by Delia Nüesch-Olver
Understanding the five major challenges the Church faces today: urbanization, world unemployment, hunger, AIDS and the relevance of the Christian faith.
Our world faces many challenges and threats, from globalization and postmodernism, to poverty and disease, to human migration and religious fundamentalism. Given the enormous challenges and threats, it is only under the leadership of God’s Holy Spirit that we will be able to both discern a sense of direction and effectively call the Church of Jesus Christ to its task. We must, as missiologists, help the Church understand the environment in which it is delivering the good news of Jesus Christ. This is necessary so that the Church will be able to focus its strategies to reach as many as possible with the gospel.
There are five major challenges facing the Church as it prepares missiological strategies in the twenty-first century: urbanization, world unemployment, hunger, AIDS and the relevance of the Christian faith. These must be understood in the context of globalization—a process by which “people all over the world are exposed to and affected by ideas, issues and cultures from other places” (Bradshaw 2001, 1-34). It must also be done as the world becomes rapidly smaller, increasingly more complex and filled with far-reaching global linkages.
There is a sense in which urbanization and globalization are two sides of the same coin. Although globalization affects people in less-populated, rural places, it is an extension of and is intensified by the growing trend of urbanization. Although we talk about the “global village,” we would be more accurate to use the term “global city.” In numerous places in the world, cities have grown to the point where they have geographically engulfed each other to form a megalopolis. In the same way, globalization can be seen as the by-product of the interlocking influence of cities.
Nearly one hundred years ago, London was the only super-city in the world and only nine percent of the world’s population lived in urban areas. Only fifty years later, in 1950, twenty-seven percent of the world’s population lived in cities.
By 2000 the dawn of the Urban World began, when for the first time in human history, more than fifty percent of the earth’s population lived in cities. The urban population continues to grow. According to Erla Zwingle, many cities around the world are gaining a million people a week (2002, 79-80). The United Nations (which offers the most conservative growth estimate I have found) projects that by 2025 over sixty percent of the world’s estimated 8.3 billion people will live in urban areas. Because people are continually moving into and out of urban areas, it is more difficult to develop stable churches in cities. However, this also creates the opportunity for global evangelization as people find themselves relocating from one city to another.
Although I grew up in Buenos Aires, Argentina, I live in Rainier Valley near Seattle, Washington. Surveys from the local newspaper state that some one hundred languages and dialects are spoken within a one-mile radius of where I live. Many people in the area keep strong ties with their country of origin through visits, phone calls and emails. If residents in Seattle reach the unevangelized in their neighborhoods, these new believers may influence friends and family around the world.
When I was growing up, people often joked that every Argentinean has a cousin in New York. This is probably true and we stay in touch!
Often, people who move to the city are not just moving away from something, they are also moving toward something. People move to the city desiring change, yearning for new experiences, expecting to be exposed to new ideas and wanting 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,” thus opening doors for the gospel (Walls 2002).
Any discussion about the mission of the Church in the twenty-first century must include an urban strategy. Cities are strategic centers of influence, business and finance, and hubs of communication, transportation, education and entertainment. To reach the world for Christ, we must not only include urban ministry, we must prioritize it. Developing strategies for reaching the world’s urban areas for Christ cannot be based on the same methodologies or approaches that may or may not have worked elsewhere in other times. To reach the world’s cities for Christ we will have to rediscover, develop and make known theologies of urban mission that touch people where they live and where they hurt. Our strategies must be holistic and relevant. They must direct the gospel and transformational ministries toward the most urgent social and economic challenges.
Globalization and urbanization are two contributing factors to the largest world unemployment ever experienced. On January 24, 2003 the International Labour Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, reported that world unemployment had reached 180 million people (The New York Times 2003). At about the same time the United Nations Labor Agency reported that in the previous two years alone the number of jobless worldwide had risen by twenty million people and that hundreds of millions more were employed but were making so little money they could barely survive (The Manila Times 2003). In many areas of the world, young people are the most affected by unemployment. In the Middle East and North Africa, twenty-five percent of young people are out of work and university graduates often find it impossible to land a job (Middle East Insight Report 2003).
