Globalization and the Church: Challenges to Evangelization and Discipleship

Description: NECF Malaysia Cross-Currents Consultations
        Author: Tan Kang San

What is Globalization?

The term “globalization” was coined about three decades ago, but the word has mushroomed in the 21st Century. It is a slippery buzzword that is variously defined and differently understood. In its broadest sense, globalization refers to the rapid growth of inter-linkages between nations and social communities, which make up the present world system. The world is not only becoming more interconnected, but people are also becoming more aware of the interconnection. The spread of modern technology, transportation and communication to the entire world has compressed the world in time and space. All of these phenomena make up the concept of globalization.

Thomas Friedman, in his excellent book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, offers the following key elements towards a definition of globalization:

  • Democratization of technology, finance and information'
  • Free market capitalism as the organizing principle of world economics;
  • Homogenizing of cultures (Friedman 1999, 8).

Friedman describes a label on a computer part that reads, “This part was made in Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, China, Mexico, Germany, the U.S., Thailand, Canada, and Japan. It was made in so many different places that we cannot specify a country of origin.” One of the presuppositions that we need in our understanding of globalization is that, in some form, it is here to stay. It is an inescapable reality. Yet, while globalization itself is an inescapable reality, Christian must critique and work against some of the evil consequences of a global free market. Our generation will experience an increasingly explosive social, economic, and political situation that globalization brings to the ASEAN region. Such rapid movement of people, money, culture, information, and technology offers both peril and promise.

The Relationship Between Evangelism and Discipleship

In this section, we explore a biblical understanding of evangelism and discipleship. The church has one constitutive mark: its being apostolic or sent into the world (John 17). This is a fundamental nature of the church as a witnessing and discipling community.

The Greek verb euangelizasthai means “to announce the good news” and is found 52 times in the New Testament. The noun euangelion means “good news” and occurs 72 times mostly in Pauline epistles. Evangelism, then, is to share or announce the good news. The biblical emphasis is the message of the gospel must be proclaimed faithfully (2 Corinthians 2:17; 4:2 and 5). It should not be defined in terms of successful results.

The New Testament shows that wherever the gospel is being proclaimed, some will respond in repentance and faith while others will reject the gospel.

Traditionally, evangelism was addressed to individuals and exclusively concerned with the forgiveness of sins. However, when set in the context of the theology of the kingdom of God, evangelism encompasses a broader concern for the establishment of a new community, which must lead to the transformation of society (e.g. Mark 1:14-15; Luke 4:18-20). Therefore, although “evangelism” is strictly to be judged by its “proclamation” element of the gospel of Jesus Christ, it must lead to repentance and faith, belonging to a community of faith and eventual service in the world.

The interrelationship between evangelism and discipleship is well summarized in the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization (1974) statement:

To evangelize is to spread the good news that Jesus Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead according to scriptures, and that as the reigning Lord, he now offers the forgiveness of sins and the liberating gift of the Spirit to all who repent and believe…. In issuing the Gospel invitation we have no liberty to conceal the cost of discipleship. Jesus calls all who would follow him to deny themselves, take up their cross and identify themselves with his new community. The results of evangelism include obedience to Christ, Incorporation into his church and responsible service to the world (LC 4).

Therefore, evangelism and discipleship are inseparable tasks of the whole church. Although they are distinct activities of the individual Christians, no church can dichotomize evangelism from discipleship or say they focus on one at the expense of the other. Neither should a church be content with transferred membership, focusing on discipleship, without regular addition of new believers into the body of Christ.

A Translatable or Imported Gospel?

The gospel is summarized in 1 Corinthians 15:2-5: “By this gospel you are save… That Christ died for our sins, according to the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to scriptures, and that he appeared.” The event of Christ, rooted in history and recorded in scriptures, is now translated into many contexts and cultures.

