God’s Global Urban Mission in an Era of the Autonomous Self and Globalization

In 1983, I left a ministry to university students to give direction to the ministry with which I am presently involved in Montréal. It is interesting to reflect back on how a relevant theology and missiology of the city evolved through that change. One day, as I was looking out the window from the sixth floor of our office, I asked myself a question that initiated a reflection that continues to this very day. “I wonder what is being done in my city to reach people who work in the downtown core from Monday at 8 am until Friday at 5 pm.”

Much to my chagrin, I learned that very little was happening. I began to read about ministry with people in the marketplace and saw the relationship to the needs of urban ministry. At that same time, I was reading in Jeremiah. Having been raised in the context of a family that placed a high priority on the Bible and the church, I am not sure how many times I had read that particular book or skimmed this particular chapter.

But in that cold winter of 1983, the words of chapter 29:4-7 took on a new meaning. As the LORD God Almighty had called those ten thousand exiles to seek the shalom of a foreign city, I began to see that the social and spiritual needs of downtown Montréal could not go by me easily. So began the reflection and the action that have informed life over this period. The context was shaping how I listen to the Bible. I had to join with others to pursue a contextualized action and reflection.

Yet along the way, I learned that this one text would never inform all that is the mission of God in the city. Harvey Conn taught me well. I remember him saying,

Picking one biblical text to sum up my view of urban ministry is an assignment too awesome and dangerous for me. Too awesome because wherever I turn in my Bible it shouts “urban” to me. Too dangerous because the text I select could leave out a piece of the picture too crucial in another text and distort the whole. We need a hermeneutic serious enough to link Genesis to Revelation in the unending story of Jesus as an urban lover and the church as God’s copycat.

I realized that I needed to keep studying all the texts in the context of God’s global mission. Many urban church leaders do cultural studies and wrestle with (the sociology of) place. On a different track, others try to get their heads around the worldviews that make up the personality of our cities (sometimes referred to as a horizon or a space). We need to help urban ministry practitioners put these two approaches together so that in examining the city as a place, we are also learning to look very closely at the worldviews and the social maginaries that are reflected in the urban context.1 Place is space with historical meanings, different identities, varied societal preoccupations.2

Over the past two years we have examined a variety of cities and ministries across the urban world. A common theme is God's global urban mission. But we have also confronted a multitude of challenges for the Church in our cities. In this concluding article of the series we want to put this all together. The purpose is to explore the mission of God in our city/regions in an era of two realities: hyper-individuality and globalisation. There is not room here to go into great details, however, if you are interested in learning more about this topic, click here. Otherwise, below I will offer some practical notions that congregations can pursue as an “echo” of God’s global urban mission.

The Way Forward—“Acting Again”
As the Church understands that the mission of God is rooted in the undivided being and act of God, this requires an ecclesiology which will not separate God’s mission from the Church’s existence and purpose. This is because of the community of Jesus followers’ participation in the mission of the indivisible God.

But the challenges are real: Can we act afresh in this era? Hyper-individuality, the immanent frame, and the evacuation of the transcendent in the pursuit of “realising one’s potential in life” present huge challenges for local congregations that want to pursue the mission of God in their communities. As I said earlier, this does not at all give credence to the traditional view of secularization which sees a decline of religion in the city because of urbanization. Rather, as we saw, it has totally shifted our understanding of how our society is grounded. To their own peril, congregations pay far too little attention to these issues.

Once again, Barth’s missional theology provides a framework for reflection and action for the Church. “It is the Church of Jesus Christ as this missionary Church which is sent out into the world or not at all.”3 Let me propose a four-fold agenda for urban churches.

1. The local congregation as the entity that interprets the triune God to the neighbourhood. As communities of followers of Jesus in our neighbourhoods, we are the structure of believability that brings meaning to the message of the God of Jesus Christ. Our common life together, incarnating shalom, will be a huge “No” to the perils of selfish individualism and a “Yes” to communities seeking public space that brings meaning to life in the face of pervasive evil and suffering.

A necessary place for congregations to play a role is in the pluralities of our cities. My city and the province I live in find themselves in a long, drawn-out debate over how to reasonably accommodate cultural and religious differences in our common public culture. How can churches, in the particularity of their own beliefs and practices based upon the word of God, contribute publicly to such a conversation?

In our neighbourhoods, congregations can be voices to challenge the myth of neutrality on these themes. We need a great deal of discussion on these issues in our cities to hear and understand one another. As an entity that embodies the triune God, we can create space for all to speak and to live their worldviews. We need to be places where differences are celebrated. We must affirm commitment to the liberty of conscience, not just the liberty of religion. Finally, we need to describe concretely what a common life together in our neighbourhood looks like. This describes our affirmation of the equality of all persons.

2. Bearing witness to the God of Jesus Christ and all his teachings. Witness to Jesus and mission are the essence of our vocation. In the present context, moving our discourse from offering people a personal relationship with Jesus Christ (understood as a private relationship) to a lifestyle that incarnates the good news in all that it encompasses should hardly sound radical. But the paucity of fresh reflections on the subject of Christian witness leads me to believe that this must be part of the four-fold agenda.

In our urban communities, sustainable development provides the framework to reflect and act again with integrity in our neighbourhoods. Community development is journeying in community to express aspirations, discover assets, confront limitations, and generate solutions for peace and well-being in homes and the neighbourhood.4

A fundamental question we will need to examine at every juncture of community development is how poverty in cities affects worldview and how worldviews can transform poverty. Essentially, poverty is about relationships. It is not just about economics. Poverty is a broad concept, including economic, social, emotional, physical, and spiritual realities. It is often intergenerational.