Even these alarming statistics hide significant information. The number of unemployed people in large regions of the world is impossible to measure because official statistics often fail to reflect the reality of joblessness. As part of the debate on world unemployment, The Associated Press reported in 2002 that the number of “working poor” (people mainly in developing countries that earn less than the equivalent of one US dollar a day) had risen drastically. By the end of 2002, there were more than 550 million working poor (The Manila Times 2003). Not surprisingly, there is also a growing gap between rich and poor both globally and within many countries.
We must ask ourselves: How does world unemployment impact the Church and the proclamation of the gospel? A holistic urban strategy will engage both the unemployed and the factors that create unemployment.
I grew up in a “Salvation Army family,” where we talked about founder William Booth as if he were a great uncle. Booth’s teaching regarding “soup, soap and salvation” is deeply ingrained in my conscience: Don’t preach to someone with an empty stomach. Feed them first. Those who are cold and hungry need to have their primary material needs met so that their hearts and minds can grasp the gospel as it is offered to them. What shaped my young heart now shapes my conviction that world hunger must be included as one of the major challenges the Church faces as it strategizes for the twenty-first century.
On February 25, 2003 James Morris, executive director of the World Food Program, released a report. After reminding his international audience that the world is being devastated by AIDS and torn apart by war, he concluded that the world’s most enduring crisis is hunger. Morris emphatically pronounced, “The world is losing the war on hunger.”
Research conducted by the World Food Program and supporting international agencies indicates there are eight hundred million chronically hungry people in the world today, and that twenty-four thousand people around the world starve to death every day. Shockingly, a child dies from hunger every seven seconds.
The causes for these facts and figures are not difficult to identify: world unemployment, millions of people responsible for growing and producing food in Africa are dying of AIDS, famine triggered by catastrophic weather and wars.
We must ask ourselves: How does world hunger impact the Church and the proclamation of the gospel? A holistic urban strategy will feed hungry bodies as well as souls, and address the factors that cause massive hunger.
The spread of HIV/AIDS is overwhelming. Numerous sources indicate that worldwide there were approximately 3.5 million new infections in 2002. That’s more than fourteen thousand new infections occurring daily.
According to Michael Klesius, ninety percent of people with AIDS live in Africa, South and Southeast Asia and Latin America (2002, 36-37). The United Nations reports that AIDS kills some six thousand people each day in Africa alone—more than wars, famines and floods. In four countries—Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and Zimbabwe—at least one in three persons is HIV positive (USAID 2000).
The devastation AIDS is causing is far worse than what was predicted. First, there is the suffering of the infected individual. Second, there is the enormous strain on healthcare systems. Third, there is the effect on victims’ families. In Africa alone there are over twelve million children orphaned by AIDS (Weiss 2002, 12). Fourth, in some parts of the world AIDS is contributing to the spread of famine, as key workers are lost to the disease. The International Labour Organization estimated that some African nations had thirty-five percent fewer workers in 2003 due to HIV/AIDS. Because women grow sixty to eighty percent of the food in Africa, the high rates of HIV/AIDS among women will have a devastating impact on the food supply, increasing the likelihood of food scarcity and widespread malnutrition (International Labour Organization 2000).
The stigma attached to being infected with HIV/AIDS also leads to the spread of the disease. Hunger may force women into prostitution, thus increasing the number of victims. According to Klesius, “The United Nations World Population Prospects Report estimates AIDS deaths in the fifty-three worst-affected countries as forty-six million in the first decade of this century … [and] that figure is projected to ascend to 278 million by 2050” (2002, 36-37).
We must ask ourselves: How does AIDS impact the Church and the proclamation of the gospel? A holistic urban strategy will care for the body and the soul of the victims of AIDS, and work toward both prevention and cure.
