Missions to the cities

by Jim on 12 September 2007

Torre Mayor, Mexico City

Over the next few months, the world will reach a state that it likely hasn’t been in since the Tower of Babel.  According to a recent UN report, in 2008 (actually, starting this year) more than half of the world’s population will live in cities.  That’s about 3.3 billion people!

It’s safe to say that never before in history have so many people lived in cities.  From a Christian perspective, this highlights a challenge that we often forget about.  But we need to think about it.

In 1900, only 13% of the world lived in cities, which means there has been a huge leap in 107 years.  The UN estimates that the urban population will be 5 billion in 2030 (meaning that 3/5 people will live in cities).  In only 10 years the world may have nearly 500 cities of over a million, and in 2020 nine cities (including Mexico City) will have more than 20 million inhabitants.

That means a lot of contrast – take for example Mexico City, where the rich commute in helicopters (the rich here, by the way, are one of the groups least reached by the Gospel), and yet 40% of the population lives below the poverty line.  About a million people in the world live in slums – scheduled to double to 2 million by 2030.

People in cities include so-called unreached people groups, but these groups are sometimes more hidden than they would be deep in the jungle.  Cultural diversity is one challenge – these people may live close to a church, but that church may not speak their language, or may be so culturally different that it’s not relevant or understandable.

Mexico City stretching into the distance

Often Christian groups want to focus on "community outreach", but this doesn’t always work in today’s cities.  People are often more connected to cultural, family, or employment related groups and less to a local neighbourhood.  These networks may be more important than geography in the growing cities.  People in a church group may not be from the immediate area at all.

And we all know that there’s a different mentality in the cities.  People have come for different reasons, and they live at a different pace and do different things.  It’s easy for people to "disappear" in the cities, or simply keep to their own (narrow minded?) group (narrow minded at times, because you can cluster around your own "kind" very easily and avoid meaningful contact with others).

Cities are facing unique problems, and problems as big as the population.  Though Mexico City is still growing rapidly, it’s also facing big problems – homelessness, pollution, and crime are common issues.  About 1/3 of the people don’t even have basic sanitation service.  But the city is also running low on water, and every time water is used, the city sinks (it was built on a lake).  A report by Forbes suggested that Mexico City may be a ghost city by 2100.  Part of the challenge is that the city is in two states – an administration nightmare (and another reason why you see drastically different population estimates).

In Mexico’s cities (as in many countries, I’m sure), people are often moving around, disconnected from their roots, and looking for answers – a good and bad situation, as you may imagine.  There’s a window of opportunity in Mexico’s cities, and the Lord is working there.  But we need what we’ve always needed, only more so – prayer, love, partnerships, creativity, willingness, openness and courage – to reach people in the cities.

It’s a fast changing (and yet really not all that different), technological (though often not), diverse (and yet strangely conforming!) society.  And if we want to reach the unreached of the world, the cities can’t be ignored.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Dennis September 12, 2007 at 8:13 am

Great little post, Jim. So true…living in and ministering in a city requires different perspectives. Thanks for pointing this out.

Joel September 15, 2007 at 1:19 pm

Hi Jim, we agree that the city needs to be the focus of missions in this age of urban growth. You made some good points. Maybe it is semantics but I think that churches do still need to focus on “community outreach”- not just geographical community but rather looking with neighborhood and within neighborhoods at what makes them a community. Bryant Meyers talks about this some in _Walking With The Poor_. Broken community and relationship are the roots of many problems that we face in Mexico City. Let’s keep thinking about it and asking God to give us wisdom.

Jim September 15, 2007 at 1:27 pm

Thanks for your comments!

I don’t think it’s just semantics, Joel – I think we’re both right. 🙂 I’ve been thinking about writing a post just on that topic, because really it deserves more than a sentence or two.

I agree that we shouldn’t give up on community outreach. In fact, that may be the only way we can reach some people who are isolated from any community.

But I don’t think we should limit ourselves to just community outreach, especially in the city. If we do, I think we’re ignoring the reality of communities in today’s world.

There are often things that bind together geographical communities – we need to understand that. But I also think that many of those people are much more connected to non-geographical communities. I think we need to work with those natural networks when we can.

Joel September 17, 2007 at 3:46 pm

Hmmm. I still think that our use of the word “community” may be confusing in this discussion. We seem to be on the same page but in the last paragraph of your response, you used the words communities and networks to mean the same thing. That’s what I’m saying- “community outreach” means so much more than just a geographical grouping. We must look for the ways that people connect to others- work, school, kids, soccer, carnitas, etc. and build community around those things which then gives people a reason to better their neighborhoods and their lives. And we have a great Resource for that transformation.

Jim September 17, 2007 at 5:35 pm

Well, I guess we agree then! 🙂 What I was trying to say was that many churches are stuck on focusing on the local neighbourhood. Geographical. I just think we need to think outside the box a bit.

Of course, I’m really still including geography – I’m not talking necessarily about setting up a worldwide internet church for jugglers, for example. But I do think that in today’s cities you can’t focus on only reaching out to the immediate geographical area you’re in. We need to think more creatively.

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