BEIJING (BP) -- Beijing is an urban center peopled by the rich, politically privileged -- and utterly poor.
Outwardly, it's strikingly modern with its Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium and rapidly expanding state-of-the-art subway system. It's ancient, too, with the Forbidden City of Imperial China at its heart. It's blatantly communist with the Soviet-styled Great Hall of the People set in the city center -- yet capitalist with posh shopping areas shimmering with luxury designer goods nearby.
It's also a magnet, drawing people from throughout the country as they flow in from provinces seeking employment and a better life. Thomas*, a Christian worker in Beijing, sees the drawing power of the capital city as a strategic place for reaching into China's provinces with the Gospel message.
"Beijing is a city that breathes people," Thomas reflects. "Every day hundreds of thousands of people travel in and out of the city. At peak times there are more than a million travelers per day. Some stay only a few days, yet others stay much longer.
"A few who come are already Christians from two strong Christian areas of China -- Henan and Anhui. Most are not and know more about Coca-Cola than Christ," Thomas continues. "Whether they come as tourists, on business or looking for some kind of employment, we want all who enter the capital of the Middle Kingdom to learn of the eternal Kingdom and the Emperor who died on a cross for them," Thomas says.
When Beijing's population hit 19 million in late 2009, it had already surpassed the government's target to keep the capital's population below 18 million until the year 2020. Government officials are searching for ways to slow the city's growth, as infrastructure can't keep up with the surging population, which has now reached more than 20 million.
"The size of Beijing doesn't intimidate me," Thomas says. "It's not a mass of humanity. You learn to read it socio-demographically ... once you get above a million, it doesn't really make a difference. You look at where you have the relationships."
China is riding the same wave of urbanization as the rest of the globe. The United Nations estimates that by 2050 nearly 70 percent of the world's 10 billion people will be living in cities, up from only 30 percent living in cities in 1950. A similar scenario is occurring in China but -- as in its economic and industrial development -- at a much more rapid pace.
As recently as 1980, less than 20 percent of China's population lived in cities. In the '80s, Chinese citizens were generally assigned to "work units" and the central government largely restricted their movements. Opportunities for work in cities nevertheless beckoned and even in the mid-'80s a significant percentage of temporary workers ventured to cities such as Beijing. With China's meteoric economic development of recent decades, that "floating population" has increased in the capital and in other cities in China. By the end of 2011, half of China's population was living in cities.
"You have a lot of advantages in the city," Thomas says, noting that relationships in urban environments are built through mutual interests rather than proximity.
"In some ways it is very natural," Thomas says. "In some ways, the bigger the city, the better your odds of finding somebody with similar interests. In the city you can't share with everybody. It's not practical and not effective. You find points of common interest. You build relationships. The Gospel spreads along relational lines.
"So when I look at the city I don't see the masses of people," he says. "It's easy to start seeing the pockets. Where do you start in a city? Wherever your relationships take you."
For Thomas, this occurs through training others to be effective witnesses. For others it may be connecting with subcultures of artists or musicians.
Change has come to China at such a blistering pace that it is hard to know what is next. Thomas points out that in the Book of Acts, God used persecution to scatter the church. Likewise, he suggests, "God is using economic migration to bring the lost to the church .
"Napoleon Bonaparte said 'when China awakes, the world will tremble.' In the sovereignty of God, as countries rise and fall, God is bringing China to the center stage of world history," Thomas says. "It's not a question of 'Will China rise?' It's a question of 'What kind of China will it be?'
"Those fields of harvest are rice paddies. They're longing for the Gospel. And they're coming to us, even here in the city."
*Name changed. Contributing writer Elaine Gaston provided this story for the International Mission Board. Southern Baptists' gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions and through the Cooperative Program help Southern Baptist workers around the world share the Gospel. Gifts for the offering are received at Southern Baptist churches across the country or can be made online at www.imb.org/offering where there are resources for church leaders to promote the offering. Download related videos at www.imb.org/lmcovideo.
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