It affects peoples’ identity (social exclusion, absence of harmony in life and well-being) and vocation (deprivation at every level of life, including one’s ability to participate in the welfare of the community). But as Jayakumar Christian points out, the causes of poverty can be traced to “inadequacies in the worldview.”5 These inadequacies are a web of lies beyond the mere cognitive level of deception. As Christian points out, this intricate web leads people to believe that their poverty or social status is somehow divinely sanctioned or a factor of fate. People sense that they have no choices. A worldview is a powerful instrument in perpetuating chronic poverty.

3. Pursuing spiritual formation, church education, and discipleship. Barth reminds us that the Christian calling as disciples “…is not to be understood as being from the outset a kind of private route to their own salvation and blessedness.” Each Christian is called to gather others to Christ.6

Being a follower or disciple of Jesus Christ means living fully in the world in union with Jesus Christ and his people and growing in conformity to his person. We could say that it is a grateful and heartfelt yes to God expressed both in act and attitude—the follower of Jesus lives in obedience and imitation of Jesus Christ and walks in the disciplined and maturing pattern of love for God by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is a process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others. Spirituality, then, is the process of developing and experiencing a deep relationship with God. It also deals with how Christians live their faith in the world.

Spirituality cannot be divorced from the struggle for justice and care for the poor and the oppressed. Christians’ interest in the subject of spirituality is not new, although there has been a renewed awareness in the past several years.

Curiously, the word spirituality in theological dictionaries is relatively recent, but the meaning of the term should not be separated from previous expressions, such as holiness, godliness, walking with God, or discipleship. All of these words emphasize a formal commitment to being alive and connected with God and fellow followers through a deepening relationship with Christ. It implies a life of personal obedience to the word of God through the power of the Holy Spirit. We can say that spirituality is our self-transcendent capacity as human beings to participate together in God's creative and redemptive activity.

Spiritual formation focuses our attention on the dynamics of how the Holy Spirit works in us to shape us into the image of God in Jesus Christ in every area of life. We pursue spiritual formation because of God's love for us and the consequences of evil in the world since the Fall. It is the Trinitarian work of the Godhead to stimulate followers of Jesus in their individual lives and in the local community of faith to participate in God's project for human history through the ways and means revealed in scripture. But spiritual formation is also about those spiritual exercises that the follower of Jesus pursues under the guidance of the Holy Scriptures and the Holy Spirit so as to more readily receive God's transforming grace.

4. Preaching and teaching to bring together heart and head. The first three aspects of our agenda need to be underscored in the public preaching and teaching in the church and in our theological education. Perhaps no area of the church’s work needs more attention right now than this one. To address hyper-individuality, we need to address those features of secularity and globality that “bring doom to the workaday world” and a “shutting out” of the mystery of the transcendence. We have bought into the assumptions of the Age of Reason so thoroughly that we actually teach an excarnational faith, “…the steady disembodying of spiritual life, so that it is less and less carried in deeply meaningful bodily forms and lies more and more ‘in the head.’”7

The public proclamation of the scriptures and theological education in the Church and in academia will invite learners to a balanced spiritual life of prayer and the active life, expressed in a corporate commitment to full participation in the mission of God in the variety of our urban contexts.


1. I am intentionally making the distinction between the theoretical notion of worldviews and the deep ideas that inform life that we call social imaginaries. I am grateful to Charles Taylor for the distinction that I have not always made in my writings. I have tended to fuse the two notions. During the research on this subject, Professor Taylor was generous with his time to dialogue on the issues.

2. One of the most recent texts on urban geography that takes these two distinct categories seriously is by A. M. Orum and X. Chen, The World of Cities: Places in Comparative and Historical Perspective. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003). For these authors place is the specific locations in space that provide an anchor and meaning to who we are (see pages 1, 15, 140, and 168). Our sense of place is rooted in individual identity, community, history, and a sense of comfort (11-19). Space, on the other hand, is a medium independent of our existence in which objects, ideas, and other human persons exist behaving according to the basic laws of nature and thought (see pages 15, 140, and 160-170).

3. CD. IV/4, 199-200. See also CD. IV/3.2, 344 and CD. IV/3.2, 647-648.

4. For an in-depth examination of sustainable urban community development see: www.direction.ca/images/stories/documents/community%20development%20in%20large%20canadian%20cities.pdf

5. “Powerless of the Poor: Towards an Alternative Kingdom of God Based on the Paradigm of Response.” PhD thesis. Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California, 340.

6. CD. IV/4.1, 130. Barth compliments this thought. He writes, “Certainly the question of the subjective apprehension of atonement by the individual man is absolutely indispensable.”

7. Taylor, 771.

(Editors' note: This is the last installment of the Urban Communities section. We would like to say “Thank you!” to Glenn for his wonderful work as editor of this section and his passion for urban centers. Beginning in January 2010 you will see a new section, Leadership Profiles, which will take you into the personal lives and passions of global mission and evangelism leaders.)

Glenn Smith is senior associate for urban mission for the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization and is executive director of Christian Direction in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. He is a professor of urban theology and missiology at the Institut de theologie pour la Francophonie at the Université de Montréal and at the Université chrétienne du Nord d’Haïti. He is also professor of urban missiology at Bakke Graduate University in Seattle, Washington, USA. Smith is editor of the Urban Communitees section.