Urban Missions : An Introduction

The aim of this short article is to give a brief overview on urban missions – what it is, why do it, and why the church especially must do it in India. The article does not deal with the specifics of doing urban missions or the ‘how ‘question of it, for it is a subject to be dealt more in depth. At the outset itself, let me clarify that it is not the intention of this article to discourage people from doing traditional rural and tribal missions. Through out the article it is assumed that the church is doing such traditional missions, but seeks to make a case for giving priority for urban missions also.

What Is Urban Missions?

Urban missions could be defined in various ways. One could go for a “long, complicated, dense”[1] definition like this :

The effort in the name of Christ, by the strength of Christ, for the glory of Christ, to waken in people of all ethnic groups, transforming faith in Christ and the fruit of obedience to Christ, by proclaiming Christ in the gospel and by showing Christ in acts of practical, persevering, sacrificial, courageous, liberating, stabilizing, burden-lifting, productivity-enhancing, family-strengthening, community-building, Christ-celebrating love, in the face of the peculiar concentration of pain and poverty and sin and brokenness and dysfunction, that all come together in the urban centers of the world.[2]

Perhaps we could simplify and say that urban missions is missionary labour to plant Christ-treasuring, gospel-believing communities of faith, also called churches in urban centers of the world. Thus the goal of urban missions is the same as of that traditional missions – planting gospel churches. However the difference is brought in by the adjective ‘urban’. The urban context of missions makes it very different to all other missionary work. As Piper says in his definition, in the city, there is a ‘peculiar concentration’ of issues raising from our fallenness and thus the missionary has to tackle with the gospel a plethora of challenges, which he would otherwise never meet in rural or tribal missions. Moreover, as Piper points out, there are ‘people of all ethnic groups’ in most urban centers of the world. Unlike traditional rural or tribal missions where you come across mono-ethnic communities, urban missions is multi-ethnic and thus to plant a church in the city requires much care and commitment towards the worldview[3], culture[4] and needs of all people groups in the city. The urban missionary should be thus, one well trained and moulded by God to be able to articulate the gospel in such a way that people of any ethnic background could understand and relate to the gospel. In other words, it is not possible to just learn one standard way of presenting the gospel and do urban missions. In the urban context, with people of different ethnic backgrounds, the missionary has to be sensitive to each community and prayerfully reflect on what particular need best speaks of their need for God and turn it into his touching point for his gospel presentation to them. Sometimes in one presentation itself, he would have to do this for more than one ethnic group, for as the city, so the meetings are also multi-ethnic.

In addition to these ethnic factors, there are cultural aspects of the city which affects everyone who lives there. Some cities are commercial centers and it affects the people who live there. People become workaholics, professionally driven and highly materialistic. Certain other cities are centers of arts and media, where people are artistically driven and care more about self-expression than money. There are cities which are a combination of both and more. The point is that each city has a character which affects its citizens. The city moulds a basic worldview which determines what the priorities of its citizens. The urban missionary should be sensitive to study it and see where the gospel can intrude into this worldview and rescue people. Thus in order to do urban missions effectively, one should not only be a lover of the gospel, passionately exploring, observing, reflecting and articulating how the gospel changes everything, both in his life and others, but also should be well informed in cultural anthropology[5] as it applies to the particular city he is engaged in. 

Why Do Urban Missions?

Perhaps someone might be raising a common objection made against urban missions, which is regarding the whole point of doing urban missions. After all why should we try to reach a city which has already been reached by many churches? Shouldn’t missions be all about villages where the gospel has not been even heard once?

As legitimate a concern for villages and people groups this objection has, it still has some faulty assumptions regarding urban missions and those who speak for it. First of all, those who are advocating the priority for urban missions is not working from an ‘Either/Or’ perspective but from a ‘Both/And’ logic. In other words, giving priority for urban missions does not mean not doing traditional rural and tribal missions, but doing urban missions along with traditional missionary work. Secondly, regarding why we should reach a city which already has some churches, can be answered by showing the crucial nature of cities over against villages, biblically, demographically and strategically.

