Sunday, April 20, 2008

Urbanization, Westernization, and Globalization: Confusingly Similar Trends

Something occurred to me as I was reading a book by Paul and Eloise Hiebert about trends of urbanization, westernization, and globalization. Quite often the world outside of "Western" nations reacts to the sometimes oppressive influence of western culture. Individualism, naturalistic worldview, and segmented lives are considered Western values. These values and others are often considered to be threats to traditional cultures, worldviews, and ways of life, which is then associated with the West as the cause. As I was reading the Hieberts' book Incarnational Ministry, I came across a table drawn from anthropologist, Robert Redfield, compare rural life and urban life.

Rural Life

Urban Life

Established, traditional



Ascribed roles



Status quo, little change


Wholistic life

Human in scale

Sacred cosmos

Mobile, free



Achieved roles

Intersecting communities

Managed conflict

Rapid change


Segmented life


Secular cosmos

(Hiebert and Hiebert, Incarnational Ministry, 262)

When perusing the list of characteristics of urban life I noticed a strong link to the various lists of Western cultural values. An exploration of which influenced the other is not really my point here. My point is that this strong similarity between urban values and Western values is illuminating. During the twentieth century the rapid rate of urbanization in the world was extraordinary and the trend continues at an alarming rate. Around 1900 the world was just 5 percent urban. (Drucker, The Community of the Future, 2) Just a few years ago the world became over fifty percent urban and we are on the fast track to 75% urban (the United States is already considered 75% urban (Vago, Social Change, 137)). The point being, the world is quickly urbanizing.

The confusing part of this is that often urbanization is labeled westernization. Westernization has been an abused term, sometimes meaning little more than use of modern science and/or free market capitalism. But then others hear the term "westernization" and think "those nasty neo-colonial, imperialistic, paternalistic purveyors of Big-Macs." In the midst of this confusion, there is a connection between westernization and urbanization. It was, in fact, the western nations that first began this urbanization trend. Modern technology was developed on a foundation of Enlightenment scientific method and capitalism is definitely western in origin. While westernization and urbanization are certainly linked, the connotations of the west masterminding and controlling urbanization trends are unfounded (Kusno, "Architecture After Nationalism," 142).

Given the manner in which westernization and urbanization is linked, it is not a surprise that there has been little resistance to the rapid urbanization. Many of the characteristics of urban life are already shared with western characteristics. Kester Brewin points out the ways in which "rural" areas in the west are in some ways already urban: "…it is the city that has reached out and infiltrated every part of country life, from mobile phones to Internet shopping, twenty-four-hour news, and celebrity gossip." (Brewin, Signs of Emergence, 121)

Other parts of the world that do not share similar characteristics with the west, struggle much more with the trends of urbanization. It is understandable how it can look like a planned takeover from the west. But the reality is that in this increasingly globalized economy, urbanization is a byproduct of the global race to get a piece of the global economy pie.

What is my point in saying all of this nonsense? It is this, the urbanization and globalization are growing realities that the world is being forced to deal with. We must find ways to help those that are having such difficulties with this process. We must find new ways for rural people being thrust into urban life to be able to transition without having all of their values shot to pieces.

References Cited:
Brewin, Kester. Signs of Emergence: A Vision for Church That is Organic/Networked/Decentralized/Bottom-up/Communal/Flexible/Always Evolving. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007.

Drucker, Peter F. "Introduction: Civilizing the City." In The Community of the Future. Fraces Hesselbein, et. al. eds. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1998.

Kusno, Abidin. "Architecture After Nationalism: Political Imaginings of Southeast Asian Architects." In Critical Reflections on Cities in Southeast Asia. Tim Bunnell, Lisa B. W. Drummond and K. C. Ho, eds. (Singapore: Brill, 2002), 124-149.

Vago, Steven. Social Change. 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1989.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Can a message be context-less?

In the midst of this conversation surrounding the emerging/ent church, there has been a funny reaction by a few bloggers and church leaders. The reaction has been to the contextualization of the good news of Jesus to postmodern culture. A recent example of this can be found on the Pyromaniacs blog in a piece by Phil Johnson about Acts 17. This has been pointed out here. I have a few questions for those that feel that contextualization is wrong.

  • What language did Paul use in Athens?
  • When Paul was speaking to the Athenians, did he use Jewish concepts of the Messiah? Did he use the religious concepts of his target community?
  • When Paul message in Athens (Acts 17) is compared with other messages in Acts, do you not notice any differences in gospel presentation?
  • When you share the message of Jesus to your children do you communicate to a child's level or do you uncompromisingly confront your children with the full truth of the gospel?
  • When Jesus communicated with people, did he not use the metaphors of everyday life to convey truths about the kingdom of God?
  • When Jesus' disciples began to communicate the good news of Jesus in the Hellenistic context did they use terms from their own religious traditions or terms in the host culture?

To say that communicating within context is compromising illustrates an ignorance of the vast variety of cultures and thought patterns in the world. It does not mean that truth is being compromised, only communicated. Contextualization can be done badly…that is certain. Contextualization that fails to communicate the good news of Jesus is bad contextualization. It is equally bad to contextualize to culture that is different from that of the target community. Every message we proclaim is deeply contextual. The question is simply: For which context are we proclaiming the gospel? Our own?