The Growth of Cities:
According to the United Nations, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050. Most estimates project there will be 9.8 billion people by 2050. This means 6.5 billion people will reside in cities in the next 3 decades.
Because of population density every city has a mixture of cultures, values, and diversity. What makes each individual city unique is the way those three dimensions blend together to create a distinct culture. Whether it’s Tokyo, Mexico City, or Delhi, cities should matter to Christians. From a Christian perspective, all cities are equally valuable because they are each highly concentrated, diverse, geographic areas filled with image-bearers of God.
It is often the blending of cultures that draw people to cities. For some, it’s the diversity of food, entertainment, and amenities that draws them. For others, it’s proximity to the cutting edge of culture - whether that be fashion, technology, or the arts. In the same way that diversity and the blending of cultures draws us to cities, they also magnify the brokenness of individuals and systems.
Along with being cultural epicenters, cities also have increased poverty, homelessness, marginalization, economic injustice, and a laundry list of brokenness. As Christians, God calls us to be for the city by helping to cultivate and grow healthy aspects of culture while at the same time fighting to correct brokenness and injustice in all its forms. The task can be overwhelming, daunting, and at its worst, lead to apathy. Because the task is so big, Christians often default to the easier path of enjoying and building aspects of culture that are working at the cost of entering into the aspects of the city that are in need of repair and restoration.
Rather than running away from brokenness or functionally living with an “out of sight out of mind” mentality, here are three ways we can begin to practically be for the marginalized of our cities.
I’ve recently dedicated an entire article to why Christians should never engage in local mission alone, so I won’t belabor the point. I will say that without a community, even 2-3 believers investing in and co-laboring with one another, chances are you will burn out. In the same way no missions agency in their right mind would send a single Christian to engage an unreached people group, no church or small group should send a lone Christian to marginalized communities.
Mission to the margins is messy, complex, and slow. When you treat the hurting like people and not projects, there are no “quick fixes.” You need time to get to know each other, to build trust, to be equipped to handle the irrationality of sin (both your sin and theirs), and to know when to take a step back for rest and recovery. None of these things are possible in the long term without a community.
As I’ve walked with new small group communities through the process of living on mission in the city together, I’ve learned not to start with asking how to care for marginalized communities in their city. If I start by asking a small group, “what does it look like to care for the hurting in your city?” the answer will be blank stares, stuttering half-answers, and the eventual “I don’t knows."
It is at this point that I love walking them through an exercise that I also commend to you. Over the last 50 years or so, the American church has been taught that mission is somewhere “over there” like Africa, Asia, or the Middle East. To be clear, that’s true, but I believe we’ve over-corrected. We’ve now emphasized “over there” at the expense of where God currently has us.
In this exercise, I get a whiteboard and ask the group, “If God was going to send you to (name a place overseas) tomorrow, what would you need to know to effectively minister to the marginalized in this place?” After giving the group about 15-20 mins to discuss, we come back together and write our answers on the board. Nearly every time, the group has gone from the inability to think of any ways they could care for the marginalized in their city to a plethora of ways to care for marginalized groups abroad. Generally, the group identifies several things they will need to know:
- The culture’s values
- Who their heroes are and why they are celebrated
- Food they eat and the ways in which they show hospitality
- The characteristics of brokenness and their view of flourishing
- How the gospel speaks directly to their brokenness, and brings about the truer and better flourishing
- Whether the society is an individualist or collectivist society
- The role and influence played by the family
Once the group has finished whiteboarding, I flip the script and ask, “Based on your answers to caring for this fictitious group, how can you apply these responses to a hurting pocket of people in THIS city?” This is where things start to click for members of the group and they start talking through ways to identify a marginalized people, how to understand their narrative, and figure out opportunities to build relationships and care for them.
Something worth noting is how groups tend to instinctively think about how to first understand the values and culture of the fictitious people group. Before we can deep dive into caring for refugees, orphans, addicts, etc. we first have to understand their story, their perspective, and their context. It’s only after taking a few steps in their shoes that we can begin to empathize and see those who are hurting as people, not projects.
Once a community of believers are united, have counted the cost, and are committed to loving a specific pocket of people in their city they can take the next step of gaining proximity to a marginalized people. The key to this initial step is simply being consistent. If members of the group have decided to work in pairs to mentor students experiencing fatherlessness, they must prioritize being at every meeting they’ve committed to. They should be on time and be available to care for that child. If they’ve committed to serving with a local sports league that serves inner-city youth (if you’re in Austin, RBI and TCS are two great organizations), they should be at every practice, be prepared, and come ready to invest in building relationships.
Being consistent isn’t going to eradicate poverty, end racism, or provide a roof over every homeless person’s head. It’s not the end result, but in the process of developing relationships, that consistency finds its value. Some people may never fully come out of their addiction, suffering, or hardship, but being consistently available shows those that are hurting that they matter, they are seen, and they are not alone.
It is through our unconditional affection, consistency, and care in community that those who feel most forgotten and neglected will begin to not only hear the truth of the gospel but experience it through the churches loving our hurting neighbor as ourselves.