The seismic shifts in the landscape of missional engagement are often discussed in dramatic terms in conferences, academic journals, and boardrooms. Rethinking our approaches to forming missional workers in an urban-world-in-motion is overdue. This paper highlights four megatrends that are impacting the cultural terrain of mission theory and practice and focuses on the implications for the missionary tasks of evangelism, discipleship, church planting, and especially the training and preparation of missionary candidates in relation to educational institutions and sending organizations.
In the history of humankind on this planet, the idea of change should not be a surprising concept. Regular adaptation has been consistent throughout history. The first agricultural settlements leading to inevitable urbanization, naval navigation, the printing press, the nation-state, the industrial revolution, the internet: we could, of course, go on and on. Nevertheless, even if expected, it is notable that major shifts in the landscape of contemporary societies are sending ripple effects around the globe, and consequently, the impact upon the contexts of global missions must be considered.
For several years, I have served as a missionary, a trainer of missionaries, and a teacher of missions—often concurrently. Serving in a leading world-class city (NYC), I have had the terrifying privilege of a front-row view of the religious and cultural landscape emerging beyond the church pew. The need to creatively explore our mission landscape is very real and increasingly urgent.
In this paper, I am highlighting four megatrends that are impacting the cultural terrain of mission theory and practice. I will briefly highlight these societal shifts; however, my primary purpose will be to discuss the implications for the missionary tasks of evangelism, discipleship, church planting, and especially the training and preparation of missionary candidates in relation to our educational institutions and sending organizations.
Lots of ink has been spilled over the reality of increasing urbanization in recent decades. It is now quite clear that the twentieth century shaped up to be, among other things, the century of the city. At the start of the twentieth century, the planet was 86% rural.By the conclusion of the century, one-fifth of the population of the world lived in cities of more than one million residents. The twenty-first century is continuing the push towards becoming a planet of cities. Current United Nations projections estimate that by 2050 our world population will be 65% city dwellers. Urbanization has been a reality since the earliest Mesopotamian, Chinese, and pre-Columbian empires; however, the major shift now occurring is the rapid acceleration of urbanization. City life has hit a tipping point. It is now the normative experience of most of humanity.
Often highly urbanized contexts involve contradictory processes occurring simultaneously. In addition, the characteristics of subcultures are often intensified,and intercultural interactions may lead to varying degrees of hybridization. This dynamic is likely to challenge one-size-fits-all approaches to ministry methods and will increase the importance of creating adaptable structures and developing equally adaptable leaders.
Globalization is not new either. Some historians argue that the beginning of globalization can be dated at 1492.This assertion, of course, appears to be more than a little Eurocentric in perspective. Such viewpoints fail to take into consideration early trade routes between peoples—most famously the ancient Silk Road linking empires, worldviews, and religions across vast geographic regions and continents. Indeed, I would argue that globalization is a standard trajectory of human civilization. What has changed is the pace and scale as new technologies forge new pathways and connections in real time.
As the result of new information technologies and advanced transportation systems, globalization is a force racing ahead with increasing speed in tandem with urbanization. While some states or cultures may react negatively to this phenomenon, these are likely only interruptions in a natural human trajectory of exchange, connection, and conflict. Today, economic, cultural, or social processes are taking place through a global network, and the strongest links are between urban centers that act as nodes in this network. As a result, peoples around the world are more connected—whether locally, regionally, or globally—than ever before, and they are more mobile than at any point in history.
Migration is multidirectional and global. There is not a single story but an anthology of migrants’ stories chronicling chapters of dynamic entrepreneurship as well as immeasurable pain. In 2010, the global diaspora numbered over 850 million representing more than 320 distinct peoples.For the church serving in economically developed cities in North America or Western Europe, migration on a global scale is a major factor transforming the ministry context of numerous local communities. As a result, local ministry will often imply cross-cultural ministry. Often our neighbors down the street may be from a “closed” country or unreached people. Simultaneously, as church growth continues to surge in the majority world, many majority world Christians are migrating to European or North American cities. It seems odd to discuss world missions without giving attention to the vast and dynamic flows of both regional and international migration occurring around the globe.
