Friday, December 20, 2013

Find-A-Church, Advent, and the global-local tension

Contemporary Americans often like to pretend that the Internet has ushered in some sort of utopic, post-geographic future.  While technology does substantially reshape how we connect across distance (this blog being just one example), it is far from erasing the relevance of geography.  Location still matters, sometimes despite technology and sometimes because it shapes how we can access technology.  That's why it's interesting to reflect on a recent news story about efforts to expand the UMC's Find-A-Church online directory beyond the United States.

On the one hand, the expansion of Find-A-Church beyond US borders seems to be a triumph of technology over geography.  By incorporating all of the United Methodist world into this online portal, the website seems to be erasing the geographic distinctions that so often plague our denominations.  Find-A-Church will no longer will be limited to the US center and marginalize the rest of the world.  That's a good development and represents an appropriate extension of church resources to serve the entire connection and not just the US.

Yet a global Find-A-Church does not end geography within the UMC.  Beyond issues of access or participation, even a perfectly comprehensive and universally accessible list of UMC churches would not end geography.  That's because the entire point of Find-A-Church is to find local congregations, which are what make up the UMC.  The connection may be a global thing that transcends geography, but we experience in most in local ways.  Efforts to institute online communion or other forms of internet church aside, there is no "global church" in the sense of a corporate worshiping fellowship.  The global church only exists in and through its local congregations.

Perhaps that's a good thing to reflect on in this Advent seasons when we remember the incarnation of Jesus Christ.  God does exist beyond any local instance, but God still recognized the importance of taking on a local body in the form of a baby born in a manager.  Moreover, God becoming local was not a problem for our view of God; it solved the problem of our sin and alienation from God.  Local churches can sometimes be frustrating places because they're where we come face to face with other pressing-on-to-perfection-but-by-no-means-there-yet Christians.  It can be tempting to retreat to platitudes about the world-wide fellowship of believers as an alternative to doing the hard work of getting along with fellow congregants.  Yet Advent and Find-A-Church both remind us that the local is where we meet God.  May you meet God anew in your local church this Christmas time.

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