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The World is Flat

If your computer crashes today, and you pick up your phone to call tech support, the chances are good you’ll hear an Indian voice on the other end. The computer was likely designed by a team of engineers in America, perhaps with collaboration in Europe, Japan, or Korea. The majority of its parts were probably manufactured in factories in China, Taiwan. It may have been assembled anywhere from Brazil to Biloxi.

The world is flat.

In spring and early summer 2011, tens of thousands across northern Africa rose in protests. Starting in Tunisia and Egypt, a ripple of largely peaceful movements spread across a sizeable portion of the Muslim world. Two factors were particularly remarkable, to my way of thinking, in this surge of political self-will.

First, the protests coalesced in response to particular acts of indecency by the governments – but such acts had happened many times before. These acts triggered a response because they were inevitably far more public than they had been in the past. Inevitably, I say, because this is the age of ubiquitous cell phones with video cameras, and also the age of Youtube, where every video can capture a global audience.

Second, these movements propagated through new media. Not only were they were instigated by socially propagating video, they were coordinated largely through social media – Twitter and Facebook especially. Moreover, they were almost entirely decentralized. While the movements had spokesmen and instigators, they gained their power through the rapid spread of ideas and plans through the social networks, not through ordinary organization and hierarchy.

The world is flat.

The book

Thomas Friedman has been making this point for the better part of a decade now. In The World is Flat, he lays out not only what has happened, as in the examples above, but also how. Over the last few decades, there have been a number of enormous advances in technology that have converged to allow people all over the world to interact and collaborate in ways unimaginable in all the previous millennia of human history. This technological progress has combined with the opening of a number of previously closed economies to allow vast new markets to open – markets not only for sales, but for workers.

Friedman spends most of his time on the impact this globalization has on businesses and how Americans should respond in the business and education sectors, though he takes time in his conclusion to address the broader ethical implications of these changes.

Though Friedman’s comments on education and ethics are interesting, I think his views on business, entrepreneurship, and charity are the points to which today’s Christians should be paying the most attention. First, he notes that “big can act small,” that is, large companies can move extremely quickly by taking advantage of the new world. This is how Amazon can deliver a book to your door the day after you order it (as happened to me last week), or large chains can make prices low and keep inventories well coordinated.

On the flip side, he notes that “small can act big:” individuals can now be as effective as large corporations in many businesses by taking advantage of the large business tools that are available to everyone. Later in the book he applies this latter principle to the concept of charity work, as well, noting that some of the best charitable projects of recent years have come about by individuals recognizing needs and moving on them, taking advantage of the many tools afforded them my modern technology.

Both of these are equally true of Christians who want to reach the world with the good news of Jesus.

More effective world Christians

Christians should be slow to model the practices of the church on business, but we should not ignore the lessons businesses have learned these past twenty years. We are not profit-makers, and efficiency is not our highest goal, but careful consideration may point out areas we can be more effective stewards of the financial resources God has entrusted to us.. Christian organizations can learn from the ways that large businesses have successfully put these new technologies to use. For example, many tasks can be automated or streamlined that formerly required hand work. Organizations may also find that they can bring operations in house that were formerly taken care of by outside contractors.

And yes, Christians can and should think about “outsourcing.” Christians here can benefit Christians in struggling economies abroad by sourcing jobs there – without the sort of fear-mongering that has too often dominated the discussion in America. The more we can partner with the rest of the global church, the healthier both the global church and the American church will be. Dependency and an imperialistic mindset both betray the equality to which God has called us. Instead, those of us who are rich – which is to say, nearly all Americans – should share liberally with those who are not. That includes sharing our jobs, when and where we can.

As a quick aside, Friedman’s discussion of the way people have used small business to help kickstart real economic growth in third-world countries should be required reading. I wish that more Christians would think about how to use their vocation for the benefit of others. As a teacher of mine put it: poor people’s greatest need is not actually food, money, clothing, or any other good, but rather a job. Christian business people now have countless opportunities in this flat new world to do business in a way that really helps the poor.

But globalization is not simply about the spread of capitalism or markets or enhanced trade. It is not simply an economic phenomenon and its impact is not exclusively economic. It is a much broader, deeper, and more complex phenomenon, involving new forms of communication and innovation. The flattening of the world is about the creation of a global platform for multiple forms of sharing work, knowledge, and entertainment.
(p. 482)

The other side of this is the reality that small churches and even individuals can accomplish far more than they could have just a few decades ago. To take just one example, consider small group discussion materials. While there are certainly still many courses and curricula being created by professional publishers, there are also a broad array of alternatives being created by small teams or individual teachers at local churches. Because the internet is an extremely low cost distribution platform, these alternatives can often be distributed for free. At my own church, one of our pastors has created Bible study plans for a number of topics and books of the Bible, plans made freely available on the church’s website. Anyone in all the world can take advantage of them.

Or, for another example, take the enterprising idea some missions workers have had in the past few years: passing information to local believers – books, Bibles, sermons, any kind of content imaginable – on small flash devices. These sorts of efforts do not require massive institutional overhead. They simply require someone to think about the ways technology can serve the needs of the church, especially the oppressed church, and then to do it. The costs and barriers to entry are low enough that you or I can make a real difference on the other side of the world in remarkable ways.

We are called to be world Christians, with a view bigger than our own little corner of the globe. Our first allegiance is not to American supremacy, but to the kingdom of God. Accordingly, we should consider how our actions may be hurting or benefiting other believers on the other side of the world. Further, we should actively look for ways to take advantage of the new opportunities before us to extend our reach as individual churches and believers, and to do our work more effectively and responsibly as larger organizations.

