Urbanization and Measuring the Remaining Task

by Justin Long

For a very long time, now, many missiologists have tended to measure ‘progress in the Great Commission’ (however that was defined) to some extent in the context of people groups, and how they are reached, evangelized, and/or Christianized.

‘Reaching the unreached peoples’ in particular tended to replace the idea of ‘a church in every country’ as the operative definition of closure or fulfillment of the Great Commission. Unreached people groups better fit the scriptural concepts of ‘every tribe, language, nation, tongue before the Throne’ (Revelation 7:9).

Behind the development of the unreached peoples concept was the idea of ‘gaps’–that there were languages and ethnic groups which had ‘no access’ (defined as the lack of reasonable access of individuals in the group to the gospel within their lifetime). This was due principally to barriers of language (they couldn’t understand the language of what was being shared) or ethnicity (they couldn’t accept what was being shared by outsiders).

However, as we have refined our strategies for closure into ‘reach the unreached’ strategies, two additional issues have emerged which we are struggling to address.

The first, which I have touched on elsewhere and will touch on only lightly here, is the danger of under engagement. The principle is simple: we love lists, we want to check items off, and so we do what is immediately required to put in a ‘good faith effort’ to remove a people group from the list. We adopt a people group, mobilize a team, and send them off to the group, and so remove them from the ‘unreached’ list.

This is exactly what would have to happen with a ‘sufficient’ engagement–but it’s also what can happen with an ‘insufficient’ engagement, and we don’t always take the time to ask whether an engagement is sufficient or not. 

The second issue, however, is the one to focus on here: urbanization. At the turn of the 20th century, the world was just 14.4% urban. The majority of these urbanites (69%) were Christians, because most cities were in Christianized countries. Just 5 megacities (population over 1 million) were majority non-Christian.

The situation has vastly changed. Shortly past 2000, the world became majority urban. Today, about 56% of the global population lives in a city–4.4 billion out of 7.8 billion. 

Further, as far back as the 60s and 70s, there was a shift in the religious composition of urbanites: there were more non-Christian city-dwellers than Christians as cities developed in the non-Christian world. Today, just one-third of the world’s city dwellers are Christians. This doesn’t mean cities make people into non-Christians; it just means that non-Christians urbanized into their own cities. There are over 593 majority non-Christian megacities now.

Cities present a specific challenge to the idea of ‘reaching unreached people groups’: they are huge mixing grounds. Some cities are more ‘rural’ in character–various languages are segmented into mini-villages. Some cities are more ‘urban’ in character–with lots of different people all mixed together, using broadly spoken trade languages to communicate on the job and in the markets. Whichever is the case, focusing on a city carries different strategic issues than focusing on a single people group largely located in one province or set of provinces. It brings the cross-cultural and cross-language part of the task to bear in multiple ways earlier on in the local evangelistic task.

This means that including ‘cities’ as segments to be listed, focused on, described, researched, documented, tracked, measured, and strategically engaged is probably just as important as ‘unreached people groups.’

We don’t want to lose our ‘unreached peoples’ focus. But we must remember: people passionately advocated for the unreached out of concern for gaps–collections of individuals who did not have access. An exclusive focus on unreached people groups could in fact lead us to focus on, for example, Kazakhs, to the exclusion of very small groups (e.g. the thousand or so Avar in Kazakhstan), or diaspora groups in the same cities (e.g. Buryats).

Not every gap can be tracked at the global level. But global lists could continue to identify where gaps are potentially located. Different kinds of gaps can be found in cities than amongst unreached groups, and that means we need to give cities a similar kind of mental effort.

This article was first published in Mission Frontiers and was edited with permission.

“I Would Be a Christian if I Could”

A fruit vendor named Seng* lit up when she realized Trisha* could speak Thai. Seng peppered her with questions: “Where do you live? How long have you lived here? Are you safe?” Trisha answered, then asked about Seng’s business. Seng admitted that she had very few customers.

“I will pray to God,” Trisha said, “and ask for His blessing on your life. I will ask God to protect you.” When Seng’s face brightened at this, Tisha asked if she went to church.

“I am a Thai person. I must be Buddhist.” Seng replied. “But my sister-in-law lives in Germany. Her husband is German, so she can be a Christian.”

Looking at some nearby taxi drivers, Seng quietly confessed, “If I could choose, I would be a Christian too.”

“If you want to know more,” Trisha responded, “God says we can know Him by reading the Bible. I can show you how! Then, He can help you decide whether to follow Him or not.”

Through spiritual statements and questions, Trisha discovered Seng’s spiritual hunger and invited her to discover the truth of who God is. Pray Seng would be willing to read the Bible and become a follower of Jesus. 

*pseudonym

A Family Affair

Harto* is a Muslim man who encountered Jesus through a discipleship process with Shawn*. Harto was interested in becoming a disciple of Jesus and was even considering being baptized.

Then Harto’s family found out about his studies. He has not met with Shawn since they found out.

Harto’s story illustrates why it is so important for seekers to bring their family and friends to hear what the Bible says about Jesus. That way, no one is removed or ostracized from their closest relationships. Instead, whole relational groups (oikos) explore together. 

And it’s biblical! The book of Acts records over 30 instances of people becoming followers of Jesus; only three describe a person coming to Christ as an individual. In all the other instances, a large or small community became followers of Jesus as a group.

If a person’s oikos is not willing to engage with the Bible, the seeker should show love and be patient, letting their testimony be a witness of God’s goodness and power to save.  

This is why movements are often slow to begin but can then experience rapid growth as entire families come to Christ. 

*pseudonym

Simplicity Versus Tradition

Lata* lives in North India. A few years ago, she was a regular church attendee, but her family did not like this and kicked her out of their home. 

Dedicated to Jesus, she moved into her pastor’s house. Unfortunately, the pastor was not a good man. She saw bad things happen. She returned to her family and stopped attending church. 

Then her nephew became ill. One day as Lata took him to the doctor, she met Brother Chander*. He asked what was wrong and if he could pray for the boy. Lata agreed, and the boy was healed. 

Lata invited Chander to her home. She liked his simplicity. Lata’s brother was also impressed. Chander’s approach to life and ministry was different from that of other pastors. They asked Chander to come again. 

Chander returned and started a DBS in their home. Lata’s brother liked the discovery approach. He was challenged to share with others what he learned. He asked Chander, “How can I follow this religion?” He became a disciple of Jesus. 

To date, Lata’s brother has reached 12 families with the gospel. At least 72 people have been baptized so far, and they joyfully pass to others all that’s shared with them. Several have made disciples to the third generation; one to the fifth generation in four villages!

*pseudonym