comprehensive view of God’s relationship with the world. God doesn’t just have a relationship with a bunch of individual people, God is also in relationship with the nation of Israel . . . and with all the other nations . . . and with all of creation.
Just recently I was spending some time in Luke 2 and saw "the fishbowl” yet again. Jesus’ parents take him to the temple to circumcise him, and they meet Simeon and Anna, a man and woman who are waiting for the redemption of Israel. For his part, Simeon is a righteous, Spirit-led man who greets Jesus’ parents when they present him at the temple. When he sees Jesus, he takes him in his arms and praises God, saying,
Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles. (Luke 2:29-32)
Did you catch that? “Your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples”! What a strange thing to say! Jesus is eight days old in this story. Even in Jesus’ adult ministry, according to the gospels, he never strays far from Israel’s ancient political boundaries. Yet what he does is for the sake of the world. That’s not unique to Jesus. Jesus is simply fulfilling what Israel always claimed for herself—to be a tribe that exists for the sake of the others. To be fully local and fully global.
Perhaps the best way to manage the tension between globalism and tribalism, as it relates to identity in churches, is to be a local tribe that exists for the sake of the world. In other words, we need to recognize that we, like Israel, practice our life and faith in the presence of others. The world is paying attention. And even if it’s not paying attention—as was likely the case for large portions of ancient Israel’s history—who cares? We should always act like others are watching us and we should do all that can to bless others. How we practice our life together can and will have global significance in the fullness of God’s time.
Perhaps there is no happy medium between globalization and tribalism as it relates to churches. Maybe we need to go all in on both—to be a tribe that’s fully committed to the good of the world. To follow the Jesus’ way—to do something locally that creates shock waves globally.
How have you seen churches that express a way of life that is “fully global” and “fully local”?
How can we express our faith for the sake of others in our life and worship?