Growing urbanization and the implications for world evangelization

World population is presently growing at an annual rate of 1.18%. This represents a slowing rate of growth, as we discussed here. As has been noted, the growth of the world’s population is uneven: some regions are losing people, and others are gaining people, on net. Eastern Europe and North Africa are seeing crashing populations, while East and West Africa are seeing surging populations, for example.

Another difference in distribution is the increasing urbanization of the world. People are being born in cities and moving into cities. As cities grow larger, and more prosperous, they draw ever more people away from rural areas. There is now an enormous disparity in growth between urban and rural populations: the annual growth rate of urban dwellers is 2% – almost double that of annual population growth. Every 24 hours, the world adds 230,000 people–and of these, 202,000 are new urbanites (either from births or migration), and 28,000 are new rural-dwellers (which is nett of birth/death and immigration/emigration). The world is now over half urban (3.6 billion urbanites, 3.4 billion rural-dwellers).

This trend is world-defining and ongoing. By 2025, researchers estimate the world will have 4.5 billion urban-dwellers and 3.4 rural-dwellers. Thus, the rural population will remain fairly static over the next generation, but the urban population will grow by 50%, adding to its population the equivalent of China. You can see some of the complexities of urbanization in this chart, from the UN:


Europe, North American and Latin America are continuing their slow but steady march toward being “mostly-urban.” The real growth right now is occurring in Asia and Africa. This isn’t surprising, since that’s where the real population growth is occurring to. A map of the fastest growing cities in the world shows they are mostly on a line across West Africa, East Africa, and India. The fastest growing cities are also notably among the poorest, and have the worst infrastructure–although this is improving.

The most immediate result for us: when we think of the “unreached,” we need to imagine fewer grass huts, loincloths and spears, and more of shopkeepers, business owners, scientists, police, students, etc. Some of the fastest growing cities are in unreached regions of the world, and the majority of their citizenry are likewise unreached. People are moving from unreached rural regions into unreached cities. Some cities are even steadfastly anti-Christian, overtly hostile to Christianity in any form. Reaching these cities will require a different kind of approach from reaching rural regions.

When we think of the unreached in cities, we will also have to grapple with the “melting pot” challenge. In cities, what are the social boundaries that prevent the Gospel from being shared? As people from different languages and cultures move into cities, they often begin to assimilate – they adopt major languages and abandon their older tongues. They may adopt an urban lifestyle with some small vestiges of their old culture. Cultural dress may be reserved for special holidays, and national dress norms maybecome daily standards. People who hold too tightly to the idea of specific unreached peoples may find urban areas to be a very difficult challenge indeed. Perhaps the best thing is to simply “move in” among the peoples and get to know the people.

Cities are generally good things for the growth of Christianity. Living conditions tend to favor freedom of choice in cities. Cities grow prosperous, and ideas can travel rapidly. Movements spread faster in cities, where more connectivity can be had. Rodney Stark’s “The Rise of Christianity” details how the early church was largely an urban religion, thriving on connections made between cities.

However, cities also have negative aspects. Moving to cities doesn’t necessarily equate with moving up in income (see this Economist chart). Surveillance and restrictive control can be somewhat easier in urban spaces. The burgeoning city populations means that when disaster strikes cities, there will be more people at risk (see here, here, here). Especially in poorer regions, as more and more people are added to cities at an enormous pace, there is often insufficient housing for them–resulting in urban slums, which are not resilient against disaster. Disease vectors can spread more rapidly through urban populations, especially poorer ones where high levels of health are not maintained. In an age of urbanization, ministries of education, microenterprise, health, and disaster-proofing would all be welcome. Maybe YWAM needs a School of Disaster-Proofing DTS?

One final note: in the rush to engage with cities, we also need continue to remain engaged with rural regions: 3.4 billion people are not small numbers, and reaching them will be increasingly difficult (especially in restrictive areas, where governments are limiting travel of foreigners outside major cities). People moving into cities means that rural areas are becoming more empty and reverting to “wild areas.” This will increase the danger level in some of these regions.

Read more

“Status of Global Mission 2013.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research, January 2013.
“World urbanization prospects, the 2011 revision.” United Nations
“Urban world: mapping the economic power of cities.” McKinsey Global Institute: 4MB PDF, Kindle, eBook
“What city leaders need to know as countries rapidly urbanize.” The World Bank, 22 Jan 2013.


Justin LongGrowing urbanization and the implications for world evangelization