Over the past couple of decades, conversations seeking to unpack postmodernity have not been in short supply. While the implications of postmodernism began to quake in the shifting landscape of North American ministry settings, postcolonial perspectives in the majority world have emerged as the other side of the proverbial coin. Along with these changes, the global shift of Christianity’s center has hit a tipping point now that the majority church comes from communities in the majority world. And again, during the same period, missional leaders in the West, from Stuart Murray to Alan Hirsch, have pointed to an emerging post-Christendom context challenging existing ministry paradigms. We do not know what else to call our current epoch except post—post-something, post-everything. We simply know that seismic shifts are taking place, and big changes spell new challenges (and opportunities) for the church and its mission.
In our team, Global City Mission Initiative, we have encountered individuals embodying post on a regular basis: post-Islamic or -Buddhist, post-Christian or -atheist, post-secular and New Age. And within the rising tide of the religiously unaffiliated, a common self-description is to say, “I am spiritual but not religious.” In whatever way we might want to interpret such a statement, it has meaning for the person saying it. With trust in traditional institutions seemingly continuing to erode and exposure to a vast array of differing worldviews and ideas in a globalized and urban society, fresh missionary engagement is essential for the church to thrive in this new world.
These mega-trends are increasingly obvious even to the casual observer. The fundamental purpose of this article is to emphasize implications for on-the-ground ministry in urban contexts. The shifts in ministry application listed here are not exhaustive, but they may be essential for embracing the emerging challenges and opportunities facing the church.
From Traditional Societies to Pluralistic Contexts
In previous decades, preparation for missions to a particular people meant we gained an understanding of a culture that at least to some degree seemed fairly monolithic. Change occurred, but we had a general sense of what to expect. We learned the history, the customs, the worldview, the family structure, and various other elements within the new cultural context. Traditional societies are just that. They are built on a sense of history and tradition with the intention of preserving that history by passing on customs and shared narratives to another generation. However, in a world that is on the move—especially as we increasingly labor in cities—we are encountering cultural and religious pluralism. Even within a shared socio-religious context, there is likely micro-diversity as individuals and families encounter different ideas, and cultural hybridization emerges.
In recent decades many corners of the church have struggled with evangelism as a concept and especially as a Christian practice. It seems we have been stuck with a binary choice of insensitive evangelism or none at all. However, there is a need to revive evangelistic practices both as the Western church loses ground and as disciples of Christ encounter a diverse assortment of neighbors from around the world. But how do we respond in the face of such dizzying cultural and religious pluralism? Believers serving Christ in the city will need to recover practices of peaceable evangelism. Urban Christians should feel no shame in being bold in their communication of good news and simultaneously ought to feel unhindered in their ability to befriend those who hold different, if not opposing, sets of beliefs or experiences. Overcoming historical dichotomies, Western Christians need to learn to flex multiple muscles simultaneously.
From Predictability to Adaptability
As many cross-cultural missionaries are forced to shift from traditionally rural societies to urban centers and from somewhat homogenous settings to increasing pluralism, new skill sets are needed. If I am speaking to a young professional originally from Tehran, I may encounter a more traditional Islamic worldview, but I also may encounter a secular Marxist. I may plant a church in a Spanish-Caribbean community in the Northeast or Central Florida and find that some community members are highly secularized, while others are open to religious change, and still others are clinging to their socio-religious identity stronger than ever before. In an urban society, change is the one constant. In addition, cultural pluralism makes it difficult to predict individual worldviews. Cross-cultural ministry requires ethnographic questioning, keen listening, and adaptable ministry practices. Indeed, adaptability is a key ministry skill for the twenty-first century. The crucial question for teachers of mission is: how do we develop adaptability in cross-cultural ministers?
From Stability to Mobility
In some of my earliest efforts at church planting, my team was attempting to plant a neighborhood church; however, within our first year, the membership of our small church plant represented three counties. Extended family networks in the same community still exist, but they are less common than they once may have been. People are regularly on the move; therefore, missionary strategies invested in local people need to consider the potential for regular disruption. One of our early lessons as urban church planters oriented us towards widespread societal mobility, which led us to consider how planting the seed of the gospel in people’s lives can have a far-reaching impact as they carry this living seed with them both near and far. For our team, while we want converts and new churches, the most refined understanding of our strategy is to form disciples who can initiate a discipleship community wherever they go. Assumptions around stability will lead to new challenges, but ministry strategies that take into account the challenges and opportunities of potential transience and mobility may lead to new and creative possibilities for spreading the gospel through diverse communities.
