December 26, 2007

Is the Church Flat?

2007 1536 page8 capHE WORLD IS FLAT PROCLAIMED THE title of one of the most discussed books of the twenty-first century. First published in 2005 by Thomas Friedman, foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times, the book’s title—and its challenging thesis—poses provocative questions for almost every institution and organization in society, including the church. People of faith find themselves asking, “Is the church flat?”1
Many of us were taught the myth that when Christopher Columbus sailed for India in 1492, he was one of only a few individuals who believed in a round world. Countering the fears of his illiterate sailors who felt they would fall off the edge of a flat earth if they went too far, Columbus, by accidentally running into America, proved once and for all that the world was not flat. In reality, almost all thoughtful, educated Europeans of his era believed in a round earth; they just didn’t know how round it was.
So how could an intelligent, thoughtful author such as Friedman argue for a flat world? Friedman isn’t writing about a world that is physically flat, but one that is interconnected through globalization. He cites as evidence of the “flattening” of the world these technological developments:
• e-mail;
2007 1536 page8• use of the World Wide Web launched by Netscape in 1994. This innovation enabled individuals with personal computers to access information from anywhere in the world;
• the ability to exchange files on our computers across the world through standardized methods;
• huge supply chains originating in many countries making possible megastores such as Wal-Mart, or highly specialized delivery networks providing computer components from multiple countries to create a Dell computer;
• the power of instant messaging, file sharing, phone calls over the Internet (VoIP);
• videoconferencing and wireless technologies;
• the open source movement, which allows the free use of software and encyclopedias;
• outsourcing, through which organizations rely on far-distant persons, workforces, or organizations to perform vital services;
• search engines such as “Google.”
Friedman argues that these developments are creating a “flat” world by connecting us to one another on a global basis. He places a special focus on the growing power of two countries in the world’s economy—China and India. In this new world, which he suggests emerged suddenly while we were sleeping, individuals have more power to compete around the globe. The flattened earth empowers individuals through the synergy of the personal computer, the microprocessor, the Internet, and fiber optics (p. 208).
Technology and the Church
For 150 years Adventists have pointed to Daniel 12:4, where the prophet predicts many running “to and fro” and an increase in knowledge, as signs of the end-times. Knowledge, of course, has increased rapidly throughout the ages. But the accelerated pace of today’s increase is mind-boggling, with some experts suggesting that aggregate human knowledge doubles every one to two years.2
Underscoring this theme, Time magazine’s eagerly anticipated 2006 “Person of the Year” edition proclaimed with a mirror on its cover the winner as “You. Yes, you. You control the Information Age. Welcome to your world.” Explaining their choice, the editors suggested that 2006 was a “story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before.” Pointing to such Web-based tools as Wikipedia, YouTube, and MySpace, where individuals control the information, they declared: “It’s about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes.”3
While conducting research for his volume, Friedman asked, “When did you realize the world had gone flat?” Colin Powell, former United States Secretary of State, responded with one word: “Google.” “Google” is the world’s largest tool for finding information on the Web. Simply enter a word or phrase on any topic, and within a second or two thousands of sites will come up, sorted by the likelihood of providing you what you wanted. When Powell needed information before, he wrote, he would call on an aide who might take several hours to retrieve a document for him. Now he did his own research using “Google” on his own office computer (p. 248).
It’s almost hard to remember a time when e-mail wasn’t one of the major communication tools of the church. I discovered that the world had been flattened when I worked as vice president for education for the North American Division. One morning I sent an e-mail to Robert Folkenberg, then-president of the General Conference, went for a shower, and had a response from the president when I finished. Folkenberg helped flatten the church more than any other leader to that point in time. Educator colleagues from other denominations were amazed that I could communicate directly with the church’s president.
Today I can communicate almost instantly with church leaders or members at every level and area of church administration anywhere in the world. New technology has led to a democratization ability for members to communicate directly with their leaders and expect timely responses.
Students, parents, board members, and employees of Pacific Union College (PUC) know they can communicate with me as president and receive a response the same day, and often almost instantly, wherever I am. Our campus recently developed a strategic plan in which the entire campus became involved in offering input as we worked through several drafts. In the past a committee would have gone off to work in private, presenting a finished product that reflected a more limited perspective.
After returning from business trips, I rarely have any phone messages to return. But I have communicated, sometimes as often as three or four times in one day, with a concerned student, employee, or constituent. With the press of the “send” button on my computer, I can communicate with every employee and student at PUC without having a secretary take dictation, type a letter, make copies, address envelopes, stuff the envelopes, and take them to the mail center for distribution throughout the campus.
