Institutions today in the Western world must come to grips with the reality of the increasing appeal of the local.
Where I live, local farmers’ markets are springing up everywhere. People want to know where their food is coming from. They want to shop locally and to be able to ride a bike to work, and walk to their neighbourhood pub or restaurant. People are choosing to stay closer to home as serious questions are increasingly being raised about the impact upon the environment of international travel.
People want to know their neighbours and work together for the well-being of their local community. They want to have a say in how the land around their homes is used and what urban plans for transportation and growth are being developed.
The challenge for the church in localization is to accept that bigger may no longer be better. People want to know and be known. There is a deep longing in our communities for real connection. Commuter churches in which individuals drive half an hour to sit next to people they will not see again for the rest of the week, will have less appeal in a culture that is increasingly drawn to intimacy, authenticity, and accountability.
The danger of localization is that the community becomes myopic. A small local group is insulated from having to see differences. As long as a church remains small enough, its members seldom have to deal seriously with the uncomfortable reality that the human community is a complex and diverse reality.
Localization can lead to a small insular mentality in which our only concern is for the limited circle of interest that affects our immediate world. We risk retreating into smaller and smaller special interest groups in which we relate only to those people with whom we find ourselves in comfortable agreement. As the requirement for agreement grows, the capacity for diversity diminishes.
The risk for the church in localization can be seen in the continuing tragic tendency of Protestant denominations to divide and divide and divide. The travesty of 30,000 Protestant denominational divisions around the world is a sure sign of an immature community that has been unable to embrace the differences that globalization have made unavoidable.
The beauty of localization is that people feel empowered to be involved in shaping their communities and taking responsibility for the well-being of the world they inhabit. Localization moves us away from the terrible dehumanizing effects of oversized institutions that are unable to take seriously the real needs, concerns, and aspirations of people in local communities.
In the smaller more local church, there is a chance that the entropy of anonymity may be overcome. It is possible in smaller communities for people to know one another more intimately and to enter into more supportive, caring, and accountable relationship. The move towards local expresses a deep longing for connection that cannot be fulfilled by larger more impersonal communities.
The church often seems frightened by small. It can be difficult to pay the bills when numbers are down. But, as long as they can make ends meet, there can be a compensating beauty and life that is manifest in smaller worshiping communities. The general move in our culture towards local, may point in a positive direction for the future of the church as forces over which we have little control, seem to be causing our numbers to drop. It may be that, even in decline we can discover that, as Paul wrote, “all things work together for good for those who love God.” (Romans 8:28)