Introduction to Short-term Student Ministries with Slum Communities

Working Definitions and Facts 

“Urban poor” defined: Those living on
less than US$1 or US$2 per day
(Millennium Development Agenda).
Those living with inadequate income,
shelter and access to infrastructure
and basic daily services. Those who
have an unstable asset base, little to
no access to their rights as citizens
and are voiceless and powerless in
their communities.

Number of urban poor: est. 2 billion

“Slum community” defined: Communities
with inadequate access to safe drinking
water and sanitation, poor structural
housing, overcrowding and insecure
residential status (UN-Habitat).

Number of people living in slum
est. 924 million

This month, thousands of university students from the Global North will move into urban slum communities in the Global South to live alongside the poor. In February, Rebecca Atallah recounted the ministry she pursues in the garbage villages in Cairo. During a recent visit with her, she shared the marvelous contribution that InterVarsity Christian Fellowship students make each summer in her city. Teams serve with the children in the Mokattam community and with Sudanese refugees living in Cairo. In this issue, we hear from Scott Bessenecker on ministering to slum communities and how that can impact us for years afterward.

Bessenecker is director of global projects with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA. For more information on IVCF’s ministry in slum communities, visit He also blogs on ministry with the urban poor.

As we have seen while we have walked with practitioners over the past nine months into Cap-Haïtien, Phnom Penh, Luanda, Bhopal, Calcutta, Cairo, Freetown, Romania, and with the poor in Nordic cultures, poverty is a broad concept. It touches economic, social, physical, and spiritual realities. It affects peoples’ identity and includes social exclusion, absence of harmony in life and well-being, deprivation at every level of life, and one’s inability to participate in the welfare of the community.

However, as Jayakumar Christian points out, the causes of poverty can be traced to “inadequacies in the worldview.” A worldview can be a powerful instrument in perpetuating chronic poverty. All cultures and societies have within their worldview construct aspects of fallenness. And as we have seen, true Christian spirituality cannot be divorced from the struggle for justice and care for the poor and the oppressed. Spiritual formation is about empowering Christians to live their faith in the world. As students work alongside the poor, they learn about inadequacies in their own worldviews and experience incredible personal transformation.

 Worthwhile Books to Consult on Slum Communities

  • For an introduction to urban missiology, I would recommend The Gospel and the Urban World. This “book” travels as a CD-ROM and contains seven hundred pages of some of the very best articles on urban ministry that have been printed in the past three decades, including good articles on slum communities. You can consult the reader and order it online at:
  • The 2003 United Nations global report on human settlements, The Challenge of Slums (London: Earthscan), is a must-read for everyone interested in knowing more about the subject. It is a thorough study with plenty of charts and details.
  • Scott Bessenecker has written the very readable 2006 text, The New Friars (Downers Grove, Illinois, USA: InterVarsity Press). This book underscores principles and tells wonderful stories of men and women doing ministry with slum communities around the world. He has also edited the 2005 book Quest for Hope in the Slum Community (Waynesborough, Pennsylvania, USA: Authentic), a very good collection of articles on the numerous challenges of ministry in these communities.
  • The 2006 book Planet of Slums by Mike Davis (London: Verso) is an excellent exploratory book on the subject of slums. It is quite thorough and very readable.
  • The 2006 book Shadow Cities—A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World by Robert Neuwirth (Milton Park, UK: Rouledge) is the newest book on the subject that I have read. This investigative reporter spent months living in squatter communities in places like Mumbai and Istanbul. He paints an upbeat picture of life in these unique places.

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.