International missions is shifting focus to urban centers, following migration patterns that in 2008 indicated that more than half the world's population lives in cities.
Fewer than 30 percent of the world's 2.5 billion people in 1950 lived in cities. By 2050, almost 70 percent of the world's estimated 10 billion people will do so, according to the United Nations.
"As the escalation of global urbanization has taken place, so has the urbanization of mission work," said Doug McConnell, dean of the School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary. Both local and full-time missionaries from the West are moving urban, he said.
"The world is connected, and what breaks my heart is that we are doing 21st-century missions with an 18th-century mindset and methodology," said Bob Roberts, pastor of Northwood Church in Keller, Texas, and an advocate for "glocal" ministry. "The heart of the spread of the gospel has always been in cities … since the days of Jerusalem and Antioch and Rome and then London. It has not changed, regardless of where the agencies have focused. Cities are central."
Fuller has seen so much interest in urban ministry that it recently combined two smaller programs on the topic into one larger one and expanded it, said McConnell.
The International Mission Board (IMB) of the Southern Baptist Convention is also concentrating more on cities, engaging 30 new urban centers in 2008 (up from 7 in 2007), including 27 cities with populations over 1 million.
"We've had an international global research team working to see where people are, so the fact that this has happened has not caught us by surprise," said IMB spokesperson Wendy Norvelle.
Scott A. Bessenecker, associate director of missions for InterVarsity, said there is "definitely an uptick" of interest in urban missions among young generations of missionaries. In recent years, more than 100 students have worked in urban slums via InterVarsity's Global Urban Trek program; about one-third commit to serving for two years.
New Tribes Mission agrees that the urban migration trend is "very much a reality," but believes it has increased, not diminished, the need for their work with unreached people groups, said Larry Goring, international coordinator for field ministries. "The transition to the acquired language and culture is often a very bumpy road for [tribal] people groups," he said. "[This is] probably a time the church needs to give special attention to them."
Most missionaries are still feeling their way. It's been decades since the Church of the Nazarene specifically targeted cities, according to general secretary David Wilson. And while the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is receiving more requests for mission workers in urban areas, the numbers aren't tracked, said Stephen Nelson, director for global service.
These denominations are not alone. In fact, most mission workers haven't aimed at cities, McConnell said. "It's a logical extension of what's going on anyway."
Mission leaders are still working out effective city strategies. As they do, they need to remember to reach out holistically to people, McConnell said. "The challenges accompanying this are the same patterns of holism and seeing the church as a critical presence in the community. That has to continue."
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Previous articles on Christianity in urban settings in Christianity Today and its sister publications include:
Where Sacred And Secular Meet | How Churches use 'New Urbanism' design to do ministry. (YourChurch, August 3, 2009)
A New Kind of Urban Christian | As the city goes, so goes the culture. (May 1, 2006)
The New Monasticism | A fresh crop of Christian communities is blossoming in blighted urban settings all over America. (September 2, 2005)