Today we take for granted this change in how we communicate with one another. Viewed against a wider backdrop, 
however, this technology may be as revolutionary as the development of movable type that made possible Gutenberg’s Bible in 1455.
When we ask, “Is the church flat?” we’re not asking if the church has a flat membership growth in some areas, or one that is lacking in energy. We’re focusing on the globalization of the church that parallels societal development Friedman described in at least three ways.
Technology and Information
Friedman writes: “What the flattening of the world means is that we are now connecting all knowledge centers on the planet together into a single global network, which—if politics and terrorism do not get in the way—could usher in an amazing era of prosperity, innovation, and collaboration, by companies, communities, and individuals” (p. 8).
2007 1536 page8The Seventh-day Adventist Church has taken advantage of this global network as well as any denomination. Beginning with Net evangelistic meetings, churches around the world linked to one site from which Mark Finley preached. Thousands of baptisms were celebrated throughout the world. A dozen years later church organizations of every size—K-12 schools, colleges, and local congregations—maintain up-to-date Web sites. Members and nonmembers can get information about Adventist beliefs, structures, witness, and struggles with a few keystrokes. The Adventist Review has an excellent online edition ( where, among many other things, you’ll find this article. Potential members are using online evangelistic lessons to learn about the great truths of Adventism. With a high speed connection you can use the AR Web site—or others—to watch for free the Hope Channel, Advent Hope, 3ABN, the Loma Linda Broadcasting Network, or listen to many of our college radio stations. These possibilities will soon be the norm in a global church. Some world divisions of the church are more advanced in their use of technology than is North America.
My wife and I were traveling in Arizona not long ago when our son e-mailed us that one of his friends was moving to Phoenix that weekend and wanted to attend church. With multiple churches in the area, we had to choose one appropriate for a young adult who had not been attending church regularly. I went to the Arizona Conference Web site and decided the best match would be the Arizona Welcome Center. The pastor’s cell phone number was posted on the site, as well as his e-mail address. I left a phone message for the pastor. Within 10 minutes he had returned my call, from his cell phone to mine. We then called our son’s friend on his cell phone, and found out where he was staying. We retrieved directions to his hotel and to the Adventist church off the Internet.
In the meantime I wanted to connect with a recent graduate of PUC in that community. I called him on his cell phone to make arrangements for Sabbath lunch, following up with an e-mail. When we arrived at the church, they were expecting us, and several church members immediately began visiting with our son’s friend.
Minutes before the service began, the person operating all the church’s technology had an accident necessitating a visit to the emergency room. During the service technological glitches kept things from running smoothly, but the warmth and friendship of the members more than compensated for the interruptions.
After the worship service the pastor offered to recruit members to move our guest into his house. Later, his phone rang. It was a church member wanting to know if he was looking for someone with whom to share an apartment. A week later the pastor called, thanking me for visiting his church the previous Sabbath. Every step in this process was made possible by the flattening of the church through technology.
When my niece, Kim, spent a year in Guinea-Conakry working for ADRA after her graduation from PUC, we talked to each other through our computers—for free—as if she were in the next room.
After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, I sent word by e-mail to Charles Sandefur, president of ADRA, while he was in Thailand, that the PUC community had raised $120,000 for relief efforts. Within minutes I had a message back from him expressing his gratitude, sent while riding on an old bus. I forwarded it to the Angwin community within minutes.
Taking Technology to School
Adventist education from the kindergarten level through the university curriculum increasingly uses technology for instruction and for career development. Local churches communicate directly with members on a weekly basis via e-mail, conveying important information about upcoming events, the worship program, the church bulletin, financial needs, service opportunities, and spiritual counsel from the pastors. Sermons preached at some congregations are available on the church’s Web site within hours; others offer live streaming of the church service, enabling those who are housebound the ability to attend their local church. On a recent Sabbath when I was sick, I was able to sit in my bed with my laptop computer using an inexpensive wireless home transmitter with a choice of three live Adventist church services. One truly innovative Florida congregation has appointed a pastor to care for an online flock of more than 1,000 who regularly access the church’s highly developed site.
What’s next? Toward the end of his book, Friedman asks a question the church needs to ask of itself: “Does your society have more memories than dreams or more dreams than memories? By dreams I mean the positive, life-affirming variety. . . . When memories exceed dreams, the end is near. . . . In societies that have more memories than dreams, too many people are spending too many days looking backward” (p. 553).
