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Megacities present challenge for Church's clarion call

Gospel has a battle to reach the world's urban dwellers

Megacities present challenge for Church's clarion call
Fr. William Grimm, Tokyo

March 19, 2014

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It has been claimed that in 1800, Beijing, London and Tokyo were the only cities in the world with a population over a million. By 1900, the number of million-plus cities had grown to 20. In 1970, there were 161 such megacities, and by the middle of 2014, it is projected that there will be 528.

Clearly, we are becoming an urban species. According to a report in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, some time between the year 2000 and today, for the first time in history city dwellers outnumbered rural dwellers. There are approximately 3.82 billion city dwellers today as opposed to 3.39 billion rural folk. By 2025, it has been estimated that the gap will grow to 4.64 billion in the cities and 3.36 billion in the countryside.

Though Jesus and his disciples were from rural Galilee, the Church itself was from the beginning an urban phenomenon, spreading out from Jerusalem to various cities of the Mediterranean basin and beyond. Our governing structure is based upon the ancient Roman urban administrative unit, the diocese, usually named for a city. The ancient Church was so city-centered that those who dwelt in the rural hinterland, the pagus, provided the name for unbelievers, pagans.

Cities are wonderful places. Living in a city can give access to employment opportunities, educational resources, entertainment, a varied society of talented people who can offer challenge and encouragement to one’s own creativity, freedom from restrictive social structures and opportunities to recreate oneself.

Throughout the world, people move to cities hoping to build a better life for themselves and their families. Rural poverty forces many to go to the city to at least eke out a living. In some countries, violence forces people to seek refuge in the city. Lack of options in the countryside drives youth in particular to the glamor of the cities that they see in the media.

Of course, cities can also be hell on earth. A huge part of any city’s population is composed of people whose dreams of "making it big in the big city" have been shattered by reality. Cities can be nests of crime, both organized and spontaneous. Crowding nurtures pollution, filth and disease. Goods and services, when available, can be expensive. The anonymity possible in a city produces the social isolation summed up in the phrase "the lonely crowd".

People who move to the city are often uprooted from their social, family and religious roots and feel lost in the world. They often give up the religious involvement that could offer them support in facing new challenges. Either that, or they form ethnic and religious ghettos that in the case of Christians prize belonging more than evangelizing involvement in society.

In 1970, some 260 million people lived in urban slums. Today, the number exceeds 1 billion. Overall, more than 2 billion people can be categorized as the urban poor and the number is growing faster than the rate of increase of urban dwellers overall.

How is the Church facing this reality? Overall, not very well. Looking at how personnel and resources are allocated, it is clear that urban ministry, especially among the poor and primarily among those in slums, is not a high priority. Lay workers, clergy and religious who serve in such areas are still unusual enough to be worthy of media attention. 

Urban ministry and evangelization is not easy. People are busy and have little time to devote to the Church either as members or as recipients of the Gospel. The physical and social mobility of urban dwellers makes building community difficult, a difficulty that is increased by the fact that people in cities actually belong to several different communities at once: social, employment, political, religious etc. City life exposes inhabitants to a range of ideas and possibilities that makes them at least superficially and often really sophisticated in their thoughts and words.

Urban life is filled with appeals to people’s attention, and anyone who hopes to present the Church and its message must be able to compete for that attention. In a realm of competing ideas and lifestyles, the Gospel can appear to be just one more idea or even an advertising come-on competing in the marketplace. 

Figuring out how the Good News confronts and answers the bad news of city life requires a degree of humility, sophistication, prayer, study, commitment and creativity that scares off many Church workers and leaders. 

Even so, the Church has no option other than to focus its efforts on the places where people actually live, actually need Good News. That means the cities, and especially the megacities.

Maryknoll Fr William Grimm, based in Tokyo, is publisher of

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