First, the church must be willing to adapt to modern culture and thinking. The gospel is translated into foreign cultures, including modern and youth cultures. The late theologian, Helmut Thielicke reminds us:

The gospel must be preached afresh and told in new ways to every generation, since every generation has its own unique questions. This is why gospel must constantly be forwarded to a new address, because the recipient is repeatedly changing his place of residence. (quoted in Kuzmic, 1990, 202)

While the content of the gospel is unchanging, the methodologies used to communicate the gospel may need revision. Some of our churches received the gospel from previous generation of missionaries and have presented it without any change ever since. The “come rather than go structure”, long evangelistic addresses, the use of ancient liturgies and hymns of old (though doctrinally sound but unintelligible to non-Christians), evangelism centred upon evangelists instead of laity are examples of outmoded evangelistic paradigms.

Second, the translatability of the gospel means on going and critical contextualization is needed. We must always be self-critical of our own cultural presuppositions influencing our evangelism and discipleship approaches to others. Globalization and its tendency toward the homogenization of all cultures can only be met with a strong challenge through the contextualization of the gospel. Neo-colonialism, whether coming from North America to Asia, South Korea to North Korea or West Malaysia to East Malaysia takes place when Christians export their gospel without any regard to uniqueness of local cultures or situation. Likewise, no church program or mission endeavors must be undertaken without giving dignity to the local and indigenous culture. The church needs to play a prophetic role when it listens to Scripture and makes Christian truth accessible in languages understood in modern and local contexts. Just as we do not want to import a foreign gospel, so we must not export a Christianity that is foreign to other cultures.

II. Is Globalization a Friend or Foe to Evangelization and Discipleship?

Should the church endorse or resist the developments brought about by globalization? In the first section, I begin by affirming the positive role that globalization plays in facilitating the functions of evangelism and discipleship in the church. In the second section, I will raise issues of concerns whereby globalization challenges the Christian disciples’ loyalty to Christ’s Lordship, promotes a materialistic culture, pluralizes truth-claims, and reduces the missionary task to a pragmatic venture.

Globalization: Friend of Mission?

Globalization and its processes of rapid transmission of information, knowledge and people contact represent a "kairos" moment for the evangelization of the world. First, just as the earlier Christians used the printing press and radio broadcasting, so have Christians in this century taken full advantage of the internet revolution and increased relationship between peoples for the spread of the gospel. Second, the opening of trade and blurring of national boundaries have contributed toward greater openness to Christianity in many Asian and Muslim centuries. For example, China’s entry into World Trade Organization means reduction of trade barriers, openness to foreign workers, including Christian professionals, and eventual influence of foreign ideas, including Christianity. Third, the Internet revolution allows non-Christians to explore Christianity anonymously without social restrictions. The vast array of information regarding other religions can no longer be censored by protective religious authorities. Globalization shatters the worldviews of traditional societies and leaves them open to new ideas and ways of living. Fourth, the vast array of non-Christian websites offering education and understanding of other religious beliefs are valuable tools to prepare Christians for apologetics and evangelism. Christians can engage in the study of religious and inter-religious dialogue without leaving their home. Fifth, globalization has contributed to shedding away the notion that Christianity is primarily a Western religion. As the church declines in the Western world but grows rapidly in the Two-Third world, the new global dimension of Christianity is best shown when churches from alternate centers proclaim Christ in rich diversities (Samuel Escobar 2000, 28). Last but not least, the most important result of global world is the increasing collaboration between Christian individuals and organizations are coming to realize that strategic partnerships, alignments and cooperative endeavors can be more effective for ministry, an may also represent better stewardship of resources. However, while these efforts bring greater unity and focus on a common task, they also bring greater complexity and difficulty in administration. New attitudes and skills must be developed for working in this team and networking oriented environment.

Though not exhaustive, the above observations serve to illustrate the unprecedented opportunities for evangelism in our world today. We must avoid the danger of treating globalization as all evil. Instead, we should view the aspects of globalization (for example, increasingly connected economic systems, efficient communication system globally) as neutral factors from which Christian mission can benefit from.

