Part 2. The Challenge for the Christian Church: New Roles in the Urban Context

In Part 1, we discussed globalization in the new urban city. We also touched upon the spiritual dimension of the new urban landscape. Here we will answer the question “What is the role of the Christian faith community in this emerging urban world?”

The quest for community will be increasingly difficult in the coming years as technological and communication innovations foster new patterns of social life. Certainly the rise of self-help groups reflects the need for community. So do youth gangs and Internet chat rooms. Not discounting their benefits, sooner or later people will discover that these groups or experiences do not suffice. At the same time, Christian-based communities or cell groups have already challenged the conventional concepts of “church.” These ancient forms of church foster stronger networks of community among people of faith, hold each other accountable, and facilitate the movement outward.

Facilitating Community-building
The role of the Church may well go beyond community-building among believers. Admittedly, it may be tough going within a diverse and fluid urban culture, and yet in the long run more rewarding for the Christian Church to effect coalitions with neighborhood groups, civic associations, and non-profit entities to work for broad objectives of economic, environmental, social and cultural justice. More important, the facilitating of community-building may prove to be a viable vehicle by which the message of the gospel can be clearly articulated and affirmed within the public arena.

But the Church will be faced with much more than the task of bridging individuals, groups, and organizations. Racial, ethnic, and regional divisions continue to be significant in the urban context, despite the facility of movement and contact. The widening chasm between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” both politically and economically, will only exacerbate divisions corresponding to ethnic and geographic lines of separation.

Learning from the Voices in the Margins
One of the lessons learned from observing the emerging urban world is that the fault lines of division are seldom static or easily discernible. For example, just when it appears that boundaries between political and geographic rivals are beginning to erode, new tensions appear. Ideological battles are likely to be waged on numerous fronts, challenging religious leaders to be responsibly involved in these conflicts as ministers of reconciliation. Moreover, attention must be given to the smaller, or less vocal, communities whose importance may be overshadowed by such tensions. Those of the dominant cultures have much to learn from those on the periphery.

Indeed, the main stimuli for rethinking the mission of the Church may well come from the bottom and from the edge, from those sectors of the world that have been on the fringes of the fading modern era. Places where:

  • Christians are poor, especially Africa and Latin America;
  • Christian minorities are surrounded by non-Christian cultures, as in Asia;
  • communities of faith live under political oppression, as they do in many parts of the world;
  • the churches of color are poor; and
  • women are agonizing together over what it means to be faithful and female in institutional structures that perpetuate patriarchy.

These are the “voices from the margins,” which have been forced to the sidelines—the basements, kitchens, slums, and colonias of the dominant culture. It is their struggle and hope that now enables them to offer a vision for the Church that may prove to be a true liberation because it has not been squeezed through some religious grid or distorted by the narrow function of mainstream religion.

The institutional Church has much to learn from local indigenous groups. Still the message of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reverberates in the urban village today: the beloved community must be lifted up. They shall know us by our love. The message is clear: we are to proclaim unity, not uniformity, among our neighbors of the new urban village. In the spirit of reconciliation a new sense of people-hood is being called forth.

Besides ethnic diversity and religious pluralism, the global village appears to be characterized increasingly by consumerism. To be sure, we find the pursuit for hope alive, but some seek to find it in status and material wealth. The consumer culture so evident in nearly every billboard or corner-mall of the city is driving people to work harder just to keep up, partly because they feel they need the material amenities of a comfortable life.

They have confused standard of living for quality of life. Ultimately, the “American dream,” whether it be the domestic or international version, will reveal itself to be an illusion for most people. At the same time, the problems of the needy and disadvantaged are likely to become even more severe and not so distant.

Clearly the challenges to the next Church require a sober assessment of the economic future. But taking our Christian faith seriously argues strongly for an optimistic appraisal of the future. Perhaps Christianity's greatest contribution lies in the very orientation it poses toward the future itself. The Christian faith has always included a central message of hope—something learned from those who have struggled on the margins. As the world is being reshaped, that message will need to be clearly presented as never before.

Concluding Remarks
As we continue into the twenty-first century, every aspect of what we call the urban context is indelibly marked by the powerful changes emanating from the globalization of our world and the advances within technology. The profound transformations in peoples, institutions, demography, and geography are physically evident in the new urban reality. The continuous class and ethnic conflict, internal social disorder (communal, familial, and individual), spiritual movements, and patterns of geographic mobility and economic stress have become part of our multicultural urban terrain.

The Christian faith has never had a greater opportunity or a more urgent responsibility to live and proclaim its truths. The Church faces challenges as it attempts to remain faithful to its roots and relevant to a kaleidoscopic world. Yet its message of healing and hope seems never to have been more needed. A Christian response to these challenges demands discernment of the action of God in new ways, and this may mean ultimately carrying out faithful and bold ministry within postmodern forms yet to be conceived.

Rev. Michael A. Mata has extensive experience in urban-related programs, and his skills and expertise lie in developing practical approaches to faith-based community development, congregational redevelopment, transcultural ministry, and community conflict transformation. His research interests include social-cultural analysis of the urban landscape and assessing the social ecology of religious institutions in urban communities. He currently serves as the urban development director for World Vision U.S. Domestic Programs and provides assistance in the areas of community engagement and collaboration.