06/08/2010 05:02 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Global Christianity and a Concern for the Poor

Last October I attended a ministry conference with 12,000 other church leaders. The event was held in a sports arena and featured the usual arsenal of multi-media wizardry along with popular Christian bands, high-profile pastors, and marketplace gurus. But what differentiated this conference from a similar event 10 years ago was the pervasive presence of justice issues. Compassion International and a film about human trafficking were given significant time from the platform. A popular comedian spoke to the church leaders about his time visiting orphans in Africa, and there were endless plugs to donate old cars, shoes, and other items to help the poor or to fund the digging of wells for clean water. Surrounding the arena were also dozens of booths populated by ministries advocating free-trade products, the alleviation of third-world debt, children's health, human rights, and the distribution of mosquito nets to prevent malaria.

This sudden popularity of global justice has caught some older evangelicals off guard. They are concerned that the under-40 crowd is abandoning conservative theology in favor of a social gospel. What they fail to realize is that my generation is not rejecting Christian orthodoxy. We are rejecting the false dichotomy that the American church has perpetuated for the last century. We refuse to believe that the message of Christ is either social or spiritual, eternal or temporal. Earlier generations of evangelicals were more interested in saving souls than seeking justice because a cup of cold water would be little comfort in the flames of hell. But my generation cannot shake the global perspective imprinted on our minds from our childhoods. The gospel, we believe, must have relevance for this world and not simply the next.

But those, like me, who welcome this more holistic understanding of Christ's mission in the world need to pause and ask why the younger generation is awakening to issues of social justice. Some would like to believe it's because we're actually reading our Bibles more faithfully -- including the sections often overlooked in the past that speak of God's concern for the poor, marginalized, abused, and exploited. Some think evangelicals are awakening to social justice as they interact more with Roman Catholic and Mainline Protestants who have a robust and established theology of justice. But there may be more than the Bible behind this revival of justice among younger evangelicals. There may also be Boeing.

Forty years ago the Boeing 747 entered commercial service flying passengers between between New York and London. While the spectators marveled at the technological achievement -- no one had seen 700,000 pounds of aluminum fly before -- no one in the crowd realized that they were also witnessing a sociological revolution -- no one except Juan Trippe. Trippe was president of PanAm, the first airline to purchase the massive new Boeing. The visionary businessman knew the huge plane would change air travel, but he predicted much more. Before the plane had even left the drawing board, Trippe said that the 747 would be "a great weapon for peace, competing with intercontinental missiles for mankind's destiny."

His remarks may have been interpreted as hyperbole in 1970, but most now agree that the Boeing 747 has been a significant catalyst of globalization. The Jumbo Jet, as it was affectionately nicknamed, represented a huge increase in passenger capacity compared with earlier airliners, which in turn lowered the cost of flying. As a result, the 747 made long-range, intercontinental travel accessible to millions of people for the first time. To use Thomas Friedman's phrase, the Jumbo Jet was instrumental in making the world flat.

Since the 747's debut a generation ago, more than 3.5 billion people have flown on the plane -- more than half of the world's population. The airliner has facilitated the intermingling and redistribution of people on a scale unprecedented in history. The fact that more immigrants have arrived in the United States through JFK, LAX, and Miami International airports than through Ellis Island verifies the world-changing impact of Boeing's "queen of the skies."

On a personal note, I owe a great debt to the airplane. My family could not have been formed, and I could not have been born, in a world prior to the Jumbo Jet. Affordable intercontinental travel made it possible for my father from India and my mother from Chicago to meet. And my first flight on a Jumbo Jet occurred when I was just two years old, and before graduating high school I had already visited dozens of foreign countries.

While few kids traveled as extensively as I did, even my suburban-bound peers did not escape the 747's impact. Our public school saw a steady influx of immigrants from South Asia, refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia, and kids whose parents' careers brought them to the US from Korea, South Africa, or Germany. The same Jumbo Jets that distributed and united my family around the world also brought the world to my neighborhood, classroom, and playground.

Of course globalization cannot be credited to the 747 alone. But the plane's launch 40 years ago does represent the start of a rapid acceleration of technological advancements that have made the world smaller. Advances in satellite and telecom technology beginning in the 1970s made instant global communication a reality. Live international news meant we were the first generation to watch world history unfold live on our televisions. We saw hostages being released in Iran. We watched the Space Shuttle Challenger explode on the TVs in our classrooms. And I recall my Saturday morning cartoons being interrupted by Chinese students protesting in Tienanmen Square.

And while my parents' generation may have experienced the British Invasion, global themes within pop culture had become normative by the 1980s. Michael Jackson led a pantheon of pop deities in singing "We Are the World." LiveAid, a rock concert to help the victims of famine in Ethiopia, was a simultaneous event held in the United Stated, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Australia. Over 400 million people watched in 60 countries, making it one of the largest live broadcasts in history.

The spread of globalization inaugurated by the Boeing 747, accelerated by telecommunications, and brought to full maturity by the World Wide Web, has transformed the world more than even Juan Trippe predicted 40 years ago. And those of us born after 1970 have been shaped and influenced by these world-flattening forces. We have grown up in a context of greater diversity, cultural awareness, and global accessibility. We have seen more of the world on our televisions, visited more of the world thanks to affordable intercontinental travel, and welcomed more of the world into our communities than any other generation in history. We are the Jumbo Jet Generation.

The impact of globalization on my generation helps explain why the North American church is now witnessing a surge in popularity around issues of global justice. But before Christians (and specifically evangelicals) parade their new commitment to justice as a badge of pride and evidence of their love for their global neighbors, they need to remember it is not a uniquely Christian phenomenon. Young people of all faiths, and none at all, have also been shaped by the world-flattening forces inaugurated 40 years ago by the 747. They, too, are showing an increased commitment to matters of justice and global compassion.

Obviously the Jumbo Jet Generation isn't the first in the church to care about poverty, injustice, and global matters. Earlier eras have included Christians who also rejected the social/spiritual dichotomy pushed by the American church. And there are prominent evangelical Baby Boomers, like Rick Warren, who have discovered the wider mission of the gospel and are advocating for the social and physical dimensions of the church's mission. But what sets the younger generation apart is the scope of this awareness. Most of us didn't need to be convinced that justice matters. We can't recall having an "Ah ha!" moment like Rick Warren did when God's concern for the poor suddenly jumped out at him from the pages of Scripture. Justice is native to our understanding of God and the world.

The rapid globalization of culture that has marked the four decades since the 747's first flight helps explain why global justice is dominating the conversation among my generation in the church. But looking more carefully at how the Jumbo Jet Generation is pursuing justice reveals there may be turbulence ahead. That's a post for another day.