Biblically speaking, commentators, historians and expositors have noticed how the early church did their mission, giving high priority for the cities. Take for example the missionary journeys of Paul, the apostle. His focus was clearly urban as pointed by John Stott in his commentary,

It seems to have been Paul’s deliberate policy to move purposefully from one strategic city-centre to the next. What drew him to the cities was probably that they contained the Jewish synagogues, the larger populations and the influential leaders. So on his first missionary expedition he visited Salamis and Paphos in Cyprus, and Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe in Galatia; on his second he evangelized Philippi, Thessalonica and Berea in Macedonia, and Athens and Corinth in Achaia; while during the greater part of his third journey he concentrated on Ephesus. Indeed Luke deliberately describes how the gospel spread ‘by the gradual establishment of radiating centres or sources of influence at certain salient points throughout a large part of the Empire.’[6] 

Tim Keller summarizes Paul’s urban strategy as follows

In Acts 17, Paul goes to Athens, the intellectual center of the Greco-Roman world. In Acts 18, he travels to Corinth, one of the commercial centers of the empire. In Acts 19, he arrives in Ephesus, perhaps the Roman world’s religious center as the hub of many pagan cults and particularly of the imperial cult, with three temples for emperor worship. By the end of Acts, Paul makes it to Rome, the empire’s; power capital, the military and political center of that world.[7] 

Thus the early church was largely an urban church planting movement and it was because of this urban strategy that they had the impact back then on the broader culture and society of the Roman Empire. So much was the impact on the urban centers of the first century that, Rodney Stark argues that the original meaning of the word ‘Pagan’ (paganus) was “rural person” or more colloquially “country hick” and that the present meaning of pagan came due to the triumph of Christianity in the cities and the rural people remaining unconverted.[8] Hence to target cities for missions has a strong biblical-historical precedence. But why did the early church target cities of all places? The answer is given by our next two arguments for the priority of urban missions – demographically and strategically. 

Demographically speaking, the city is the best place for missionary work. For unlike a village, in a city there are more than one people group present. Thus planting a church in a city is to take the gospel to more than one people group at the same time. It was true back in the case of the first century church and it is true even today. For example, take a city like New York, where there are people from at least 62 unreached people groups. Nathan Creitz, shows how urban mission in a city like New York is crucial by comparing it with the traditional way of doing missions. He says,

One way to reach them would be to train and deploy 62 missionaries in 62 countries who would spend 2-3 years learning the local dialect and culture, and be supported financially for the rest of their lives to live in those countries. This, I think, is our primary international missions strategy and it is effective. We need to continue sending missionaries to live and serve in nations around the world. We need to count the cost and go to them. However, in our great cities, the nations of the world are coming to us. They are sacrificing everything for the privilege of living in my neighbourhood. They are leaving family and severing strong social bonds to be here. They are learning our language. We can show them kindness by helping them adjust. We can share a meal with them and provide for basic needs. We can help them learn the language. We can help them create strong social bonds here with the Christian community. More importantly, we can share the Gospel with them and disciple them to be effective evangelists to their own people. The unreached are more reachable in our own cities.[9] 

The amount of people living in urban spaces is increasing as each year passes by that most scholars call this century the urban millennium.[10] According to the 2005 Revision of the UN World Urbanization Prospects report, the global proportion of urban population rose dramatically from 13% (220 million) in 1900, to 29% (732 million) in 1950, to 49% (3.2 billion) in 2005. [11] In the 2011 Revision of the UN World Urbanization Prospects report, released this year, the world urban population is expected to increase by 72 per cent by 2050, from 3.6 billion in 2011 to 6.3 billion in 2050. By mid-century the world urban population will likely be the same size as the world’s total population was in 2002. Moreover the same report says, the world rural population is expected to reach a maximum of 3.4 billion in 2021 and to decline slowly thereafter, to reach 3.05 billion in 2050. [12]

All of these demographic trends are teaching us one thing,

Missions is a summons to the frontiers. And more and more those frontiers aren't the romantic 'savages' living in the woods that make for the missions stories of the previous generations, like 'Bruchko', 'Peace Child', and 'Through Gates of Splendor'. Today's 'frontiers' are home to the globe's most hostile people to the gospel. Don't think jungles and loincloths. Think flat, hot, and crowded in the world's urban mega-centers. God is bringing the unreached peoples out of the woods and into the cities for the completion of the Commission.[13] 

Finally, reaching cities is important for the strategic role they play in the wider society and culture of a nation. In the first century like today, cities were the seats of culture, religion, philosophy, art, politics and economics.[14] Though it can be said of today’s cities too, there is an additional factor which has accelerated the influence of cities even more in our day. Due to worldwide urbanization, it is no longer countries but cities which govern the 21st century.[15] Cities across the globe have so much influence on the world, that just 100 cities account for 30 percent of the world's economy, and almost all its innovation.[16] Since cities impact the world this much, reaching the city with the gospel has massive effects on it and the world.