The four issues listed above—urbanization, unemployment, hunger and AIDS—are necessary to address if the Church is to fulfill its mission of world evangelization. Urban ministry is vital to fulfilling this mission. To be effective in the propagation of the gospel in our world we must think of urbanization not just as the context for the gospel or merely the environment in which it needs to be proclaimed. Rather, globalization and urbanization present great opportunities for the Church of Jesus Christ to address the crisis issues of unemployment, hunger and AIDS, thus showing the gospel to be potent and relevant to those who do not yet know Christ. Will the Christian faith be proven relevant through our urban strategies?
RELEVANCE OF THE CHRISTIAN FAITH
My colleague Miriam Adeney recently returned from a sabbatical that took her to a number of countries in Southeast Asia. In one country she led a week-long course for Christian community development directors. She was asked to focus on biblical and theological foundations for community development. At the conclusion of the course one of the directors, a Christian leader and well-known preacher in his context, said to her, “We’ve been studying the Bible to prepare for sermons. But now through this course we see that the Bible applies to life.”
How does the Bible apply to those affected by the downside of globalization? How does the Bible apply to people living in stressful urban environments with paralyzing traffic, unhealthy levels of pollution and noise, high costs of living, substandard living conditions, economic disparity, psychological overload and violence? Urbanization is not just about masses of people living in close proximity. How does the Bible apply to the intricate webs of social, political and economic structures that make a city a city?
The words of Jesus found in Luke 4:18-19 speak directly to these major challenges:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
What do such words mean for us today? I am not asking the question from a human perspective. I am not asking how an individual or a political system would address the issues. I am asking how our faith responds to such challenges. What answers does the Church of Jesus Christ offer to such overwhelming concerns?
OUR MISSION IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY
These models address the issues of unemployment (directly) and hunger (indirectly). Their influence is transforming communities, affecting political systems, making an impact for local and world evangelization and building the Church of Jesus Christ.
However, the needs are so vast that significantly more response is needed beyond models that empower individuals and local churches to meet their own needs. Hunger and HIV/AIDS require prayerful strategies and radical generosity flowing from those who have resources to those who do not.
The challenge in the twenty-first century is to present the Christian faith in a way that is culturally relevant. Given the context and conditions described above, the major focus of the Christian Church should be to develop urban, holistic ministries (which touch people where they live and hurt) so that the life-changing gospel of Jesus Christ can transform individuals, cities and societies.
Bradshaw, York W., Joseph Healy and Rebecca Smith, eds. 2001. Sociology for a New Century. Boston, Mass.: Pine Forge Press.
International Labour Organization. 2000. Accessed March 8, 2003 from www.fao.org/documents/show_cdr.asp?url_file=/docrep/x0250e03.htm.
Klesius, Michael. 2002. “Search for a Cure.” National Geographic. February, 36-37.
Middle East Insight Report. 2003. “The Role of Women in Iranian Society.” Accessed March 10, 2003 from www.mideastinsight.org.
The Manila Times. 2003. “180 Million Unemployed Worldwide, Set to Rise.” 25
The New York Times. 2003. “World Unemployment Reaches 180 Million.” 24 January.
U.S. Agency for International Development Press Release. 2000. “New Data Shows Tremendous Impact of AIDS on Developing World.” 10 July.
Walls, Andrew. 2002. Lecture presented at the American Society of Missiology Annual Meeting. Techny Towers, Techny, Illinois. June.
Weiss, Rick. 2002. “Challenges for Humanity: War on Disease.” National Geographic. February, 12.
World Food Program. 1996. Annual report of the executive director. Accessed March 10, 2003 from www.wfp.org/eb/docs/1997/wfp000342~3.pdf.
Zwingle, Erla. 2002. “Global Cities.” National Geographic. November, 79-80.
Delia Nüesch-Olver has spent thirty years in church ministry as a pastor, church planter and denominational leader. She is associate professor of global & urban ministries at Seattle Pacific University.
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