G.O.I.N.G. U.R.B.A.N. for the 21st Century Missionary
Following the first three hundred years of the church’s existence, missionaries did a fairly good job at penetrating rural communities, villages, small towns, and tribes scattered across the globe. However, large urban environments have typically posed significant challenges to the missional task of the church. Now that the 21st century world is an urban majority world, what are some of the things missionaries need to keep in mind as they “go urban”? Following the acrostic G.O.I.N.G. U.R.B.A.N., I want to suggest some of the significant components that should be embraced by any urban missionary.
God continues to raise up and call his ministers to serve in the great cities of this world to see disciples, leaders, and churches multiplied for the kingdom. Though all missionaries must respond to God with a selfless abandonment and a total dependence on him, the cities of this world amplify the need to make certain that a God-Dependence is at the heart of everything the missionary does. A daily dying to self and being filled with the Spirit are absolute musts (Eph 5:18).
In 2005, twenty megacities contained populations of ten million or more, with the number of such cities expected to rise with time.1 Many of the megacites of the world are such a challenge to missions that unless God moves across the peoples, those cities will not be reached. An urban missionary recently told me that no amount of people or money could effectively reach her city. “Unless God moves,” she noted, “there is no possibility of any urban transformation.” Megacites are of such a size and have such a need for the gospel, it is evident that absolutely nothing can be done merely in the flesh to see societal transformation occur. The needs are so great, the warfare so intense, and the cities of the world so diverse, that unless missionaries are dependent upon the Lord in everything they do, they will have no kingdom impact in the urban contexts of the world.
Organizes According to Both Local and Global Strategies
For missionaries working in small towns and villages, a single strategy might be sufficient for the task of multiplying disciples, leaders, and churches. However, the metropolitan areas of the world require different approaches. No one strategy fits all situations. Referencing Ray Bakke, Stan Guthrie writes, “’Cities are huge subsets, and we make mistakes when we approach them with a single strategy.’”2 Missionaries must work to develop a variety of strategies according to the people group, subculture, or population segment addressed. Various strategies will also generally demand the use of different methods.
For the urban missionary, local strategies alone are not sufficient. The urban missionary must also work with missionaries in other world-class cities to develop global strategies. In many respects people living in New York have more in common with people in Paris, Sao Paulo, and Tokyo than they do with those living in a U. S. Midwestern small town.
Globalization, urbanization, and migration have all contributed to the unreached peoples of the world being scattered among the great cities of the world. For example, faithful stewards are those urban missionaries who are working in conjunction with other urban missionaries to develop strategies to reach the Japanese in California, Brazil, and Japan. Imagine the kingdom possibilities whenever a missionary in San Francisco connects a Japanese Christian businessman with a missionary in Nagoya to assist in planting churches throughout that city. Consider what missionaries can learn from one another even though they are working in different countries. What if a missionary in Nepal were able to connect a Nepalese immigrant moving to Boston with a similar missionary in that New England city?
The urbanization of the world has created the need for urban missionaries to develop global church multiplication strategies with other urban missionaries. North American churches and mission agencies that fail to integrate such strategic thinking done in conjunction with the development of localized strategies are missing a kingdom opportunity that has not been available to the church in the history of the world.
Incarnational in Witness
The influence and impact of the urban missionary will come through an incarnational preaching of the gospel that includes both verbal propositional truth (Rom 10:14-17) and significant social ministry (Luke 6:17-19). Wisdom for healthy contextualization of the gospel, discipling of new believers, and leadership development will come partially from relationships established in the urban contexts. Failure to live among the people to whom one is ministering generally hinders the spreading of the gospel. An “insider” is usually given more credibility and is more likely to gain a hearing than an “outsider.” The urban missionary living among the people knows their concerns about sanitation problems, crime, high cost of rent, and poor educational systems. Such a missionary understands the value of the summer and fall festivals because he or she rubs shoulders with the people throughout the rest of the year in the parks, marketplace, apartments, or on the ball fields.
I remember once reading of an Anglican priest who was assigned to minister to a coal mining community. After laboring for sometime without making any real connections with the people, he decided to work a few days throughout the week in the coal mines. After the men saw what sacrifice this priest was willing to make to minister to them, they began to open up to him and his ministry. The words of this priest reveal the power of an incarnational witness: “You definitely get to know the people better when you live and work among them. At the end of the day, when you are standing in the showers with the other coalminers scrubbing coal dust off each others’ backs, some of the barriers for the gospel begin to go away.”