Take for example the city of Mumbai, which is both the commercial and entertainment capital of India. It is sort of like the New York of India, both the cities seeing - stock brokers, businessmen, multinational corporations, aspiring actors, singers, directors - all flocking to their city of dreams. The influence of Mumbai on the nation of India is massive. The youth across this nation looks to Bollywood and Mtv, both based in Mumbai, for cues on how to live a hip and cool life in today’s world. Thus the majority of Indian youth follows what is created by a few folks living in Mumbai. Say if 10% of these creative, influential culture-shaping Mumbaikars becomes part of gospel-centered churches, what would be the impact of it on the culture of the city of Mumbai and the rest of the country?

Before you judge this as a fanciful dream of some ambitious Christians, it should be noted that Rodney Stark in his book, The Rise of Christianity, has shown how the early Christians precisely through their urban mission eventually won the society at large. He says,

“Christianity revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities, by providing new norms and new kinds of social relationships able to cope with many urgent urban problems. To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with widows and orphans, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. (cf. Pelikan 1987:21). And to cities faced with epidemics, fires, earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services. It must be recognized that earthquakes, fires, plagues, riots and invasions did not first appear at the start of the Christian era. People had been enduring catastrophes for centuries without the aid of Christian theology or social structures. Hence I am by no means suggesting that the misery of the ancient world caused the advent of Christianity. What I am going to argue is that once Christianity did appear, its superior capacity for meeting these chronic problems soon became evident and played a major role in its ultimate triumph.. For what they brought was not simply an urban movement, but a new culture capable of making life in Greco-Roman cities more tolerable."[17]

In other words, the urban mission of early Christians changed the culture of a city they went to, so much that they made it a better place to live. In today’s urbanized world, such a gospel-transformation of a major city has massive impact on all other major cities in the world. Thus reaching cities with the gospel is a strategic move aimed at a wider gospel transformation of the society at large, which reaching villages cannot provide. Moreover changing the culture of a city requires a significant portion of the population being in gospel churches. Thus the work of church planting should always keep up with the growing population of world cities. The old mindset of considering a region as reached since a church has already been planted would not work in this scenario. As population increases in a city, more churches need to be planted. Also once an urban center is reached with a church, it often leads to the planting of many churches reaching the surrounding regions and the wider society.

Keller argues how this is exactly what Paul did,

By reaching the city, Paul reached the whole society, as evidenced in the letter to the Colossians. In this epistle, Paul follows up disciples in cities along the Lycus Valley—Laodicea, Hierapolis, Colossae (Col. 4:13–16)—even though he had never visited those places personally. They were likely converted through the Ephesian ministry. If the gospel is unfolded at the urban center, you reach the region and the society.[18] 

Thus for biblical-historical, demographical and strategical reasons we need to do urban missions and show the people of our cities how the gospel changes everything. Hence, Stott reminds us that,

Christians need to move into the cities, and experience the pains and pressures of living there, in order to win city-dwellers for Christ. Commuter Christianity (living in salubrious suburbia and commuting to an urban church) is no substitute for incarnational involvement.[19] 

What About India?

India will witness the largest increase in urban population in the next four decades. The 2011 Revision of the UN World Urbanization Prospects report says that India will add another 218 million to its urban population between 2011-2030, and will be the major contributor for the increment of urban population between 2030-2050, adding another 270 million to its urban population.[20] This projected increase in urban population in India between 2010 and 2050 will be higher than that of the past 40 years. India is expected to see more than 50% of its population living in urban places in around 40 years. By 2025, the second and fourth largest urban agglomerations in the world would be in India – Delhi and Mumbai respectively.[21] Regarding our present day, more than 275 million people are projected to move into the country's teeming cities over the next two decades, a population nearly equivalent to that of the United States.[22] These developments should affect the way we think about missions in India. Any planning of missions in India for the next 40 years should give high priority for urban missions. 

With cities growing so enormously big in population, are the number of churches reaching out to urban India also significantly growing? Certainly no. Though most Indian cities have some Christian presence, their influence on these cities is practically negligible. The traditional mindset of calling a city as reached if there is a church already there, has caused most people to ignore any involvement in urban missions. Moreover since the needs of tribal missions are enormous in India, many have fallen into seeing a false dichotomy between urban missions and traditional rural missions. One is considered to be a less zealous and committed follower of Christ, if one chooses a city against a remote village as one’s mission field.