What can we imagine for the future? Since more people rely on technology for their information, as a church we need to make sure we stay at the cutting edge of the flattening process—while also affirming the importance of direct, human-to-human contact. We need to keep our Web sites up-to-date by using the free Web services offered by TagNet, the North American Division, and other faith-friendly providers.
The increasing popularity of blogs (“Weblogs”), resembling the personal diaries so common in the past, can be read online by anyone. Interactive options allow readers to comment on what they’ve read. A whole new arena for witness is emerging as Web-friendly young Adventists use blogs to share the gospel and build networks of like-minded believers.
PodCasts are gaining quickly in popularity. Audio or video files are transferred to an MP3 player such as an iPod or listened to directly on your computer, freeing the message from the box of the computer—and the wires.
Within a few years, software now being perfected will be able to translate the human voice into any language and transmit the words to paper for distribution.

The church’s ability to communicate to millions who would not otherwise receive information about our message is truly staggering. God has made it possible for us to reach new audiences in miraculous ways.

The brave new world certainly has its downsides: we know about the evils compounded by technology that purveys child pornography and inappropriate downloads. But the overall impact of flattening technology for the church’s mission is undeniably positive. All of this does not mean that traditional delivery systems—print, radio, television—are now obsolete. You have the option—the choice—to read these words in a magazine or on a screen. Additionally, the “digital divide,” through which “haves” and “have nots” access information in different ways, will continue to require that the church make ample use of more traditional media.4
Structure and Church Leadership
Friedman suggests that a flat world will also change the way we relate to one another in our organizational structures. “Everywhere you turn, hierarchies are being challenged from below or transforming themselves from top-down structures into more horizontal and collaborative ones. . . . It is not simply about how government, business, and people communicate, not just about how organizations interact, but is about the emergence of completely new social, political, and business models” (p. 48).
2007 1536 page8Do these new trends suggest that the church will also need to become “flatter”—less hierarchical—and more horizontal and collaborative?
In the world as we have known it, hierarchical organizations were those best positioned to achieve important missions. It should surprise no one that a mission-minded church such as ours has historically been hierarchical, with the General Conference at the top followed by the division, union, conference, and local church. A flatter church, however, will recognize the importance of structure and respect leadership, but will become less centralized and more focused on the health of local congregations, even as it seeks to raise their sights to understand believers far distant from themselves. We will increasingly be held together by a voluntary and spiritual compact to respect the decisions made by the various levels of church governance rather than acceptance of top-down authority.
For most of its history, Adventist administration and governance was populated by White male North Americans. But dramatic changes have taken place as the church has gone global. In 1954 the North American Division constituted 29 percent of the world’s membership; by 2004 that percentage had declined to 7 percent. In fact, in the five years between 2000 and 2004 the South American Division baptized more individuals than North America’s entire membership. At times the globalization of the church has produced tensions with different needs, approaches, theologies, and philosophies being advocated in world meetings by differing areas of the church. Those challenges will continue—and increase—in the years ahead.
The international basis of a flattened church is increasingly seen in the church’s world leadership. The Adventist Church’s top three officers include a European as president, an African as secretary, and a North American as treasurer. The 2005 General Conference world session elected females for the first time as a general vice president, an associate secretary, and an associate treasurer. For the first time an African was elected as an associate treasurer. Leaders from Mexico and China serve as general vice presidents. Departments of the world headquarters represent every region of a diverse, multicultural organization, illustrating a flat church.
My wife and I have witnessed this globalization in our own family. Our son, Trevan, married Shari Pottinger, born in Honduras to missionary parents. Her father is a native of Costa Rica, but one of his parents hails from Jamaica. Shari’s mother was born in Belize, but her ancestors came from India. Our daughter married Patrick Ng, a native Californian whose parents are from China. Heather and Trevan are English, Irish, French, and German. With the birth of our first grandchild, Ainsley Rebecca, to our daughter, we are already enjoying global grandchildren.
A flat church that is less vertical, more horizontal and collaborative in relationships will demand leaders who take on even more effectively the role of a servant leader, modeling the way Jesus Christ related to people. Friedman would call this “flipping the playing field from largely top-down to more side-to-side” (p. 208).
Jesus articulated important principles for leaders in a flat world: “Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted” (Matt. 23:10-12, KJV).
