Missiology: Urban Mission Part 2

Over the next few days I will be posting some thoughts on an issue facing the future of the church, namely the explosion of urban populations. I will start by taking a look at some of the issues brought up by the urban explosion, and I will conclude by reflecting upon how the Gospel addresses these issues.

Today we will look at some of the context for the issue: namely population growth and migration.


II-The Context: The City

            A- Population Growth and Migration

            There is no doubt that cities have grown tremendously during the last century. We know that in the year 1800 the world’s urban population was at three percent, however by 1992 over 45 percent of the world’s population was urban.[1] In Africa there was a 50 percent increase in urban population between 1985 and 2000, only a 15 year period. Towards the end of the last century, 1990, Asia boasted six of the ten largest cities in the world. In the middle east growth has been tremendous as well; Tehran has grown from nearly three million to over 10 million in the past 50 years.[2] To see that much of urbanization has been occurring in the global south should not surprise us. It is actually the case that “many of the largest and certainly the most rapidly growing, urban areas in the world are in less developed countries.”[3] In fact by 2015, it is estimated that all of the ten largest cities in the world will be found in the global south; seven will be in Asia, two will be in Latin America, and one will be in Africa.[4] So what explains this rapid growth? Although the reasons are complex, we can attribute this growth to two basic trends: population growth and migration.

Population growth is one of the main factors contributing to the growth of urban areas. For instance, in the Middle East the birthrate is very high with certain countries having a birthrate of nearly 7 children per family. Even in countries where birthrates are lower, children are born at levels higher than necessary for replacement.[5] In addition to higher birthrates, a declining death rate has contributed to urban population growth in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.[6] It seems as though these two factors: increased birthrate and decreased death rate, are contributing to growth of urban populations in the global south.

In addition to population growth, another factor that has contributed to the growth of urban areas is migration. Migration is a multifaceted subject, yet one basic distinction we can make is between international migration and internal migration, that is migration within one country from one area to another. Getting a grip on migration trends is extremely important for understanding urban growth in the past century, the century which some have called “the age of mass migration.”[7]

The first type of migration is international migration. Castles and Miller note that movements of capital almost always give rise to movements of people.[8] Because of economic shifts many people are being forced to migrate from their home country. These migrants are often escaping difficult conditions at home or they are searching for better opportunities and lifestyles elsewhere. Whether migrants are pushed or pulled to a new country, it is always the case that they are in a sense forced to leave. People do not leave their home and culture unless it is absolutely necessary.

When these international migrants arrive in their new country, they almost always land in a big city[9].  For instance, in the U.S. the majority of immigrants are found in large cities like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and Miami.[10] They come to these cities in search of higher incomes, better employment chances, or professional advancement. Yet it is often the case that they have their hopes shattered when they find that the need for labor in these cities is not as large as they had hoped. However, we must remember that not all migrants to cities are in search of jobs in the industrialized or unskilled market, many international migrants come in search of professional jobs, others are looking for business opportunities, and some are refugees and asylees.[11]

Another migratory factor contributing to urban growth is internal migration, people are moving from rural to urban areas. One author notes that 40 percent of population growth in many areas is due to rural to urban migration.[12] There are various factors that contribute to this migratory trend; among these factors we can distinguish between factors that “push” people towards the city and factors that “pull” people towards the city. In Latin America, for instance, factors that are pushing people to migrate from rural areas towards cities include: a lack of  available economic opportunities, a lack of sanitation and medical services, poor educational facilities, lack of security, and natural disasters.[13] However not all rural to urban migration is due to being “pushed,” some migrants are drawn in to attractive elements of the city. For instance employment, better educational opportunities, and the presence of family member are all factors that pull migrants towards cities.[14] Another reason why some migrate towards the city is the “bright city lights.” When surveyed, some younger urban migrants in Latin America said that they were attracted to el ambiente (the environment) and el moviemiento (the hustle and bustle) of the city.[15] There is no doubt that this pull factor draws in many young people to the city, especially in the United States. One only needs to look at the Fuller population; many of the students at the seminary come from the interior of the country and have moved towards Los Angeles because they want something different, new, and exciting.

These migratory trends contribute to several issues in the city. As people from different backgrounds and contexts move to one centralized area challenges arise; two of the biggest challenges arising from the urban explosion are poverty and cultural heterogeneity.

[1] Harvey Conn and Manuel Ortiz, Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, the City, and the People of God, (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2001), 64.

[2] Conn and Ortiz, Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, the City, and the People of God, 65-67.

[3] William Flanagan, Contemporary Urban Sociology, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 109.

[4] Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 93.

[5] Philip Jenkins, God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe’s Religious Crisis, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 20-2.

[6] Conn and Ortiz, Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, the City, and the People of God, 68.

[7] Stephen Castles and Mark J. Miller, The Age of Migration, (New York: Guilford Press, 2009), 2.

[8] Castles and Miller, The Age of Migration, 4.

[9] Alejandro Portes and Rubén G. Rumbaut, Immigrant America: A Portrait, (Berkeley: UC Press, 2006), 12.

[10] Portes and Rumbaut, Immigrant America: A Portrait, 49.

[11] Portes and Rumbaut, Immigrant America: A Portrait, 20-34.

[12] Flanagan, Contemporary Urban Sociology, 109.

[13] Douglas Butterworth and John K. Chance, Latin American Urbanization, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 40.

[14] Butterworth and Chance, Latin American Urbanization, 47.

[15] Butterworth and Chance, Latin American Urbanization, 47.


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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