Moving City-Ward: Urban Growth and the Church in India and the World

Although urbanization is not new, the degree and speed with which the world, and especially the non-western world, is turning urban is remarkable. People from every culture and ethnicity are moving to our cities by the millions. Yet we still tend to work in traditional ways of doing mission. We assume that the unreached millions are found only in the outermost parts of the world. My own country of India illustrates that more and more unreached, untouched, unevangelized, and unchurched people are found in our cities.These range from the poorest of the poor to highly educated, influential, professional elites. Since urbanization appears to be an irreversible trend, it is imperative that the Christian church, which has also become increasingly urban, be adequately informed, equipped, and mobilized to respond to this reality.

The growing urban church in India: India now boasts six of the twenty-five largest metropolitan areas in the world. Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bangalore, Chennai, and Hyderabad each have more than 7.5 million people. Along with the general population, the epicenter of Christianity is also moving city-ward. In Madras (now Chennai), Bombay (now Mumbai), Bangalore, and Kochi, the majority of the Christian population no longer resides in rural areas, but has also moved to the city centers. More than half the Christians in the state of Maharashta live in the city of Mumbai, another third in the smaller metropolitan areas of Thane and Pune; i.e., the vast majority of the Christian population of Maharashtra is in three cities. Christianity in India is becoming an urban faith.

Positive trends among urban churches: With the emergence of a strong urban scene in India, welcome changes are taking place in Christian circles. Most important, the number of churches has grown remarkably. For example, in the city of Chennai about 500 churches existed in 1981; today that number has eclipsed 4,000. Much of the growth has taken place in independent, non-denominational churches. In Bangalore about 40 percent of churches have no denominational affiliation, and many newly-planted churches in urban areas have come from independent congregations. A trend toward mega-churches is also evident in India’s key cities. New Life Fellowship in Mumbai has more than 250 churches and worship centers throughout the city. New Life Assembly in Chennai has more than 14,000 members. Many of these mega-churches place a strong emphasis on evangelism, prayer, and layperson training. Cell group structures allow churches to develop strong bonds with their members, creating places for lay leaders in Bible teaching, counseling, and pastoral care.

Rural Christians move to the cities: While the contemporary urban church is growing, much of the growth has come through rural-urban migration, not necessarily through new conversions (although these are also happening). Missionary efforts, education, and patronage have enabled the Christian minority to become mobile, taking the opportunity to leave villages and move to cities. Churches in the cities have benefited from this inflow of Christians.

The challenge and opportunity of urban growth: Cities are places of social, political, and economic influence. Considerable opportunity exists, if the church moves strategically from the periphery to the center and concentrates on those who are influential decision-makers, movers and shakers in their communities. In India, Christianity is often associated with the poor, as many conversions have occurred among the lowest strata of society. However, in urban centers the church has a unique opportunity to reach the educated, growing middle class. Many of the most successful churches are intentionally reaching this urban demographic. Cities draw a cross-section of people from across the country. India is a complex nation with hundreds of languages. Various people groups converge in modern cities, leading to a drastic change of scene. Churches, evangelists, and missionaries have opportunities to reach internal migrants living in the nation’s urban centers. The growing urban Christian population needs to be formed and equipped to minister effectively to the overall urban population.

Mobilizing for urban mission: Traditionally, India has been considered a mission field; now it has also become a significant missionary force. However, only a small portion of indigenous missionaries work among city people. Perhaps one of the major reasons for neglect of cities is the lack of information about India’s urban trends. More particularly, it is because mission practitioners, trained in rural paradigms, dominate the mission scene in India, of whom few understand, articulate, and reflect contemporary urban realities. Issues of poverty, corruption, contextualization, and sustainability take on new dimensions in urban centers. Cities bring together affluent, influential leaders engaged in a global economy, along with millions living in slums and picking trash from the streets for their daily sustenance. The church has a mission to reach both these groups, and the millions of women and men in between, with the love and grace of Christ.

A global challenge: Urban shifts in India resemble those of hundreds of cities worldwide. Millions of people are leaving rural villages for metropolitan areas at a staggering rate. The movement fuels church growth and brings new opportunities for outreach. The church has a great need to cast vision and train workers for effective urban ministry. Not only do tactics change; issues that affect the lives of women, men, and children take on different tones inside the city. The church needs new strategies to address these 21st-century urban realities as it brings the hope of Christ to bear in India and throughout the Majority World.

Atul Aghamkar

Dr. Atul Aghamkar earned his PhD in Urban Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary and currently serves as a teacher, urban church planter, and the Head of the Missions Department at the South Asia Institute for Advanced Christian Studies (SAIACS) in Bangalore, India. (SAIACS is a Vital SustainAbility client school.) He also directs the National Center for Urban Transformation. He is married to Suman, who heads the Urban Alliance Center in Bangalore, and they have three children.

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