Anna Peterson, Manuel Vasquez, and Phillip Williams, the editors of Christianity, Social Change, and Globalization in the Americas, look at how Protestants and Catholics in Central and South America navigate a world influenced by globalization. They find that, contrary to some people’s fears, globalization has not meant secularization: “Religion is changing but not disappearing.” In fact, “if anything, religion has become more central to struggles around collective and individual identity and to the re-articulation of damaged civil societies.” (quoted from Jeremy Lott, Books and Culture, January/February 2001).

Discipleship and the Powers

Discipleship is submission to Jesus Christ as Lord, evidenced in a life of Christ-likeness and willingness to suffer for the gospel’s sake. Direct challenges to biblical Christianity are becoming increasingly persistent. Militant Hinduism and Islam are on the march. In some parts of the world, there is a revival of Buddhism and other traditional religions. Continuing attacks come from modern atheism and secularism. Governmental and educational establishments often join in the opposition. Both official and informal persecutions are on the rise all over the world. Historically, the church counted the cost of discipleship in terms of the persecution inflicted by hostile governments.

However, the process of globalization displaces the state itself making way for multinational companies to operate unhindered by state authority. The state is pushed to renounce its functions to guarantee equity, social justice and security for the people. Jacques Attali said, “The central organizing principle of the future, whatever happens on the margins, will be economic….. The rule of military might that characterized the Cold war is being replaced by the reign of the market.” (Attali 1991, 8-9) Christian disciples today face the powers of globalization that marginalize truth, extol the pursuit of pleasures, promote materialism and new age ideologies, and perpetuate unequal distribution of resources. Escobar notes that “the culture of globalization….creates attitudes and mental frame that may be the opposite of what the gospel teaches about human life under God’s design.” (2000,30)

Apostle Paul's plea to the Romans Christian fits our contemporary struggles: "I plead with you to give your bodies to God. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice-the kind he will accept. When you think of what he has done for you, is this too much to ask? Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think." (Romans 12:1-2) the Lordship of Jesus Christ demands that we live for Christ, not for ourselves; that our minds must he held captive in Christ and every aspect of our lives must be submitted to the will of God. (2 Corinthians 5:14-15; Colossians 1:15-17)

Powers are not only personal but also political. A political culture of participation is an essential prerequisite of transformation of Malaysian society. The present forms of representation which are merely confined to communal political parties do not guarantee participatory representations. New forms of participation including rural and local participation need to be developed and given constitutional recognition. Non-government and religious bodies need to play a more active role in representing the needs of the poor marginalized by market forces. Christians, particularly those in legal and media should be encourage to play their role to enhance greater participation of people in decision making and achieving greater transparency. Good governance should not merely mean purely formal democracy of a limited nature as it exists now. The administration should be open and conducive to constant consultation with people. We are grateful that the Malaysian government had, in recent times, increased consultation with religious leaders.

In recent years greater attention has been focused on the importance of intercessory prayer and spiritual warfare for the advance of the gospel. Movements of prayer and meetings for prayer continue to multiply at the community, national and international levels. The emphasis of church growth strategy is shifting from sociological analysis and managerial technique to a focus on spiritual dynamics and mobilization for prayer.

Discipleship and Materialistic Culture

The age we live in today extols choice and change as virtues. The world is watching carefully whether Christian dance to a different drumbeat. The increase in personal choices leads to a decrease in commitment. It seems clear that successive generations of Christians have been enculturated to uncritical redefinition of “personal material needs” in accordance with continuing escalating notions of upper middle class lifestyles. But even more disturbing questions remain. What effect does upper middle class churches have upon Christianity as communicators of good news for the poor? One fact is clear. Our relatively strong economic power has not made us more effective in our primary tasks – evangelism and discipleship.

For Christians to be true and credible disciples of Jesus Christ, we need in our day to rethink profoundly the prevailing theologies with their diversities of expression, spirituality and approach towards modern world of mass consumption. The message of Jesus presents God as love, creation as good, and earth and its resources as means for all humans. Unless we do so urgently, effectively and globally, we Christians may find ourselves once again substantially on the side of oppressors and not of the justice that God in Jesus desires and has promised.

