Challenges of Urban Missions
In 1700 fewer than two percent of the world’s population lived in urban places. Beijing and London were the only cities that had populations surpassing one million. By 1900 an estimated nine percent of the world’s population was urban. London was then the only “super-city” on the globe. In 1950 twenty-seven percent of the world’s population lived in cities and seventy-three percent of the world’s people lived on the land. By 1996 however, the world was growing by 86 million people a year and for the first time more than fifty percent of the world’s population lived in cities. While the rural percentage of the world’s population is declining, rural population is still growing in absolute numbers. The United Nations—which offers the most conservative growth estimate—projects that by 2025 over sixty percent of the world's estimated 8.3 billion people will live in urban areas.
According to the World Heritage Centre, by 2020 the urban population of Asia will be around 2.5 billion, having doubled in twenty-five years. By then more than half of the urban areas of the planet will be in Asia, and those urban areas alone will contain over one-third of the world’s population. The same organization predicts that the cities of Asia will be growing twice as fast as cities in the rest of the world.
For all the challenges of urban areas—traffic, pollution, noise, high cost of living, crowded and often substandard living conditions, economic disparity, stress, psychological overload, long hours of commuting and violence—cities provide people in the developing world the best hope of education and income. People continue to be drawn to the city through migration and immigration.
As a heart pumps blood back and forth throughout a body, cities pump people around, on both a short-term and long-term basis. This makes it harder to develop stable churches in cities, but it creates the opportunity for global evangelisation as people find themselves relocated from one city to another.
Surely, God has a purpose in this.
Whether through migration or immigration, the socially dislocating experience of moving into a city tends to loosen ties to local divinities and opens doors for the gospel.
Often, people who move to the city are not just moving away from something, but moving toward something as well. People move to the city wanting change, yearning for new things, expecting to be exposed to new ideas and desiring to make a new start. Whether through migration or immigration, the socially dislocating experience of moving into a city tends to “loosen ties to local divinities,” and opens doors for the gospel.
Given these facts and predictions, any discussion about the mission of the Church for the twenty-first century must include urban strategy. Furthermore, because of the strategic nature of cities as (1) centres of influence, business and finance and (2) hubs of communication and transportation, education, entertainment, power and influence, to reach the world for Christ we will have to not merely include urban ministry but prioritize it. In fact, we cannot evangelize the world unless we reach the vast, growing and influential urban centres of the world.
Glenn Smith has been the executive director of Christian Direction in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, since 1983. He is a professor of urban theology and missiology at the École de théologie évangelique de Montréal at the Université de Montréal and at the Université chrétienne du Nord d’Haïti. Smith and his family were involved in pastoral ministry with an Anabaptist Francophone congregation in Montreal for twenty years.
by Glenn Smith