Along with it, certain forms of bad theology has also greatly affected the Indian church from being the agent of gospel influence in Indian cities. Certain forms of Fundamentalism, coupled with a dispensational eschatology, which sees all culture as evil and withdraws from engaging with the world for the advance of the gospel, has lead many churches to be more interested in being raptured from the city, than being the salt and light in the city. In other churches where such errors are not found, it is often the lack of a gospel-centered preaching and teaching ministry that has lead to the lack of any significant urban ministry from such churches. For only through gospel-centered exposition of the Word, would people see how all of Christian life is moulded, driven and kept by the gospel. This comprehensive change brought in by the gospel creates a worldview in which all of life – both private and public, both within the church and without, both the secular and the spiritual are equally embraced as a life of faith in the gospel. This greatly affects the witness of the church through each Christian living missionally at his home, workplace and neighbourhood. The missiological impact such a church has in the city is beyond words.

Another hindrance to any significant gospel renewal in Indian cities has been the lack of unity among Evangelicals. Fear of unbiblical ecumenism has lead most of us to the other extreme of being elitists. Instead of finding our identity in the gospel and drawing unity from that common faith in the gospel, we have majored in secondary matters and hoard such things as our identity. Doctrinal distinctiveness of our tradition, though richly prized by us should never be allowed to take the central place of the gospel, especially when it comes to fellowshipping with other believers. If the gospel is kept at the center then we could have meaningful unity without doctrinal compromise, yet fostering Kingdom-minded fellowship aimed at the common good of the city.

Thus as India grows to be a significantly urban nation, we need more churches in all the major cities of the country, at least in the forty some cities which has a population of more than a million people. Churches which are characterized by an intentional desire to engage their respective city with gospel-centered, missional ministries of Word and deed. May the Sovereign Lord, in Whose providence, India is increasingly becoming urban, be also pleased to launch churches and mission agencies deeply committed to urban missions.


[1] John Piper, Doing Mercy to the Brothers of Jesus and the Broken Neighbor, ©2012 Desiring God Foundation

[2] Ibid

[3] Worldview can be defined as a a comprehensive interpretation of reality affecting all that we do.

[4] One definition of culture could be the effort to provide a coherent set of answers to the existential questions that confront all human beings in the passage of their lives. See Daniel Bell, The Winding Passage: Sociological Essays and Journeys, Transaction Publishers, 1991.

[5] Cultural Anthropology is the description, interpretation and analysis of similarities and differences in human cultures. See Brian M. Howell, Jenell Williams Paris, Introducing Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective, Baker Academic, 2010

[6] John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church, & the World, Reprint. (Leicester, England: IVP, 1994), 293.

[7] Tim Keller, What is God’s Global Urban Mission?, The Lausanne Movement: Cape Town 2010

[8] Rodney Stark, Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome, HarperOne (October 30, 2007), 2

[9] Nathan Creitz, Reaching Unreached People Groups In The City, February 2012, www.nathancreitz.net

[10] Also known as the tipping point when the global urban population exceeded the global rural population on May 23, 2007. Since more people in the world now live in urban centers than in rural places, it is called the urban millennium.

[11] World Urbanization Prospects: The 2005 Revision, Pop. Division, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, UN, http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/WUP2005/2005wup.htm

[12] World Urbanization Prospects: The 2011 Revision, Pop. Division, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, UN, http://esa.un.org/unpd/wup/Documentation/highlights.htm, 19

[13] John Piper, A Holy Ambition: To Preach Where Christ Has Not Been Named, Desiring God (2011), 32

[14] To see the crucial place played by cities in the first century and also how Christianity started as an urban movement, see Rodney Stark, Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome, HarperOne (October 30, 2007)

[15] Parag Khanna, “Beyond City Limits,” Foreign Policy Magazine, April 22, 2011, www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/08/16/beyond_city_limits?page=full.

[16] Ibid

[17] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries, (Harper SanFrancisco, 1997), 161–162.

[18] Tim Keller, What is God’s Global Urban Mission?, The Lausanne Movement: Cape Town 2010

[19] John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church, & the World, Reprint. (Leicester, England: IVP, 1994), 293

[20] World Urbanization Prospects: The 2011 Revision, Pop. Division, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, UN, http://esa.un.org/unpd/wup/Documentation/highlights.htm, 29

[21] Ibid

[22] Parag Khanna, “Beyond City Limits,” Foreign Policy Magazine, April 22, 2011, www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/08/16/beyond_city_limits?page=full.


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