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Articulating the Mission of God in the Global Urban Context

By Glenn Smith
November 2008

Introduction to the Series
As we have walked with practitioners over the past twelve months into diverse places such as Cap-Haïtien, Luanda, Quito, Manila, Bophal, Calcutta, and with Roma communities in Romania, we have seen that poverty is a broad concept. It touches economic, social, physical, and spiritual realities. It affects peoples’ identity and includes social exclusion, absence of harmony in life and well-being, deprivation at every level of life, and one’s ability to participate in the welfare of the community.

But as Jayakumar Christian points out, the causes of poverty can be traced to “inadequacies in the worldview.” A worldview can be a powerful instrument in perpetuating chronic poverty. All cultures and societies have within their worldview construct aspects of fallenness. And as we have seen, true Christian spirituality cannot be divorced from the struggle for justice and care for the poor and the oppressed. Spiritual formation is about empowering Christians to live their faith in the world.

In the next sixteen months we will move from a focus on slum communities to listen with practitioners in a variety of urban contexts who are ministering on the ground. We will intersperse these stories with reflective theological and missiological articles that will help us to better understand how to think biblically so as to act contextually in the global urban context.

This month, we begin this new series with a reflection on the verbal communication of the good news. It is entitled, “Getting to Yes.”

What Is a City-Region?
But let’s first answer the question, “What is a city/region?”

Beyond definitions and the demographic function
of cities known as “urban growth,” one may ask,
“What is happening to urban society today?”

Richard Sennett defines a city as “a human settlement in which strangers are likely to meet.”1 The United Nations Population Fund documents the diversity of definitions for an urban category in its 2007 report. British urbanologist David Clark has clarified many of these issues in his most recent book, Urban World/Global City.2

He names a population of fifty thousand people or less a town or a village. On the other hand, cities are human agglomerations that have up to 200,000 residents. A metropolitan area has more than two million people, but a megalopolis is an urban region with over five million people.

These distinctions are helpful because a country like Norway considers any human settlement of two hundred people as urban, while Bénin, for example, only uses “urban” for places of ten thousand or more people.

But beyond definitions and the demographic function of cities known as “urban growth,” one may ask, “What is happening to urban society today?” What were the conditions—inherited from the past—which have been transformed in these last fifty years that help us understand its present state? This is a fundamental question we need to explore if we are to understand the cultural context in which the Church is growing. But our concern points in a further direction with a second question: “How will the Church reflect biblically and pursue relevant urban mission in the urban context in the years ahead?” This causes us to realize that all too often we are not taking the time to think biblically so as to act contextually.

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Glenn Smith is senior associate for urban mission for the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization and is executive director of Christian Direction in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. He is a professor of urban theology and missiology at the Institut de theologie pour la Francophonie at the Université de Montréal and at the Université chrétienne du Nord d’Haïti. He is also professor of urban missiology at Bakke Graduate University in Seattle, Washington, USA. Smith is editor of the Urban Communitees section.