by Lawrence Ko
It has been often said that the Bible began in a garden and will end in a city.
Urbanisation is an eschatological reality which has dawned upon us in the 21st century. We are to await a celestial city whose architect and builder is God Himself. Meanwhile we participate in the urban development on this side of eternity, with the sprawl and all.
Rapid urbanisation is a present reality happening globally with 48% of the Asian population living in cities. Large cities (those with over a million dwellers) and megacities (those with 10 million population or more) have been mushrooming all over Asia. By 2030 another billion people in Asia are expected to be added in the rural-urban migrant flow.
Some of the largest megacities in the world are already in Asia, drawing not only the global talents but also the tribal groups from the mountains and villages. The unreached, unengaged people groups (known to missionaries as the UUPGs) are increasingly found in the cities. Christians need to recognise and embrace the changing and indeed changed landscape of missions. The cities have become the new harvest fields for Christian missions. The gospel must be incarnate at street level as we live in cities if we are to point people towards transcendence and long for the celestial city of God.
Although the needs, challenges and opportunities presented by the present urbanisation trends are varied, what is undoubted is that urbanisation can be a powerful driver for growth, for community development and for quality life, if harnessed properly. However, many cities are facing huge challenges due in part to poor governance, corruption, inadequate accountability and inadequate attention to the plight of the poor. The UN Habitat’s World Cities Report 2016 notes: “Many rapidly growing cities keep sprawling, slums are expanding or consolidating, there is increasing poverty and sometimes inequality, cities can be very expensive for new migrants, crime can be rife in large cities, on top of which comes the contribution that cities make to climate change.”
The oft quoted Chinese adage that “there is an opportunity in every crisis” must be cited once again as we remind the Church that the different urban challenges are great opportunities for urban missions. As we consider the call of Urban Missions, we need new urban missionaries who understand how to engage the cities and their challenges. They would include urban planners, architects, builders, entrepreneurs, business professionals, policy makers, cultural innovators, social workers as well as pastors, mission workers and urban missiologists.
The Church in Singapore can leverage on the Singapore government’s farsightedness which has resulted in the annually organised World City Summit held every June since 2008 for mayors and government leaders from the cities around the world as we seek to export our public service expertise in urban planning, policy making and infrastructure management.
The urban challenges include many complex social, cultural, economic and environmental issues which must be addressed creatively and integratively with new urban developmental models. We look forward to the United Nations’ Habitat III (2016) which seeks to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goal 11, to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.
At the heart of these developmental issues is not only the social, economic and political vision but most importantly, the spiritual vision, the vision of humanity and what constitutes a meaningful life. This is where we as Christians can contribute, sharing our faith insights on the image of God in humankind, and envisioning an urban community where we can live with human dignity and flourish.
The urban missionaries must look to Jesus Christ as not only a spiritual Saviour but indeed the Messianic King who has come to inaugurate the vision and values of God’s Kingdom. His teachings and counsels for social reform and personal transformation would include the famous parable of the Good Samaritan.
The Good Samaritan stopped to help a man wounded by robbers along the Jericho road when the Jewish priest and the Levite would not. The Good Samaritan was commended by Jesus as he cared for a person in need, even though he was a stranger. The Good Samaritan exemplified what it means to love one’s neighbour by his willingness to serve and care for a person in trouble. He did not choose his neighbour but he became a neighbour. This is Christian spirituality at its highest as Christ taught that we fulfill the Great Commandment to love God by serving our neighbour.
As we recognise the cities as the new harvest fields, we need to see the new immigrants as people whom we can serve and love. From the migrant workers working in the dirty and dangerous jobs, to the foreign students sitting in the classrooms with our children and the expatriates who are executives in the corporations, we realise that they are no longer merely strangers but our neighbours. They are our new neighbours now and our faith calls us to reach out and to serve them as Christ has instructed us.
Raymond Bakke, the guru of urban missions, expressed concern on the earlier white flight from the inner cities of the United States due to “White Fright”, leaving the urban contexts to languish as ghettoes for the urban poor amidst vice, drugs and violent crimes. Churches followed suit and left the cities for the suburbs.
Will the urban churches of Asia respond differently by engaging the urban centres rather than retreating to our own comfort zone? Or will the urban churches be only interested in planting churches and winning souls among the tribal groups in the mountains and rural areas?
We recognise the great inequality represented by the stratified and differentiated demographics of the urban poor. They include the material poor, the cultural poor as well as the spiritual poor. Although the proportion of urban population living in slums and informal settlements have decreased over the decades (from 46% in 1990 to 32% in 2010), the number of slum dwellers in absolute terms has increased dramatically (from 689 million in 1990 to 880 million in 2014).
Our hearts must break and weep for these hundreds of millions of people living in squalid squatter homes which are not fit for human habitation. How can the church respond and help build better urban environments for human flourishing? They are the ones whom Jesus reminded us to serve whether by washing feet or offering a cup of water.
There are also the ethnic, cultural or religious groups who are different from us, whom we are to embrace cross culturally nevertheless and welcome as part of the urban community. We can help create and transmit a new culture of the city, along with the policy makers, big retailers, business marketeers, artists and the culture-makers. There is a receptivity among people in the cities towards new ideas and urban culture and we have a great opportunity to help shape the soul of the cities, infused with grace, kindness and humanity.
Then there are the wealthy who could really be the poor, spiritually, like the rich young ruler who approached Jesus for a vision of the spiritual life. They too need ministry so that they can have a vision of the Kingdom of God. The Church can disciple the rich to learn to divest themselves of their false belongings in order to serve the poor and hence “enter the eye of the needle”. The Church can mobilise and unleash the pews with the vast array of expertise and experience among the laity to help design and build the growing Asian cities. Businesses can drive urbanisation in a positive way towards a true urban dream rather than a nightmare. Business innovation can be applied to social challenges and help address urban decay and dysfunction.
How can the gospel be incarnated in the city? We must begin to engage beyond soul winning and church-centred programmes. We can exemplify this at both the macro and micro levels. We need people at the policy and planning level with a ringside view to contribute to the design and building of liveable cities. We need people at street level, who can reach out to build and serve communities, one brick at a time, one neighbour at a time in practical and tangible ways.
Urban missions will require the present day Josephs, Daniels, and Nehemiahs to arise and serve with their entrepreneurial and administrative skills for the common good. It will also require the Boazes and Barnabases to stand up and be counted, sharing their wealth and resources to benefit the poor and needy. God will raise major prophets like the Jeremiahs to pray and weep for the city. God will anoint minor prophets like the Amoses and Micahs to call for shifts in moral values and spiritual frameworks towards an ethical and sustainable model for urbanisation.
It is exciting to be living in a globalised and urbanised world in the 21st century. Urbanisation has made our global skyscrapers into a truly global village. Strangers have come to our doorstep to live and work among us. We are all neighbours now. Henceforth, we can serve our neighbours and learn to be Good Samaritans.
This article originally appeared on "Urbany: Gospel at Street Level", Singapore Centre for Global Missions (SCGM) Urban Missional Business Journal.