Navigates Change Well
If anything is constant in the cities of this world, it is the fact that they change and that such change happens rapidly. Urban missionaries cannot be creatures of habit. Though all missionary strategies must be flexible, urban strategies must be supremely flexible. Missionaries to the cities must be able to make adjustment and decisions “on the fly.”
Those supervising the work of urban missionaries would be wise in keeping this fact in mind, especially if they are attempting to supervise such work from a distance. The urban context is many times very fluid. Methods working today may not be effective later today.
Grounded with a Biblical Missiology
Missionaries to the great cities must have a solid missiological foundation with deep roots in the Scriptures. A failure to ground one’s missiology on anything other than the Word of God is a plan for urban failure. Urban missionary practice must be derived from the deep doctrinal truths of the Bible. Though sociology, anthropology, and research are important tools for the urban missionary (see below), the Scriptures must be the starting place and establish the parameters. For example, the most critical issue in global church planting today is an ecclesiological issue. How an urban missionary answers the question, “What is the local church?” will affect everything he does to plant churches. The answer will affect the strategy developed, resources involved, methods used, and leaders developed. Any urban missionary planning on venturing to the field without a firm grasp on the truths of the Scriptures is, more than anyone else, subject to a missionary belief and practice devolving into pragmatism, syncretism, legalism, institutionalism, or full blown heresy.
Understands the City
Urban missionaries must capitalize on all the resources that God has provided to assist them in becoming experts on their cities. Like a living organism, the city has a pulse, or way of life, that differs from small towns and villages. People interact, communicate, play, work, eat, travel, think, make decisions, worship, and raise their children differently in the cities than in rural areas. The pulse of the urban context is not only influenced by the people who live there, but that pulse also in turn influences the people who live there. From the time the urban missionary enters the city to the time he or she enters the heavenly city, he or she must be a student of the city.
Rick Warren encourages missionaries to understand their people geographically, demographically, culturally, and spiritually.3 Missionaries also need to understand their people historically and politically. The historical and political contexts of cities and people groups significantly affect the way their members think, live, and communicate today.
Relates Well to Diversity
Just as urban missionaries must be flexible and navigate changes with some ease, they also must be able to relate well to a diverse context. Paul G. Hiebert and Eloise Hiebert Meneses write, “We must see the city, therefore, not as a homogeneous place, but as hundreds of subcultural groups living and interacting with one another in the same geographic area.”4 On the same city block, the missionary may find the wealthy, street people, students, artists, prostitutes, single mothers with children, polygamous men, middle class families, and drug dealers. Whenever ethnic groups and educational levels are included, the diversity of that city block grows tremendously.
Balances Urban Complexity with Missional Simplicity
Urban missionaries should not allow the enormous size and complex nature of the cities to cause them to believe that complex strategies and practices are always necessary. Urban missionaries need to keep it simple. Though the multiplication of disciples, leaders, and churches is hard and difficult work, it can be a very simple work. An examination of the Scriptures reveals the simple nature of the extension of the church. A focus on the basics of missionary life and practice is needed for urban environments. The more complex the methods and strategies used by the missionaries, the less likely the new believers and churches will be able to reproduce such methods and strategies. Keeping everything simple (i.e., biblical) is what is needed to see the rapid dissemination of the gospel across urban contexts.
Urban missionaries must recognize that the work of reaching the cities and the world is going to happen most effectively and most rapidly when they focus on a biblical model that is patterned after the apostles. An examination of the Scriptures reveals that the apostles were primarily involved in evangelism that resulted in new churches, raising up biblically grounded leaders for those churches, and repeating this process, with the expectation that those new churches would also repeat the process among their peoples and cities.
Networks with Other Great Commission Christians
The urban environments of this world are too large, too diverse, too needy, too dark, and too significant for missionaries, churches, and mission agencies to work alone. There can be no lone rangers in the cities. The urban contexts allow missionaries to display to the world the love that exists among the Body of Christ (John 13:34-35). Networking with other Great Commission Christians is not a call for a contemporary urban ecumenical movement or a watering down of theological convictions for the sake of unity. Rather, it is a call to biblical harmony that has the potential to result in a healthy synergism to make a kingdom impact across an urban context. As I have looked across the globe to those working outside of North America, the practice of such kingdom networking is present.
Urban environments today pose challenges for twenty-first century missionaries. In many cases, such challenges are new, unlike those known by earlier generations of missionaries. Going urban requires the missionary to be as prepared as possible for the challenges of the city. Remembering the components addressed in this article will assist in preparing one for kingdom advancement in the great cities of the world.