‘Big Cities’ Need Hope Indeed,
if U.N. Predication Holds
BY MARK A. KELLNER, Adventist Review News Editor
hen the Seventh-day Adventist Church voted in 2005 to mount a “Hope for Big Cities” evangelistic effort in dozens of large cities across the world, the effort may have been more fortuitous than initially imagined.
On June 27, the United Nations Population Fund announced that by next year, 3.3 billion people--half of the world's current population--will be urbanized, a dramatic increase in less than 60 years. In 1950, only 18 percent of developing countries' populations lived in cities.
“The population of towns and cities in developing countries is set to double in the space of a generation,” said Safiye Çagar, director of Information, Executive Board and Resource Mobilization for the U.N. agency, in a letter to the media. “Many of these new urbanites will be poor. Their future, the future of cities in developing countries, the future of humanity itself, all depends very much on decisions made now.”
While the United Nations Population Fund doesn’t endorse a specific form of religious outreach, its report notes that urbanization can lead to an increase in religious activity: “The revival of religious adherence in its varied forms is one of the more noticeable cultural transformations accompanying urbanization,” the report notes. “Rapid urbanization was expected to mean the triumph of rationality, secular values and the demystification of the world, as well as the relegation of religion to a secondary role. Instead, there has been a renewal in religious interest in many countries.”
According to the UNFPA text, “The growth of new religious movements is primarily an urban phenomenon, for example, radical Islam in the Arab region, Pentecostal Christianity in Latin America and parts of Africa and the cult of Shivaji in parts of India. In China, where cities are growing at a breakneck pace, religious movements are fast gaining adherents.”
|AN URBAN HORIZON: As this cover of the United Nations Population Fund report illustrates, rural residents are casting an eye towards urban living. Half the world's people will live in urban areas by next year, and Adventists are intent on bringing "Hope for Big Cities." [Photo: UNFPA]
The report notes, “Increased urbanization, coupled with slow economic development and globalization, has helped to increase religious diversity as part of the multiplication of subcultures in cities. Rather than revivals of a tradition, the new religious movements can be seen as adaptations of religion to new circumstances.”
What urbanization may lead to are masses of people who are displaced from their roots and who are searching for community and connection in a pressurized world. Bringing the Gospel message to the world's major population centers is a goal of the Adventist Church, which currently has 15 million baptized members and more than 30 million attending services weekly.
Adventist outreach efforts in places such as Bangkok, Thailand; Johannesburg, South Africa and Mexico City, Mexico, are essential, and are among the 55 cities selected for the “Hope for Big Cities” outreach. In 2004, Adventist pastor Israel Leito, who heads the church’s Inter-America region, said different methods must be used in cities over small towns.
"The approaches that work in the city are not necessarily workable outside the city, and because church growth outside the city is easier, attention and resources were diverted to those areas more than in the city itself," Leito told Adventist News Network at the time. "By not having [responsibility for those] other areas, the [local church authorities] must concentrate on reaching city dwellers now. We are planning to make the units in the city smaller, in order to be more concentrated on specific areas," he added.
By reaching out to major metropolitan areas, the Church is responding to a challenge issued by one of its pioneering founders, Ellen G. White, as noted in a 2005 news report. In 1909, Mrs. White wrote, "The Lord has been calling our attention to the neglected multitudes in the large cities, yet little regard has been given to the matter."
That’s changing. A major campaign is slated for a teeming urban area which, for security reasons, can’t be named. It’s a city with more than 14 million residents--but a very small Seventh-day Adventist presence, says Michael L. Ryan, a general vice president of the world church.
Because this city and country are predominantly non-Christian, the name of the city "is best left unsaid," Ryan told Adventist News Network in a 2006 interview. However, he said, the church in that region has designated the city as "a high priority place" for evangelism.
"At the planning meeting, local church leaders acknowledged there has been an Adventist presence in the city for over 100 years," Ryan said. "Today, we have 106 congregations there, averaging one new congregation per year, and the goal over the next five years is to make that number double." In June, Ryan told a group of world church leaders that the outreach effort’s culmination will begin shortly.
Along with specific outreaches in the 55 cities, media will also have an impact. Among the ways of using media to reach big cities is Adventist World Radio, the church’s shortwave, FM and satellite transmission service, which beams programs around the world. According to AWR president Ben Schoun, the world’s “big cities are vitally important because it’s such a concentration of people. If we want to reach the world, we make the most gains going to concentrated areas.”
Schoun said AWR is installing 10 FM stations in major African cities, for example, because local FM broadcasting is preferred by residents there. Kigali, Rwanda; Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania are two such locations, he said. In other areas, especially countries which are closed to private media ownership, shortwave and podcasts are often used, he said.