Competing Truths in the Global Market

We face an intellectual crisis with the “modern eclipse of God” in a global village where all faiths must be acknowledge as having rightful co-existence. Leslie Newbigin has helpfully highlighted for us the need to accept plurality of religions as a reality (1989). However, we need to distinguish the plural features of society from pluralism as ideology. In an age of agnosticism and denial of absolute truth, the validity of the gospel is strongly denied or mostly ignored. How has the church responded to such growing agnosticism and relativism? At one end, more and more church leaders are tempted to become minimalists with regard toe essential truth claims about Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, radical discipleship, the role of theology in the church, justice and church discipline. The only test is the test of personal experience and preferences. At the other spectrum is the fundamentalist approach of insisting upon the truth of scripture without any attempt to provide an apologia for Christian belief in God to non-Christians (Stackhouse 1988). Within the church, members practice a blind faith that operates on “naïve realism”, where little scriptural groundings are given and little discussion on church life or beliefs are attempted. Members are often asked to trust the leaders. Those, especially younger generation, who questioned are perceived as being critical and therefore, sidelined. However, the global reality with its democratization of knowledge means that questions largely unanswered or ignored in the church will naturally find its ways elsewhere. This led to a situation where many Christians who attend church mix and match their concepts about God, faith and solutions to life with diverse and plural interpretations.

III. Theological Explorations

The Future Church

The church of the must root itself firmly “in this globalized world” and not operate out of celestial dreamland. It should not be an isolated community that sporadically ventures into the world to evangelize, only to retreat into safe communities. On the other hand, in embracing globalization with all its attendant benefits, the church cannot abandon its counter-cultural character as a “pilgrim community.”

The paramount direction for the foreseeable future will center on issues relating to the definition of the church: fellowship between conservative churches with charismatic churches; relationship between the Evangelical with the Catholic churches in Christian Federation of Malaysia, relationship between the local church and parachurch agencies. Is the goal of evangelism in the church to add numerically to denominations, or church groups or the extension of the kingdom of God? What kind of church would thrive in a globalized world? Is it a church marked by rapid growth in numbers or a church of faithful disciples? A homogeneous church or a multicultural church? Should denominational church structures be decentralized into house churches, where each local church is given greater autonomy to decide on styles of worship, government and use of resources? We need humility, and willingness to listen to each other as we seek to build together a church of Jesus Christ in Malaysia.

The Incarnation

The incarnation of Jesus Christ is at the very heart of the gospel. “The Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). For many of us, the incarnation is an archaic doctrine of the church rather than a living model. More than ever, the incarnation teaches us that power, speed, mobility, efficiency, success-those elements extolled by globalization forces-cannot be the modus operandi of any truly Christian church. Jesus’ incarnation to enter the world as a baby born in the backwaters of Bethlehem, from a carpenter’s family, was neither a missiological mistake nor a historical accident. “As you have sent me into the world, so send I you” (John 17:16). At the very least, incarnation means giving up the power, privilege, social position to which we feel naturally inclined. There is no room for ego-inflating, career-generating, power-hungry, and self-protecting approach to planting churches so characteristic of much that is called progressive Christianity. No matter how enlightened the technique, how sophisticated the technology, how successful the numerical results, nothing will prevail against the spiritual forces of darkness, except the power of the gospel (cf. Ephesians 6:10-20; Romans 1:16-17).