From Localism to Connectedness
Ministry in specific localities should continue. Christian mission is best embodied through an incarnational witness. The rise of urbanization makes the concept of place more critical rather than less so. If cities are hubs of global connectedness, then they are, in kind, hubs for global mission engagement. Ministry in a local context will most often characterize Christian mission; however, local ministry may include connections that transcend that local space. Local places are nodes of connection in a broader network bridging communities, cities, and regions. As a result, missional activity in a local context can potentially have an impact beyond traditional boundaries. Differences between distinct places will continue, but local and global applications may overlap in creative and sometimes complicated ways.
From Imagined Theory to Integrated Apprenticeships
Anecdotally speaking, it seems to be a common pastime for cross-cultural ministers to speak—sometimes jokingly and sometimes expressing grief—of how seminary did not prepare them for ministry as they now know it. The status quo of previous eras for how we form cross-cultural leaders, however, appears to prevail. For the past several years, I have been deeply involved in on-the-job training for cross-cultural urban missionaries, and one of my constant mantras to new missions candidates is that many of the practices they are learning are “more art than science.” It is helpful to study art but to become an artist one must practice the craft.
If we are serious about making an impact in contemporary contexts for missions, training models will need to restore integrated apprenticeships not as the exception but as our primary strategy to prepare leaders for the present and emerging contexts for world missions. Apprenticeship models should not be divorced from the academy but rather integrate theory learned while in practice. Such experiential approaches give flesh to theory and ground concepts in critical reality. Experiential training models also give rise to routinely testing our theories in real time as change continues to be a constant. An integrated approach will bring together specialists across a spectrum of ministry disciplines—missiologists, spiritual directors, pastors, theologians, and others—to contribute to the formation of missionary pioneers for a new world, a world that has already arrived. Dichotomies between practice and theory are not helpful. Missionary apprenticeship should be integrated. The role of the academy is essential to encouraging theological reflection, but reflection exercised in a world-in-motion should be rooted in contemporary contexts. Those training in context may be our forecasters of new and emerging realities.
The seismic shifts in the landscape for missional engagement are discussed in dramatic terms in conferences, academic journals, and boardrooms. Rethinking our approaches to forming missional workers in an urban-world-in-motion is overdue. Accreditation regulations based on ministry models of yesteryear or financial incentives that sacrifice investment in the missionary vocation should be challenged consistently and passionately. If mission-minded leaders do not adapt training models to the contextual realities emerging on a global scale, we are likely to perpetuate our current frustrations and stand together decades from now scratching our heads and wondering how we got here.
Dr. Jared Looney is the executive director of Global City Mission Initiative (). Serving in missions for more than 20 years, he has worked cross-culturally in Houston, New York City, and Tampa. He has worked in evangelism, church planting, and teaching in multicultural communities, and has been involved in training new missionary candidates from multiple missions agencies. Jared is the author of Crossroads of the Nations: Diaspora, Globalization, and Evangelism (Urban Loft, 2015), named a top 15 mission studies text of 2015, and co-author (with Seth Bouchelle) of Mosaic: A Ministry Handbook for a Globalizing World (Urban Loft, 2017). He lives with his wife and daughter in Tampa, Florida.
†Adapted from a paper presented at the Thomas H. Olbricht Christian Scholars’ Conference, Lipscomb University, Nashville, TN, June 6–8, 2018.
1 J. John Palen, The Urban World, 4th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992), 3.
2 David Clark, Urban World/Global City, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2003), 27–28.
3 United Nations, The World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision (NY: United Nations, 2015), .
4 Claude S. Fischer, The Urban Experience, 2nd ed. (Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984), 35–41.
5 Thomas Friedman, “It’s a Flat World, After All,” The New York Times Magazine, April 3, 2005, .
6 Todd M. Johnson, Christianity in its Global Context, 1970–2020: Society, Religion, and Mission (South Hamilton, MA: Center for the Study of Global Christianity, 2013), 82.
7 Elizabeth Drescher, Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016); Linda Mercadante, Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).