The Urban Frontier

What will it take to reach our cities?

by David Broodryk

“Something is wrong,” I blurted out, as I sat upright in bed.  It was a Sunday morning.  My wife and I were pastoring a church that we had planted five years earlier. I felt a tremendous sense of unease as I woke up early to prepare for the meeting that day.

That fateful morning, I asked a dangerous question: “What would it take to see a movement of the gospel that transforms my city?”  The question changed my life. 

Leading up to that point, I had been asking a very different question, “How can I grow my church?”  The question most pastors ask themselves continually.

These two questions may seem to have the same goal in mind, but they are qualitatively different.  Leaders who desire to grow their churches seldom end up impacting their cities.  But leaders who focus on serving their cities, often experience church growth as a result. 

Cities need us

Movements of the Gospel begin with vision.  Not the kind of vision that is created with flipcharts and whiteboards in a corporate boardroom.  Rather, the kind of vision that is birthed in heaven, ignited by the Spirit and sets our hearts on fire. We need leaders who will think beyond their own organizational boundaries and immediate responsibilities.  We need leaders with a vision and burning passion to reach cities.

The cities of the world are in trouble.  The global population is exploding and urbanization is accelerating.  Cities are bursting at the seams.  This heavy migration from rural to urban is causing a dramatic rise in crime, poverty and moral decay.  Lack of affordable housing, flooding, pollution, slum creation, congestion and inadequate infrastructure are among the long list of problems our cities face.  Many of these challenges are rooted not in urban planning or logistics, but in the sinfulness of man - pride, greed, hatred of people different from us and a lack of concern for our neighbors.  Only the gospel can ultimately bring healing to our cities.

We used to think of cities as places where people had access to the gospel and that the mission field was rural.  This is no longer true.  More and more people in cities have no viable access to the gospel. The unreached and unengaged are flooding into cities daily, accelerated in the last ten years by massive refugee migration.  Gospel proximity is no longer a geographic issue.

Gospel proximity

By the year 2050, over 70% of the world’s population will live in cities.  This global shift leaves us wrestling with the question, “What does ‘ta ethne’ (Go to all nations – Matthew 28:18-20) mean in an increasingly urban world?”  I am convinced that it will require a radical paradigm shift in Christian missions.  The “ends of the earth” have come to our doorstep.

Proximity can be defined as “nearness in space or relationship.”  Our traditional understanding of fulfilling the Great Commission is still largely based on “nearness” or geography.  But the irony of the complex urban landscape is that it is often littered with church buildings next to millions with no viable gospel access.  If we define proximity merely by geography, we would consider these people as having gospel access because there is a church nearby.  Yet, they could live their entire lives without hearing the gospel.  Our definition of proximity needs to broaden to include the way people relate inside social networks.

New urban affinities

Cities change the way people relate.  Our people group delineations do not do justice to the new complexities of urban affinities.  Cities are changing our understanding of affinity.  Increasingly, people in cities do not relate according to tribe, culture or even language.  Rather, they begin to form new affinities based on common interest, need or common cause. By the third or fourth generation people no longer relate inside isolated cultural silos.

These new urban affinities are sometimes referred to as “urban tribes.”  People will sometimes have a stronger affinity with their urban tribes than with their traditional tribes.  These urban tribes could be anything from a tribe of young mothers to gangs in the slums.  In my city, we are seeing the rise of middle class Africans forming large new biker gangs.  Any strategy to reach cities with movements must learn how to work with this new social phenomenon.

Learning to reach cities

My journey of discovering what it would take to reach cities began in 2009.  Although I lived in a city and had done a lot of urban church planting, much of our success in movement was in the rural environment.  We had seen churches planted in cities, but movement eluded us.  I have come to realize that this is true on a global scale: success in movements is still largely rural.  We have urban ministry and urban churches, but very few examples of urban movements.  Where we have movements in cities, they are usually focused on small pockets of people with a rural mindset.  As a global mission enterprise, we have not yet “cracked the code” on urban movements.

In 2009, I set out on a journey with the question, “What would it take to reach the cities of the world?”  My passion was to see cities transformed through movements of the gospel.  With a burning urgency, I held workshops in several global cities to mobilize people towards finding solutions.  Over time, I became increasingly convinced that this is the most critical and urgent issue of our time.  Failure, or even a slow response, will leave us irrelevant to over 70% of the world’s population within our lifetimes!