The Cross

For Christ’s followers, the Cross is the guarantee of persecution and suffering. In the eyes of the world, there is nothing humanly attractive about the cross or the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 52:13-53:12). The church needs to be vigilant against those who call themselves followers of Christ but a frauds and imposters. Encountering such believers in Philippi, Paul tearfully acknowledged that “many lived as enemies of the cross of Christ….for their mind is on earthly things…Their destiny is a destruction” (Phil. 3:18,19). Likewise, contemporary methods of evangelism that do not operate on the principle of the cross-the unappealing, death-denying cross-need careful scrutiny. Many will believe in Christ but many will also fall away. The danger then is we introduce young babes to a culture of Christianity but immunize them against the claims of Christ. Those who succumbed to the virus of carnal Christianity are lulled into thinking that they have the real Christ. They have no desires for serious study of scriptures, for costly discipleship and at best, are only interested in a religion that gratifies their immediate needs. Sects and cults will flourish whenever young Christians are allowed to remain addicted to milk, without solid food.

Dialogue with the World

Christian dialogue is neither a denial of the uniqueness of Christ nor a compromise of our Evangelical faith. We need to accept the reality that our modern world demands deeper engagements with both secular and other religious belief systems. Majority of our future leaders in the seminaries and church leaders are merely equipped with a superficial understanding of the religious belief systems of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. The challenge of raising a new generation of scholars in Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism is an urgent task within the evangelizing church in a multicultural setting. Christians can no longer do theology within the safe confines of the church. Our belief in God, in Christ and the reality of our faith need fresh articulations in direct apologetics toward Muslim and Buddhist’s views about God, about Christ and about faiths.

Concluding Reflections: The Missionary Task of the Church

In a globalized world, where there are so many unreached peoples, how necessary it is for the Malaysian church to recover a practical missionary ecclesiology, the missionary character of the believing community. (Newbigin 1989, quoted in Kuzmic 1993:159) Our primary motivations for missions must be a sense of gratitude, a sense of responsibility and a sense of concern. (Green 1970, 286-309) According to the 2000 Population Census, there are 2 million Christians, of which more than 1 million belong to the Protestant faith in Malaysia. My generous estimate of long term cross cultural missionaries from Malaysian to other countries is well belong. It means that we have sent only 0.0005%, or 5 missionaries out of 10,000 Malaysian Christians to serve the Lord on the mission fields. In a globalized world, the church can no longer ignore the problems facing nations in a global village.

In Malaysia, where there are more than 10,000 mainland Chinese students, over 10,000 Japanese expatriate workers, and thousands of Bangladeshi and Indonesian laborers, how needed it is for the Malaysian church to actively serve these sojourners and strangers of our land with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Those preparing themselves for ministry in the 21st Century should become aware that serving God’s Kingdom will require diverse preparation. Some will minister as pastors, others as pastoral counselors, many will serve the multitude of international students as campus ministers, or social workers assisting refugees, teach English as a second language, or guide our foreign friends in cultural, economics, and religious adaptation. The world has come to our doorstep. Thus, we can no longer ignore our responsibility to world evangelization.

The globalization of missions means that efforts packaged in the West are exported to Asia and many churches join the adoption of unreached peoples, of national churches, or short term programmes. Missions are now guided by market-driven values such as “least sacrifice, cheapest possible, fastest result, and greatest return on investment”. Locally, we face similar currents toward pragmatism and managerial framework when evangelism is packaged to manufacture as many new babes as possible.



Douglas, J. D. ed 1990. Proclaim Christ until he comes. Minneapolis: World Wide Publications.

Escobar, Samuel. 2000. “The Global scenario at the turn of the century” In William D. Taylor, Global Missiology for the 21st Century. Grand Rapids: WEF Books. 25-46

Friedman, T.L. 1999. The Lexus and the olive tree. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Green, Michael. 1970. Evangelism in the early church. Crowborough: Highland Books,

Kuzmic, Peter. 1990. “How to teach the truth of the gospel? In J.D. Douglas, Proclaim Christ until he comes: Calling the Whole Church to take the whole gospel to the whole world. Minneapolis: World Wide Publications. (197-203)

Lot, Jeremy, 2001. “Is Globalization Christian?” Books and Culture, January/February 2001

Newbigin, Leslie. 1989. The Gospel in a pluralist society. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Stackhouse, Maz. L. 1988. Apologia: Contextualization, globalization, and mission in theological education. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.


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