A Double-Edged Sword: Opportunities and Challenges for Christian Mission in the Contemporary Era of Globalization

Over the past few years at conferences and Bible studies I have asked participants what they think about globalization. Sometimes people express frustration that they often hear the word but do not really know what it means. Others laud globalization as a move of God to enable the completion of the Great Commission within the next generation or even the next few years. Many others denounce the forces of globalization, particularly the economic aspects, for enabling exploitation at exponentially increasing rates. Globalization is clearly no simple matter and it should not be treated as such by Christian missionaries.

Howard Snyder defined well the essence of globalization when he wrote, “Global integration and networking are now the driving forces in business and economics. The world is becoming one vast marketplace, not a patchwork of local markets. Economic integration on a world scale is reshaping society.”1

The Spread of the Gospel
Evangelicals who favor globalization point to the ease and ability to spread the gospel message far and wide. Global events and the natural flow of transportation and communication have always affected the spread of the gospel. Christian commentators have long pointed out that the elaborate road network developed by the Roman Empire helped to speed the spread of the gospel after Pentecost. While Christopher Columbus was trying to find a trade route to India, his discovery of the New World and the development of long distance ocean travel allowed the gospel to spread from Europe to the Americas.

The process of globalization can help us, as missional Christians, clear the path for the advancement of the gospel; yet it can simultaneously cut us if we are not careful.

William Carey in his famous treaty stated that Christians should use the shipping routes used for trade as avenues to access people with the gospel. John Wesley foresaw using trade as a means of evangelism. In his sermon, “On the Spread of the Gospel,” he described how he believed the gospel would spread around the world: “Probably these [Eastern European countries] will be followed by those more distant nations with whom the Christians trade; to whom they will impart what is of infinitely more value than earthly pearls, or gold and silver.”2 Could it be that globalization is an opportunity for the Church to spread the gospel through trade communications to the ends of the earth as John Wesley foresaw over two hundred years ago?

Damage to the Gospel
Samuel Escobar points to the value that such integration can have for the world of missions. One example he mentions is the efficiency and effectiveness of technological communication that can facilitate and improve an important Bible translation project in South America. However, Escobar also gives this warning: “If mission simply rides on the crest of the globalization wave it might inadvertently change the very nature of the gospel.”3 He points to past instances of similar situations and criticizes “the total identification of modern Western values (the American way of life) with the gospel, which was being propagated by many missionary organizations in the name of Christian mission.” He says that a coming challenge for Christian missionaries in subsequent years will be “how to remain first and foremost messengers of Jesus Christ and not just harbingers of the new globalization process.”4

Jonathan Ingleby is concerned about the perceived association of globalization and Christianity. He asserts that some people may “simply see Christianity as another expression of Western cultural imperialism aka as globalization.”5 Thus he cautions against ambassadors of the gospel going to other cultures in the clothes of the global culture. It is at this point that we as Christians need to be most careful. Christian missionaries will be rightfully criticized if they cater to the structures of totalitarianism and systems of oppression without critically engaging them.

The Double-Edged Sword
In an era of economic globalization and often of exploitation, we need to recognize that globalization is something of a double-edged sword. Globalization has increased contact and alienation between people. It has created wealth and poverty at rates that were previously inconceivable. The process of globalization can help us, as missional Christians, clear the path for the advancement of the gospel; yet it can simultaneously cut us if we are not careful.

Compassionate Care
To promote the positive aspects and prevent the negative, we need to view all people as equals. According to Gloria Züniga, “Everyone has value. This is distinct from their personal ethic, morality or contribution to the world.”6 We can do this by emphasizing and implementing an evangelistic paradigm of compassionate care. This is not to say that we should be compassionate and care for people so that they will become Christians. Rather, we should love our neighbor as ourselves for that is what Christ told us to do and that is what sums up the law and the prophets (Matthew 22:39-40). Therefore, all compassion and care that we give our non-Christian global neighbors should come out of our love for God and our desire to please him by loving our neighbor. Love is not a strategy or a technique so that people will like our message and us.

Nevertheless, a fringe benefit to compassionate care is that people suddenly become receptive and responsive to the gospel truth that motivates us.

The Priority of Love
Love needs to be prioritized over and above expediency and efficiency. This is not to say that these aspects are necessarily mutually exclusive. But we should have a clear focus on what is most important as we engage and participate in the processes of globalization.

This is the golden opportunity of globalization, the unprecedented possibility to minister to the whole world with the whole gospel.

In the aftermath of the 2004 Asian Tsunami, compassionate care was combined with the efficiency of globalization on an unprecedented scale. On the same day that the waters washed ashore, images were sent around the world to people’s television sets, computers and mobile phones. Prayers immediately went out for those suffering. Money was shifted to relief agencies through online transactions. Relatively inexpensive air travel allowed for vast amounts of emergency supplies to be delivered quickly. Mission organizations adapted immediately to the developing situation and sought innovative ways to minister to those in need. Although it will go down as one of the greatest tragedies in recent memory, the processes of globalization allowed the Church to minister expediently and efficiently. And in the midst, love was the priority.

Renowned British atheist Roy Hattersley looked at the prevalence of Christians helping in the wake of a catastrophe (and the absence of atheists) and announced, “The correlation is so clear that it is impossible to doubt that faith and charity go hand in hand.” He said that Christian faith makes believers “morally superior to atheists like me.” He added, “The truth [atheism] may make us free. But it has not made us as admirable as the average captain in the Salvation Army.”7

If scientists and meteorologists are correct, natural disasters around the world will continue to increase. If current economic trends continue, wealth and poverty will simultaneously increase at previously inconceivable rates. We need to be ready to respond with the compassionate care that characterizes the core of the Christian message. In so doing we will not only be able to help hurting people, but we will also be able to spiritually serve them the salvation that they need. This is the golden opportunity of globalization, the unprecedented possibility to minister to the whole world with the whole gospel. Soli Deo Gloria!


1) Snyder, Howard. 1995. Earthcurrents: The Struggle for the World’s Soul. Nashville, Tennessee, USA: Abingdon Press, 46.

2) Wesley, John. “On the Spread of the Gospel” in Sermons on Several Occasions, [book on-line]. Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 576; http://www.ccel.org/ccel/wesley/sermons.titlepage.html.

3) Escobar, Samuel. 2003. The New Global Mission: The Gospel from Everywhere to Everyone. Downers Grove, Illinois, USA: InterVarsity Press, 59.

4) Escobar, 63.

5) Jonathan Ingleby, “Globalisation, Glocalisation & Mission” in Encounters Mission Ezine; Issue 1: August 2004, 4. Accessible at http://www.redcliffe.org/standard.asp?id=214

6) Züniga, Gloria L. 2003.“Eine Ontologie der Würde” in ed. Ralf Stoecker, Menschenwürde: Annäherung an Einen Begriff. Wien: öbv&hpt. 190-191.

Hattersley, Roy. 2005. “Faith Does Breed Charity” in The Guardian. 12 September 2005.

Mark Russell is a doctoral student at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, USA. He lives in Lexington, Kentucky with his wife and their two children.