RICHMOND, Va. (BP)--My son wants to go to school next year in New York City.
In midtown Manhattan, no less -- the Big Apple, the belly of the beast, the postmodern Babylon.
"Are you crazy?" a few friends asked (or implied) when I told them we would be visiting a school located there. No, I'm not crazy, although I had a few second thoughts driving through the Lincoln Tunnel into New York's frantic traffic.
If my son ventures there, the big, bad city will present quite a challenge for him -- more challenge than I could have handled at his age. But I envy him. He will attend an exciting Christian college that prepares young minds to confront the world as it is.
And he will experience the world as it is rapidly becoming: urban.
The two stories about Jakarta, Indonesia, in today's edition of Baptist Press are the last in a series called "A tale of five cities." Over the past two years, I've had the opportunity to visit and profile five great cities on four continents: Buenos Aires, London, Nairobi, Mumbai and Jakarta (combined population: up to 70 million people). The purpose of the project was to grapple with the realities of declaring the Christian Gospel to a global population that is now more than 50 percent urban for the first time in history. You can read other stories in the series at http://bpnews.net/BPCollectionNews.asp?ID=151.
To review some of the numbers:
-- A projected 88 percent of population growth over the next generation will occur in cities in the developing world. Half of India's billion-plus people will live in cities by 2020.
-- Urban dwellers will double to 6.4 billion by mid-century -- 70 percent of humanity -- according to United Nations forecasts.
-- Nearly 80 percent of South America's 380 million people live in cities. A third of Argentina's population, for instance, lives in greater Buenos Aires.
Whether cities fit into the fast-multiplying category of 500,000 to 1 million people, "mega" size (1 million or more) or "super-mega" (above 10 million), they tend to share common characteristics. They attract the young, the rich, the poor, students, job seekers, minorities, immigrants, refugees. Cities speak many languages and encompass many cultures and religions. Sometimes different people groups within cities mix and meld. Sometimes they form distinct, exclusive communities -- cities within cities.
In London, called "a world in one city," you can hear more than 300 languages spoken. The city is home to at least 50 non-indigenous communities of 10,000 or more people each. Mumbai, approaching 20 million people, plays host to India's Bollywood movie stars, its richest business tycoons -- and Dharavi, reputedly Asia's largest slum. Hindus dominate Mumbai, but 2 million Muslims live there, as well as members of nearly every caste, religion and people group in India. Nairobi is a hub and magnet for all of East Africa, attracting immigrants and refugees from every major people in the region. One area of the city, "Little Mogadishu," functions as a kind of capital in exile for Somalia, Kenya's anarchic neighbor.
Cities are aggressively secular -- and zealously religious.
"Secularism is the predominant 'religion' of the city, but every other 'ism' is here in strong force," a Southern Baptist missionary in London says. "The largest Sikh and Hindu temples outside of India are in west London. London is the Islamic capital of Europe. Satanism and all kinds of mystic practices are also alive and well."
Cities are hectic, fragmented and violent. Despite their large numbers, city dwellers often live in isolation and fear. They are hard to reach -- physically and spiritually -- in their locked offices and high-rise apartments guarded by vigilant doormen.
"In a big city, the spiritual strongholds are loneliness and fear," says missionary Randy Whittall, Southern Baptist team leader for Buenos Aires. "It may seem crazy to think about being lonely when you're surrounded by 13 million people, but they are."
How are Christians responding to the challenge of postmodern cities? Not very well, at least so far.
Local churches in the cities I visited tend to be tradition-bound, fearful of reaching beyond their comfort zones, overly dependent on buildings and property (prohibitively expensive in major cities). Mission organizations and other Christian ministries talk about "reaching the cities" but struggle to find effective ways to do it. Missionaries in many countries have focused for generations on reaching rural regions untouched by the Gospel. While they have toiled in the hinterlands, cities have mushroomed.
"We still have the mindset of rural missions," Whittall observes. "But the mission of the 21st century, however much we don't like it, is going to be in the Beijings, the New Delhis, the massive, polluted, crowded urban areas where billions of people live."
What works in such places varies, but smaller tends to be better.
The effective urban Christian workers I met cultivate global prayer networks and pursue city-spanning "seed-sowing" (Gospel distribution), to be sure. But they follow up with focused community ministries among specific people groups, winning hearts and minds for the Gospel -- as in Jakarta, London and Nairobi. They start small cell groups and house or apartment churches that multiply over time, as in Buenos Aires and Jakarta. They intensively train committed local believers to make disciples, who in turn train others, as in Nairobi.
In Mumbai, the faithful discipleship of just two Muslim-background followers of Christ by a Southern Baptist worker has sparked the beginning of many worship groups among Muslims in the city.
"I wouldn't say so much that we're failing as that we've never tried," the worker in Mumbai says. "We can talk about the problems, the poverty and corruption and politicians. But it all goes back to the darkness they live in. They need Jesus Christ."
Whatever it takes, it's time to try.
Erich Bridges is global correspondent for the International Mission Board.
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