Aaron Earls has posted on global Christianity trends in an article at the Facts and Trends blog. We Americans have a tendency to assume that the USA is the world, and so we think that what happens here determines how the rest of the world thinks and behaves. But the fact is that we are but one nation out of many, and most Christians live somewhere else.
3. Cities are growing faster than Christians are moving to them.
In 2017, 55 percent of the world’s population will live in an urban environment. More than 4.1 billion people will live in cities and almost 1.6 billion of them will be Christian.
The global urban population is growing at a 2.2 rate, while the Christian urban population is growing slightly slower at 1.6.
I’m not sure how this compares to the US, but here in the South, cities breed big churches — and some truly great churches. The members are often higher in income and very generous in giving. Urban churches tend to have more highly educated members, and so often they serve as centers of influence within their denominations, producing literature, ministry methods, and even training ministers.
Now, I grew up in a small town (less than 7,000 population) and a small church (from 100 to 200 members during most of my youth), and I have nothing against a smaller, less urban church. They often have a closer sense of community than urban churches. I mean, every member really does know every other member. And it’s often true that they’re better at spiritual formation for their young people than the big urban churches. I mean, in a small church, if you don’t step up and volunteer, there really is no one else to do it for you. You have to participate to have a church at all, and that can be very healthy for a young person.
On the other hand, the economies of scale that large churches provide are powerful things. When a town gets hits by tornado, hurricane, or other disaster, you’ll be glad that there’s a big church that can coordinate relief efforts, feed and house volunteers, provide volunteers for recovery efforts, and so on. And where would our foreign missions be without the large churches that provide most of the volunteers and funding?
So both are good and both are needed expressions of the Kingdom.
Now, I’m no foreign missions expert, but I’ve been told by actual experts that outside the US, the cities are the cultural drivers. That is, if you don’t have a congregation in the major cities, no one will take you seriously. And we see in Acts that Paul focused his efforts on large, culturally influential cities, and then let the churches he founded do mission work in the surrounding areas. It makes sense in many cultures.
Therefore, it really is imperative that US missions be focused on planting churches in urban areas. That is not to dismiss the need for other sorts of plants by other means, but if we overlook planting urban churches, we’re handicap the Kingdom.
But we are largely only a generation removed from rural life ourselves. Many of us don’t know much about how to plant a church in a large city with expensive land, strict zoning, transportation issues, and all the challenges that come with urban ministry. We know how to plant 100-member rural churches (sometimes located in a city) because that’s where most of us grew up.
The solution is to work with a professional missions organization, such as MRN, to gain their experience in foreign, urban settings. I mean, why re-invent the wheel? Work with someone who’s not only done it before but who’s worked with other denominations to compare notes to see what methods are working and what methods no longer work.
4. Christianity is no longer a Western-dominated religion.
In 1900, there were twice as many Christians in Europe as the rest of the world combined. By 2017 both Africa and Latin America will have passed Europe in the number of Christians living there.
By 2050, Africa will be home to 1.25 billion Christians. In a few decades, more than 1 in 8 people in the world will be an African Christian.
You should see the Friends I have on Facebook. Increasingly, my readers are native missionaries and teachers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. And they are energetically preaching the gospel as fast as resources allow.
In many parts of the world, the Internet has shown how Hindu and Muslim life compares to life in a Christian nation. Countless Bible versions, commentaries, and other Christian resources are available on the Internet for free. And although American influence has been on the decline as the generation that remembers World War II is dying, the American influence is being replaced with native missionaries — men and women who know their people, language, and culture better than any American possibly could.
It’s a big deal. The old model of finding a young man with a Bible major and shipping him off to a foreign shore with a box of Bible and tracts no longer works. In fact, our missionaries tended to recruit just enough new Christians to form a church of about 100 members, and then the American missionary became the American located preacher — more focused on the flock than evangelism — and numerical growth ended. Worse yet, the presence of the highly educated American tended to make the church too reliant on the preacher for Bible knowledge and leadership, stunting the development of leadership from within the church itself. When the preacher died or retired, the church soon died as well.
But we’re learning better ways to do missions and to train missionaries. And we’ll likely have to relearn our methods yet again in another generation. The old methods rarely work today, but God is still alive, the Spirit is still powerful, and Jesus will still draw believers — if we’ll pay attention to where God is active and work together to share victories and defeats and learn from our experiences together.