by Harvie M.Conn
The world is becoming more and more urban. At the beginning of this century, 15 percent of our world lived in cities. By 2000, if the Lord tarries, it will reach at least 55 percent.
The world is becoming more and more urban. At the beginning of this century, 15 percent of our world lived in cities. By 1950, that figure rose to 28 percent. By 1975, it was 41 percent. By 2000, if the Lord tarries, it will reach at least 55 percent. At that time at least 3.2 billion people will be living in cities, a total equal to the entire world’s population of 1965.
Much of that growth is taking place in areas traditionally called mission fields. By the end of the century, more than two-thirds of the world’s total urban population will be living in what are called less developed countries. Currently, 61 percent of the Latin American population lives in places of 20,000 or more, a 22 percent increase since 1950. Every year between 1985 and 2000, over 11 million new persons will live in Latin American cities. The urbanization process took over a century in North America. In Latin America it is being compressed into a few short decades.
Africa is the least urbanized of the continents. As of 1980, only one out of four people in Africa lived in urban areas. Yet Peter Tugkind says "it has the fastest rate of urban growth in the world" (Urban Anthropology, Van Gorcurn and Co., 1974, p. 9). Between 1850 and 1950, the United Nations estimates Africa’s annual rate of urban growth as at least 3.9 percent compared with 2.6 percent for the world as a whole. The rise of the cities is one of the most significant events behind the great transformation of contemporary Africa. North Africa is the most urbanized. All the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea have between two-fifths and three-fifths of their population in places of 20,000 or more inhabitants.
Generalizations in Asia are difficult to make. Until 200 years ago, Asia contained more city dwellers than the rest of the world combined. And, if present demographic trends continue, by the year 2000 the continent of Asia again will have more city dwellers than any other continent. At least one-third of the total urban population of the world is now found in Asia, By the year 2025 six of the top nine supercities in the world will be in Asia.
Statistics for the Anglo-Saxon world are equally startling. 1972 figures based on population living in cities of 100,000 or more list Australia as 84.4 percent urban. North America 75.1 percent, and Europe 63 percent.
Until very recently church growth research has been rural in its focus of attention. Our definitions of "un-reached peoples" have concentrated on stable, traditional societies and on macro-religious systems-Chinese, Muslim, Hindus. Animism in its tribal form is being explored for its potential for church planting. Case studies continue to pour off the presses. But with rare exceptions, they are oriented to country-wide or to denominational studies. Seldom do we get books like Robert Bolton’s 1976 study of the urban Minnan Chinese, Treasure Island, or the 1960s work of James Alter and Herbert Singh, The Church in Delhi.
Until recently, sister studies in cultural anthropology have followed the same direction. But in the 1960s, the new discipline of urban anthropology emerged to concentrate earlier lessons learned on the study of world cities. The discipline, however, remains young. It struggles with how to apply methods and lessons learned in the study of narrowed contexts to the larger ones of whole cities. And rarely, if ever, does one find wrestling of a positive (or even negative sort) with the presence of the church in Third World cities.
In the meantime, the evangelical church finds itself hampered by an anti-urban bias fed by mythologies of the past and by colleges and seminaries located in rural and suburban areas. Few of North America’s evangelical candidates for the mission field see the Scriptures or the world with urban eyes. A 1983 title by James D. Hunter notes that "evangelicals are grossly under-represented in the large cities," Only 8.6 percent surveyed by Hunter were in cities of one million or more (American Evangelism, Rutgers University Press, 1983, pp. 52-53, 59). How can we recruit missionary personnel for reaching our urban generations when the rural and suburban areas have nurtured their visions of the church?
The evangelical has not attacked the myths created about the cities in the West. What myths am I talking about? Those that incessantly picture the city as a place of crime, poverty, danger, and secularism. Those that assume the sins of the city are too big for us (even with God) to deal with ("You can’t fight city hall"). Those that assume a rural or suburban setting is somehow closer to God and better for our sanctification ("God made the country and man made the suburb, but the devil made the city"). Those that provoke us to fear, flight, and futility ("But what about our children?").
How do we demythologize? Only by recognizing the truth of Roger Greenway’s words, "He who wins the city wins the world." Only with an urban orientation commended for us in the words of Michael Pocock, of The Evangelical Alliance Mission, "Primitive tribal situations remain prime targets for missions, but will definitely decrease in the next 20 years."
Part of the answer is training for the cities in the cities. Training that combines the study with the street, that teaches people to move easily from the books to the barrios. Urban church planters must learn how to analyze a neighborhood for gospel potential by walking the streets and living with city people.
Neither is it enough simply to study the theology of missions. We must study the theology of urban missions. The Bible may start the history of God’s redeeming work in a garden. But when it ends, we find ourselves in an urban garden, a new Jerusalem. A transformed heaven and earth has become a "holy city" (Rev. 21:2). The New Testament becomes the record of the "first urban Christians" (to borrow the title of a new book by Wayne Meeks). And our missionary model is the man with whom we associate the names of cities like Philippi, Ephesus, Corinth, and Athens. How did urban mobility for Paul become gospel mobility? The Bible must become an urban book for us.
Such a study will be aided by a similar transformation in other areas of research. We need a curriculum studded with titles like, "History of Urban Ministry," "Urban Demographics," "Urban Missionary Anthropology," and "Urban Contextualization."
To quote Michael Pocock again, "If we don’t make this a priority, we won’t have the personnel for our urbanized generation." We have a vast pool of talent in North American cities yet to be utilized in this quest for urban workers-the black, Hispanic and Asian churches. Could one of the reasons for their twentieth century indifference to overseas service be the white, suburban mentality they easily discern in our board policies and outlook? We need schools and churches that will more effectively network among these churches and prepare co-laborers for a truly global urban task.
Things have begun to stir. A new evangelical journal. Urban Mission (P.O. Box 27009, Philadelphia, Pa 19118), has begun to awaken our conscience to the task. Westminster Theological Seminary, has developed three urban degree programs, all aimed at producing urban church planters on a global scale. Alliance Theological Seminary in New York opened an Institute for Urban Studies last summer. Discussions axe under way at Wheaton College for an Urban Institute.
Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship now holds a nationwide conference on the city every three years (though its emphasis is heavily on North America). A few mission boards (like Worldwide Evangelization Crusade) are beginning to talk and plan for urban mission orientation. A coalition of theological seminaries in. the Chicago area (under the acronym, SCUPE) offers urban internships of one year, with studies by adjunct faculty. A similar one-year study program links the Emmanuel Gospel Center of Boston with Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. The last two organizations focus mainly on the cities of North America. But they have much to offer those interested in a global perspective.
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