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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.


Bénin only uses “urban” for places of ten thousand
or more people.

To answer these two questions, an attentive practitioner can employ an ethnographic analysis of the culture so as to understand how social structures and human behaviour interact and influence the evolution of urban culture. The Christian practitioner who desires to study “the knowledge and practices of people, the manner they use their freedom to dominate, to transform, to organize, to arrange, and to master space for their personals pursuit so as to live, to protect themselves, to survive, to produce, and to reproduce”3 will find in ethno-methodology an excellent tool.

To do this, one must master dominant tendencies so as to grasp where we have come from, where we are going as a society, and what the mission of God in this culture will look like.4

This description for cultural analysis will allow us to take seriously the implications that social activity/reality is culturally and historically specific. Urban hermeneutics allow us to understand or decode the polarity between social structure and human agency, which is constantly at work in a metropolitan area. Social institutions—the basic building blocks of a city because of their far-reaching spatial and temporal existence—are used by human agents to create urban systems and metropolitan structures. Human actions are constrained by these structures, but are also enabled by them. In attempting to understand a city, neither the subject (the human agent) nor the object (society and social institutions) has primacy.5

By pursuing geography of urban functions, we are looking at issues (the social dynamics, problems, needs, aspirations, and worldviews) that are culturally and historically specific. Like the city itself, these issues reflect the prevailing values, ideology, and structure of the prevailing social formation.

A useful analytical, social, and theological purpose is served by the empirical recognition that urban issues are manifest in geographical space. This implies that the resulting description will detail issues in the city, as well as issues of the city. (For example, an issue in urban space would include the consequences of population density. An issue of urban space would include attention to the socio-economic factors that go hand-in-hand with such population concentration.) To pursue this analysis, the urban ministry practitioner will need to bring a high sensitivity

  • to micro details in the local context—the census data serves this end;

  • with a concern for the larger worldview influences—understood as the macro issues;

  • beyond a simple homogenisation of the data—one needs to examine the local context seriously;

  • to a true understanding of the differences so that we can appreciate the specifics of the area and the mission of the Church in the situation.

Excursus: Worldviews
Worldviews are primarily lenses through which we look at what life is all about. Generally speaking, they are the series of presuppositions that groups of people hold, consciously and unconsciously, about the basic makeup of the community, relationship, practices, and objects of daily life, whether they are of great signification or of little importance. They are like the foundations of a house—vital, but invisible. The makeup of a worldview is based upon the interaction of one’s ultimate beliefs and the global environment within which one lives. They deal with the perennial issues of life like religion and spirituality, and contain answers to even simple questions, such as whether we eat from plates or how to launder our clothing.

Worldviews are communicated through the channel of culture. We should be careful to not confuse culture and worldview, although they are in constant relationship with one another. Culture is foremost a network of meanings by which a particular social group is able to recognize itself as such through a common history and way of life. This network of meanings is rooted in ideas (including beliefs, values, attitudes, and rules of behaviour) and rituals and material objects (including symbols that become a source for identity, such as the language we speak, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, and the way we organize space).

This network is not a formal and hierarchical structure. It is defined in modern society by constant change, mobility, reflection, and on-going new life experiences. This is opposed to traditional societies where culture was transmitted from one generation to another vertically within the community structures. Modernity still transmits some aspects of culture like language and basic knowledge vertically through the bias of school system; however, once this is done, the horizontal transmission of culture through friendship, peers, and socio-professional status become more important.

Worldviews may be studied in terms of four features: characteristic stories, fundamental symbols, habitual praxis, and a set of questions and answers. These presuppositions interact with each other in a variety of complex and interesting ways. By studying the intersection of these big themes, the practitioner can unearth the worldview of the context under study.

Communities often reveal their worldviews by the cultural network they produce and constantly reproduce in social interactions, objects, and symbols: from dollars to metro tickets, from office towers to streetcars, from pottery to poetry, from places of worship to sacred texts, from emblems to funerary monuments, from stadiums to crosses. Symbols provide the hermeneutic grid to perceive how the world is and how we might live in it: these symbols provide a vision of reality and a vision for it. Symbols describe the typical behaviour of a society and vice versa: the celebration of important events; the usual means of dealing with dissonance; and the rituals associated with birth, puberty, marriage, and death.

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.