But how about the local church? Friedman suggests that communities need to “glocalize” the possibilities suggested by a flat world. Reggie McNeal, a Baptist leadership development director, worries that American Protestant churches have developed a “club member mentality” in which members “prefer to bullhorn people rather than engage them personally and up close.”5 This represents a special challenge for engaging young adults in Adventist congregations. At a time in life when they are most sensitive to issues of fairness and inclusiveness, they need to be met by local churches that reach 
out to them. If the local church flattened its approach, all age, income, gender, and ethnic groups would be actively involved in leadership as elders, deacons, deaconesses, Sabbath school leaders, participants in evangelism, and members of service and outreach projects. Think what such a flattening would accomplish in energizing the church for mission!
Friedman argues that a flat world calls for a change in how we relate to one another. “When the world starts to move from a primarily vertical (command and control) value creation model to an increasingly horizontal (connect and collaborate) creation model, it doesn’t affect just how business gets done. It affects everything—how communities stop and start, how individuals balance their different identities as consumers, employers, shareholders, and citizens, and what role government has to play” (first ed., p. 201).
What are the implications for those of us who are church leaders, workers, and members?
Counsel and examples from the Bible suggest we should flatten the ways we work with one another—moving from command-and-control models to ones in which we connect and collaborate on a horizontal basis of shared purpose and empathy.
Paul wrote: “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:26-29).
Or, as J. B. Phillips translates this text: “All of you who were baptized ‘into’ Christ have put on the family likeness of Christ. Gone is the distinction between Jew and Greek, slave and free man, male and female—you are all one in Christ Jesus!”
“The family likeness of Christ”—that ought to be one of our highest goals: to become the global family in which the differences between Caucasians, Asians, Africans, Hispanics, Indians, Arabs, and Jews are flattened; where males and females relate to one another as equals; where all of us as family are one in Jesus Christ through our baptism into Him.
Does this mean that we lose our identity as males and females or persons from Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Italy, Greece, Mexico, or Iraq? Do we disappear as mothers and fathers? As teachers and students? As pastors and parishioners? No, it means that as Christians we now belong to one another, and those former distinctions begin to lose their significance. We are united through God’s calling to become one in Jesus Christ. We still have different roles and responsibilities, but there’s no room in God’s new family for boasting or operating by a command-and-control model. Our mission—should we choose to accept it—is to connect and collaborate with one another in service to Jesus Christ.
As Ellen White wrote: “No distinction on account of nationality, race, or caste is recognized by God. He is the Maker of all mankind. All men [people] are of one family by creation, and all are one through redemption. Christ came to demolish every wall of partition . . . that every soul may have free access to God. His love is so broad, so deep, so full, that it penetrates everywhere.”6
As church members, we carry out this flatness by listening to one another in openness; by showing empathy, by being aware of one another’s needs, and by working on healing the divisions that may come from our differences; by using persuasion rather than authority or superiority; by being committed to helping one another grow; by building community; by greeting one another with warmth as we pass one another; by learning from those we teach and listening to those to whom we preach; by finding common—and holy—ground between liberals and conservatives; by reaching out to those who are poor in spirit and income; by being what General Conference president Jan Paulsen called the “church of the open door”; and by modeling integrity—all of this growing out of our desire to unleash the potential of one another in loving Christian relationships and to serve one another in the name of the great Servant of us all.
When we come to the cross of Jesus Christ, we are in a flat world where all that matters is our belief in His saving grace. The ultimate flattening of the world—and the church—will come at the second coming of Jesus Christ when “he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him” (Rev. 1:7, KJV).
1Thomas L. Friedman, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. Updated and Expanded (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1st edition, 2005; 2nd edition, 2006). One year after initial publication, Friedman released what he termed his “2.0 Release” with 100 additional pages updated and expanded. All references in this article come from the 2nd edition unless otherwise noted.
2“The Speed of Change,”
3Time, December 13, 2006.
4Toward the end of his book, Friedman acknowledges: “I know that the world is not flat. Don’t worry. I know. I am certain, though, that the world has been shrinking for some time now, and that process has quickened dramatically in recent years. Half the world today is directly or indirectly participating in the flattening process or feeling its effect. I have engaged in literary license in titling this book The World Is Flat to draw attention to this flattening and its quickening pace because I think it is the single most important trend in the world today. But I am equally certain that it is not historically inevitable that the rest of the world will become flat or that the already flat parts of the world won’t get unflattened by war, economic disruption, or politics. There are hundreds of millions of people on this planet who have been left behind by the flattening process or feel overwhelmed by it, and some of them have enough access to the flattening tools to use them against the system, not on its behalf” (pp. 460, 461).
5Reggie McNeal, The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003), p. 39.
6Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1900), p. 386.
Richard Osborn is president of Pacific Union College in Angwin, California.