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Cities without God?

The Challenge of the Mega-Cities for the Christian Mission
Excerpt from Hans Guderian: Following God’s Steps worldwide, p. 172-175


1. Secularisation and Urbanization

1.1 Harvey Cox: City without God? – More than 30 years ago, the American theologian Harvey Cox described in his book “The Secular City” (in German: Stadt ohne Gott = City without God) the more or less totally irreligious way of life of the modern city. Following Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his concept of the “irreligious Christianity“, Harvey Cox even claimed “that we must stop speaking about God for some time ... so that the one who revealed himself in Jesus might not be confused with the gods of mythology or with the philosophical idea of a Supreme Deity“ (re-translation from German into English).

1.2 From the closed to the open society – Speaking about God has indeed been marginalized considerably in the modern urban society. This development has its reasons. In former times rural cultures were societies closed in themselves. Public affairs, religion, people, culture and faith all belonged together. In the centre of such a closed society there had been the village, the clan, the kinship. Open urban societies have a totally different structure. Here we find the city, the market and the economy in the centre. The Christian Church is only a phenomenon at the periphery.

1.3 Mega-cities and globalisation – Today these general sociological considerations are of great importance regarding the enormous urbanization of our modern world. While in 1995 2.4 billion people were living in cities, their number will have increased to 5 billion people in the year 2015. Then more than 60 per cent of the world’s population will belong to the “species” of the urban citizen. There will be more than 500 cities with more than a million inhabitants. These mega-cities with their glittering luxurious centres and their enormously growing slums will also in the future have a strong fascination for millions of people worldwide.

2. The Gospel for the City

2.1 The Church of Jesus Christ in religious pluralism – The Christian Church has had its difficulties with the urbanization of society and it still has its difficulties today. As it was quite normal in former times to have the “church in the middle of the village“ Christian churches have left the people in the cities more or less alone presently. In the Wedding, a workers class district of Berlin, before the First World War, at the edge of the development of industrialization, there was only one church building with 1,500 seats for 140,000 people. The “church in the village“ was replaced by the “pub at the corner of the street “. However, our Baptist churches, together with other Free church groups, reached the people in the big cities in the 19th and 20th century in a very effective way, especially on the background of this massive secularisation.

2.2 The coherence of social work and evangelism – This temporary prospering of our Baptist churches in the secularised big cities was mainly the result of a close combination of evangelism and Christian social services. “Sunday schools“ passed on Biblical knowledge and were at the same time real schools for the children of the very poor. Craftsmen, ordinary workers and day labourers got to know Jesus and received help in their practical needs.

2.3 No space for homeless people and for „stock-shareholders“? – Today, in contrary, in the Baptist churches in Europe as in many city churches overseas you will find mainly members of the common middle-class. We have almost completely lost contact to many groups of the modern urban society: to the homeless people, the alcoholics, the prostitutes, to the artists and the supporters of the different sub-cultures, to those obsessed by entertainment, party, fun and happiness, to the football fans and the many sportsmen, and to the elites, the top-managers, the shareholders and the members of the upper class.

3. The Charismatic Movement in the City

3.1 The Charismatic movement in the “Third World“ – On the background of a more and more “unchurched society“ in the modern big cities we observe a remarkable development during the past ten years: the massive growth of charismatic and Pentecostal churches especially in the metropolitan areas in the so-called “Third World”. This is why in the meantime also Harvey Cox revised his thesis of the religiousness of the modern city. In his new book “Fire from Heaven“ treating the growth of the Pentecostal movement, which has increased in less than 100 years to about 500 million supporters, he describes this renewal of the church of Jesus Christ, where great numbers of people find fellowship and a new, clear orientation for their life in an anonymous and apparently meaningless world.

