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Articulating the Mission of God in the Global Urban Context

By Glenn Smith
November 2008

And in many communities, their symbols and characteristic behaviour are also focussed in stories. Furthermore, the answers to fundamental questions such as “Who are we?” “Where are we?” and “What are the problems we face and how will we solve them?” give us great insight into the worldviews of a community.

The Urban Context
When we discuss the task of the Church in a city-region, immediately we are struck by the necessity to address both macro and micro issues. In choosing to “address” the city, we need to remember two foundational issues that are often overlooked by God’s people living in metropolitan areas.

  1. We need to place each individual city in its own context, yet understand its place in the larger urban system. Because of globalization, no one metropolitan area exists in isolation from others. When you ask someone where he or she lives, the answer depends not just upon where you are but to whom you are talking. I can tell a Lavalois that I live on 5th Street, a Québécois that I live in Chomedey, but to someone outside of Québec, I am from Montréal. Each address tells something about me: my living environment, the languages I use on a day-to-day basis, my lifestyle, and perhaps my social status. It is important is to see the interrelationships among the different addresses in which we live, from local to national to global. It is also important to adjust these “addresses” for the audience in question.

  2. When the Church addresses the city, we must direct our attention to urban realities. And, we need to understand our own assumptions and framework. We will always want to keep our focus on a biblical perspective on cities.

Endnotes

1. 1974. The Fall of Public Man. New York: Vintage Press, 39.

2. 1996. London: Routledge Press.

3. Racine, Jean-Bernard. 1993. La ville entre Dieu et les hommes. Genève: PBU, 296-297 (Author's translation).

4. For a more detailed analysis on methods in pursuing urban ministry reflection, read Glenn Smith’s 1996 article, "Doing Theology in the Canadian Urban Context: Some Preliminary Reflections," in Studies in Canadian Evangelical Renewal—Essays in Honour of Ian S. Rennie. Toronto: FT Publications, 81-103. Also see note 24 on pg. 225 of Espoir pour la ville: Dieu dans la cité. QC: Éditions de la Clairière, 1994 and chapter 8 in Towards the Transformation of Our City/regions. LCWE, 2005.

5. This distinction becomes critical as we examine the biblical categories of principalities and powers in God’s project for human history.


Worthwhile Books to Consult on God’s Global Urban Mission

In the United Nations Population Fund report, State of World Population 2007: Unleashing the Potential of Urban Growth, the authors began by stating,

In 2008, the world reaches an invisible but momentous milestone: for the first time in history, more than half its human population, 3.3 billion people, will be living in urban areas. By 2030, this is expected to swell to almost five billion. Many of the new urbanites will be poor. Their future, the future of cities in developing countries, the future of humanity itself, all depend very much upon decisions made now in preparation for this growth.

While the world’s urban population grew very rapidly (from 220 million to 2.8 billion) over the twentieth century, the next few decades will see an unprecedented scale of urban growth in the developing world. This will be particularly notable in Africa and Asia, where the urban population will double between 2000 and 2030. That is, the accumulated urban growth of these two regions during the whole span of history will be duplicated in a single generation. By 2030, the towns and cities of the developing world will make up eighty-one percent of urban humanity. (For an introduction to this report, click here.)

  • For an introduction to urban missiology, I would recommend the urban reader, The Gospel and the Urban World. This “book” travels as a cd-rom and contains seven hundred pages of some of the very best articles on urban ministry that have been printed in the past three decades, including good articles on slum communities. You can consult the reader and order it online at: www.direction.ca/boutique/cederom.htm.

  • For an urban bibliography, visit: www.direction.ca/images/stories/documents/bibliographie_urbanus_2006.pdf. This 25-page list of books represents the best of what is available on our subject in French and English.

  • The 2006 resource Planet of Slums by Mike Davis (London: Verso) is an excellent exploratory book on the subject of slums. It is quite thorough and very readable.

  • The 2006 resource, Shadow Cities—A Billion Squatters, a New Urban World, by investigative reporter Robert Neuwirth (Milton Park, U.K.: Routledge), is the newest book on the subject that I have read. The author spent months living in squatter communities in places like Mumbai and Istanbul. He paints an upbeat picture of life in these unique places.

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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.