What will it take?

An urban focus demands a complete re-think of everything we do and how we do it. Reaching cities is not about simply doing the same thing in a different location. Without rapid adaptive change, we cannot reach our cities.

Unfortunately, the global mission enterprise has been slow to respond to the urban challenge.  Many leaders still fail to fully understand the shift. As people move into our over-populated cities, they experience more than a change in physical location.  They go through deep cultural, social, financial, spiritual and relational changes.  While urbanization refers to physical re-location, these deeper changes are defined by disciplines such as urban sociology and concepts such as “urbanism.”

Urban sociology tells us how the urban environment changes people.  People who enter cities often find themselves suddenly removed from their traditional cultural influences.  They become exposed to multi-cultural environments that deeply challenge their traditional norms and values.  High density environments and urbanism present new challenges: social isolation, a new lifestyle of commuting, long working hours and access to the internet. The continual exposure to so many belief systems and religions has given rise to increased relativism and secularism.  These new realities radically change people who move into cities and present our biggest challenge to reaching cities: complexity.

Urban complexity

Five years into my journey to understand cities, I finally realized that the task was close to impossible.  Cities are too complex.  Simple, linear pathways do not work in complex environments.  I needed a new way of addressing the movement challenge in cities, a way to navigate complexity.

Systems theory informs us that most systems can be understood as either simple, complicated or complex.  Simple systems are linear.  It is easy to chart a course from A to B.  Rural environments are often simple.  You can chart a course from one village to the next.  People seldom relate to one another outside their immediate geographic surroundings. 

As people move closer to one another, the higher density gives rise to a more complicated environment.  Relationships begin to form across affinities.  New affinities form.  People may have different cultural backgrounds but work together or play sport together.  Over time, people from different backgrounds marry one another.  Simplicity begins to give way to something much more complicated.

Complexity is the next stage of development.  Complexity happens when a system becomes so complicated that it can no longer be understood. Many different lines of relationship in many different directions makes something complicated.  But it can still be understood.  Complexity takes places when so many relationships exist that it can no longer be explained, predicted or understood.  Weather systems are complex.  The human brain is complex.  With all our technological achievements, we are still not able to fully understand or predict the weather or the human brain.

Modern cities are complex, and growing in complexity every day.  An acronym often used to describe this is “VUCA.”  It stands for “volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.” In a VUCA world, we need a way to rapidly adapt and discover new approaches to reaching people.

An adaptive response

Complexity demands an adaptive response. Complex challenges require adaptive solutions.  Reaching cities with the gospel requires an innovative and adaptive learning and training system.

When facing a VUCA environment, a static “one size fits all” model of ministry or movement will not work.  Adaptive learning is designed to help teams continually and rapidly adapt to their changing environments. Teams need to find, test and implement new and innovative approaches to ministry.  Movements in VUCA environments can only be achieved through an adaptive learning approach.

AdaptiveDefinition: Adaptive learning is process of continued learning, diversification and adaptation of tactics, methodologies and systems based on a single common vision, set of values and strategy.

An adaptive approach to movements recognizes that some things are unchanging.  We call this the “hard core.”  However, we also understand that some things – such as our methods, tactics and systems can be adapted to the people we are trying to reach.  These are the “soft edges.” When we allow teams to rapidly adapt the soft edges in a peer learning environment, we create movements that can respond to complexity.

Transitioning from a static model of training to an adaptive learning approach is not easy.  We often hold tightly to our tactics, systems and methods.  We believe “our way is the best way.”  Building a movement of rapid adaptation takes time and intentionality.  The initial stages can be discouraging and seem confusing.  The results over time, however, can be profound.  People often comment on the joy, thrill and freedom of adapting together with other teams from around the world.

 Finding solutions together

Cities are very quickly becoming the largest mission field in the world.  The challenge is too big for a few experts with all the answers.  The world we are entering is too complex for simplistic, linear solutions.  The only way forward is an adaptive learning system that can address the complexity we face. I am convinced that as we learn to become more adaptive, mobilize ordinary people to experiment in teams, create a global urban learning environment and partner together, we will “crack the urban code.”  The stakes are high and the time is short.  The cities of the world are waiting…

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David Broodryk (www.davidbroodryk.org) leads TAN Foundation in Johannesburg, South Africa, serves as global strategic director of Accelerate (www.accelerateteams.org) and serves on several DMM teams globally.