3.2 The worship service as a festival of faith – This is shown especially in the character of more or less charismatic worship services, in the open expectation of God’s speaking and acting, in the festive atmosphere of giving and taking. The emphasis lies not so much on devote attentiveness, silence, a strict liturgy, the teaching of doctrines and wise councils, but rather on the encounter with one another and with the living God. This is why they have many old and new hymns and choruses, specific times of praise and adoration, openness for testimonies, prophetic watchwords, blessings and personal counselling, including the expectation of healings and other Divine manifestations.

3.3 The city as a nourishing ground for a charismatic spirituality – Obviously such a colourful, manifold and generally open spirituality corresponds especially to the needs and the way of life of many people in the city. The Mexican theologian Daniel Chiquete, who belongs to a Pentecostal church, sees the following reasons for this development: “All believers of the Pentecostal church in Mexico-City share the experience of the big metropolis with its permanent tensions, its wild, fast rhythm, its possibilities and limitations. For all of them their Pentecostal faith is the most important basis to survive in this urban monster.” (translation into English).

4. Mission in the City – A new Programme of the “Vereinte Evangelische Mission“ (VEM)

These dramatic developments of a decreasing presence of the traditional churches and also of the Free churches in the big cities and at the same time the new flourishing of charismatic and Pentecostal churches has become a concern for many churches and missions in the meantime. In this context the “Vereinte Evangelische Mission“ (= United Protestant Mission/VEM) has launched a programme, respectively a process, under the title “New Areas of Mission“, to share experiences in mission, especially in the cities, and to support each other in the missionary committment.

This process began in 1998 with a series of consultations with the partner churches of the VEM in Africa and in Asia (in Daressalam/Tanzania and in Tagaytay/Philippines). As a result of this discussion process with all partner churches, an identification took place regarding the most important new area of their joint mission, the topic “Mission in the big cities“. In three workshops held in Douala, Manila and Jakarta the co-workers did not just deal with the challenge of mission in the city in theory, but they also visited the critical areas of the city, the slums and the “smoky mountains“.

As a third step it will now be important to convert these experiences and insights to practical social and evangelistic projects. These shall be initiated in the first place by the local churches and shall be put into practice overseas and also in a few places in Germany.

5. Mission in the City – A Challenge also for EBM/MAS


In the course of history EBM/MASA has operated mainly in the rural areas: in the northern part of Cameroon, in the interior of Sierra Leone, in the wideness of the pampas of Argentina and among the Indian people groups in the tropical rain forest. Many good things have been developed here, and this work has to be and will be continued.

But the world has changed during the last 50 years in a dramatic way. Today nearly half of the world’s population live in the big cities and the number is constantly growing. Should we not take the challenge of “mission in the city“ more serious and look for possibilities and ways how to cope with this challenge and how to reach these people with the gospel, together with our partners? Should we not - as other mission agencies do - turn back towards these “unreached people groups” of the millions of people in the mega-cities of our world?

Already in the beginning of the nineteen seventies Harvey Cox remarked that his concept of a “City without God” revealed an error. Faith is not dying, even not - and especially not - in the cities. Certainly the religious experience will become much more pluralistic, and all churches will be pushed into the position of a minority. But we will have our place in this situation, too. And we are called anew: “Come across and help us“ (Acts 16,9).

Hans Guderian


- Harvey Cox: Stadt ohne Gott?, Stuttgart und Berlin 2.A. 1967 (Translation from Harvey Cox: The Secular City. Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective).
- Walter J. Hollenweger: Der Aberglaube der totalen Säkularisierung, in: Kirche in der Stadt (Jahrbuch Mission 2001), S. 192-196.
- Frank Kürschner-Pelkmann: Städte sterben nicht, in: Eine Welt 2/2001, S. 20-23.
- Mission in der Stadt. Ein Interview mit Wilson Niwagila, Referent für Evangelisation bei der Vereinten Evangelischen Mission (VEM), in: Kirche in der Stadt (Jahrbuch Mission 2001), S. 205-212.
- Mission in großen Städten. Berichte von den Workshops in Douala (Kamerun), Manila (Philippinen) und Jakarta (Indonesien), Vereinte Evangelische Mission, Wuppertal 2000.

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