Great power, great responsibility

There is a second major application of Friedman’s thesis: the flattening of the world means anyone, anywhere, can publish their thoughts and find an audience. The democratization of media means that many more Christians can offer their perspectives the broader church of Christ – for good or for ill. It is to this reality that we now turn.

The fact is that the world has gotten flat and more interconnected much faster than people have developed the norms and ethics to have their words go everywhere unedited and uncensored, and much faster than people have adapted to hearing everything whispered about them. Democracy is great, but democracy without responsibility is truly frightening.
(p. 527)

Anyone who has spent much time in the Christian part of the blogosphere knows that it is a fairly equal mix of thoughtful commentary, bloviation, and imbecilic assaults on character. (To be fair, I think most Christian bloggers are aiming for thoughtful commentary; the problem is that so few actually achieve that goal.) Whatever the topic, many of the voices chiming in are either ignorant, graceless, or both.

As Friedman notes, people have simply not had time to develop the sense of responsibility to accompany their new power. Christians of every stripe, at every age, with every level of theological education, now have the ability to voice their views on any and every topic. In some ways, this is fantastic. Many Christian bloggers are godly believers who have wise perspectives to offer – single moms juggling families and jobs, young people brimming over with passion, 65-year-old Sunday school teachers. I praise God that these people can now share their God-given gifts with the rest of us.

Unfortunately, however, this democratization of publication means that the intemperate young believers, the cage-phase Calvinists, the gossips, and the backbiters have just as broad a platform as anyone. I have seen Christians create smear campaigns, accuse people of rank heresy, and pass on rumors as true. I have seen people make sweeping theological pronouncements so far removed from Scripture as to be unrecognizable, and be hailed as great fonts of wisdom. I have seen Christian witness tarred and tarnished by uncountable blog posts and comment threads that degenerate into unrestrained incivility.

At its best, cyberspace adds to the richness of the public debate and brings forward new and valuable voices who might never have been heard from before. But at its worst, it brings forward more extreme and irresponsible voices with fewer restraints and enables them to throw more spitballs farther and bigger than ever before.
(p. 530)

Just because everyone can publish their thoughts to the wide world, in other words, does not mean they should. With great power comes responsibility, and all that. Many Christians are spreading their opinions far and wide who simply should not be – or at the least, they need good editors, preferably editors with a pastoral bent.

I subscribe to dozens of blogs by pastors, moms, scholars, and engineers who have greatly enriched my faith – people I would never have known without the Internet. I praise God that you and I can share our love for Christ and yet potentially never meet face to face until heaven. But it grieves me deeply that many Christians write with assumed authority they have not earned on subjects they have not studied in ways that dishonor Christ. We must do better. We must be more careful in our interaction with one another. We must grow in humility, patience, kindness and grace. We must learn to simply be silent sometimes.

The pace of change

One final point worth considering carefully is just how fast the world is changing today. Though this third edition was published in 2007, only five years ago, some of its contents are already remarkably dated. For the simplest examples, take the pervasive references to then-dominant Myspace, or Friedman’s frequent use of the word “cyberspace” – a word that has all but fallen out of our lexicon in the intervening years. Facebook now rules the roost and Myspace is all but dead. Likewise, the internet is no longer a mentally distinct space for most of us; it is simply an integral and ordinary part of our lives.

Christians cannot afford to pretend that the world is not changing. We should be hesitant to stake out any position too firmly if the position depends on certain technological realities that are prone to change. Neither can we afford to be slaves to the new; that there is some innovation available to us does not necessarily mean it is helpful. The challenge, then, is to evaluate each innovation as it comes down the line and carefully examine its costs and its benefits. More than that, we must continue to evaluate costs and benefits over time; none of us can see all the uses to which a given technology will be put when we first encounter it. (Others have written on this topic at great length; for a contemporary, consistently thoughtful and Christ-centered introduction to this field, see John Dyer’s blog or his recent book From the Garden to the City.)

Theological truths are constant, but culture and technology are very much in flex. The twin temptations are to let our theology change with culture, or to hold our cultural and technological views with the firmness that we should accord only theology. We should hold our doctrines firmly, and respond to changing culture and technology in light of truth – not the other way around.


Friedman’s book is an excellent resource, and believers interested in being true “world Christians” need to consider its lessons carefully. We have a responsibility to take the gospel to all the world, and we have more effective tools to accomplish that end than ever before. That will require us to learn to use the tools well, and also to recognize their limitations – and ours. In our blogging here at home, our efforts to use business to benefit the poor abroad, and in the work of global missions, the changes wrought by globalization cannot be ignored. Accordingly, this book should be required reading for pastors, entrepreneurs, and blogger moms. In particular, the first section of the book, which explains what has happened and how, and then chapters 12–14 would be profitable for nearly every Christian.

The World is Flat 3.0: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century
©2007 Thomas L. Friedman
Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010


  • Ben thought to say:

    We’ve recently discussed many of these factors of globalization in my MBA course. It is great to see the applications that these new avenues of communication could have on the spread of the good news of Jesus Christ! Great blog!

    Offer a rejoinder↓
    • Thanks. Just as these forces of globalization are unavoidable facts of the business world, they are unavoidable facts of the world of church and missions and ministry. The question is what effects globalization will have on us, and – equally interesting and important – what effects we will have on it.

      Offer a rejoinder↓

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