Is it possible to feel alone in a city of 13 million people? It is in Buenos Aires.
Glittering, sophisticated jewel of South American cities, Buenos Aires is Argentina’s capital, economic hub, cultural center and home to a third of the nation’s 40 million people. The city ranks as the second-largest metropolis on the continent (after São Paulo, Brazil) and the 10th-largest in the world, according to United Nations statistics.
But if you look beneath the surface of modern Buenos Aires’ frenetic pace, its wide avenues, its trendy bars and tango cafes, its cultural riches and European atmosphere, you find deep undercurrents of isolation, insecurity, hopelessness — and fear.
Why the pervasive sense of unease?
“In a big city, the spiritual strongholds are loneliness and fear,” says missionary Randy Whittall, the International Mission Board’s team leader and strategy coordinator for Buenos Aires. “It may seem crazy to think about being lonely when you’re surrounded by 13 million people, but they are.”
The metal bars guarding doors and windows represent something deeper than fear of crime, however. The waves of political violence, economic chaos and social turmoil experienced by Argentines since the 1970s have left a legacy of suspicion, disillusionment and cynicism — similar to the malaise that has plagued the United States in recent years.
“People just don’t trust anyone anymore,” explains Whittall. “It’s a huge barrier to the Gospel, because it makes it very difficult to approach people and share. You’ve got this priceless gift you’d like to give everybody, but fear keeps them from being open to even talking about it.”
Fear and distrust aren’t the only barriers to the Gospel in Buenos Aires. Nominal Catholicism (perhaps 5 percent of the population regularly attend Mass) has “inoculated” many people to faith. As in other major urban centers, materialism, secularism and postmodernism are more powerful draws than any organized religion — although a variety of cults attract the poor, the young and the gullible. As in Europe and North America, “tolerance” trumps tradition, opening the door to immorality, New Age beliefs and paganism.
Another major barrier: People are hard to reach — not just spiritually but physically. In the Federal Capital, three of every four people live in apartments — typically, high-rise condos with vigilant doormen or locked entrances. Whittall describes the daily schedule of many apartment-dwellers in the city:
“They get up. They take an elevator downstairs and get in their car. They drive to work. They come back and hit their garage door opener. They drive downstairs, get in an elevator and go up to their apartment. Their actual contact outside of their home and work is practically nonexistent.”
What do these realities mean for the Argentine church? After more than a century of work by missionaries and Argentine evangelicals, the spiritual lostness of contemporary Buenos Aires rivals that of cities in much less evangelized regions of the world. According to recent research, fewer than three in 100 Porteños (“People of the port”) claim evangelical faith in Jesus Christ.
There’s no single solution to the dilemma, but the time for some experimentation clearly has arrived. That’s exactly what Whittall and his missionary team are doing.
One key strategy they believe can work: small groups — many, many of them — that develop behind locked doors among families and other “relationship circles.” Whittall and his team are aiming for 2,500 home groups around the city one day — groups that guide lost people to faith, worship, make disciples and reproduce themselves. Many will gather in apartments and houses; others may meet in restaurants or businesses.
“Churches tend to grow along family lines; you invite someone you know,” he says. “Our goal is not to see big churches but small ones that grow and multiply.”
WHERE THE WORLD IS MOVING
Buenos Aires represents the direction where the world is rapidly moving: sprawling, crowded, ethnically and socially diverse, fast-paced, urban masses of people.
Emphasis on urban. A projected 88 percent of human population growth over the next generation will occur in cities in developing countries.
Buenos Aires is one of 20 global metro areas with populations above 10 million. Cities with populations exceeding 1 million people each total 380 worldwide. Much of future global urban growth will come in smaller cities (500,000 and under), but it will still be distinctively urban.
The urban trend certainly applies in South America, where nearly 80 percent of the region’s 380 million people live and work in cities, a percentage that will rise in the years to come. The continent counts 39 cities with populations topping 1 million.
Buenos Aires presents all the challenges of other urban giants, reports Whittall.
Besides sheer numbers and sprawl, Buenos Aires encompasses many distinct population segments — majority Argentines, numerous immigrant groups from near and far, students, professionals, the rich, the poor, the middle class, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, postmoderns.
In other words, cities within cities.
“Obviously we don’t have the personnel or the resources to wage a battle on every front,” Whittall admits. “You have to strategically pick certain areas that best fit your people, their gifts, their calling and abilities. We try to match those with the different strata and different groups represented here.”
In 2006, International Mission Board teams and their overseas partners applied church-planting strategies in 170 urban centers, most of which were unreached (less than 2 percent evangelical). Twenty-eight of those centers were engaged by mission workers for the first time.
There’s a long, long way to go — and a major change in mindset is required to get there.
“We still have the mindset of rural missions,” says Whittall, who changed his own mindset after growing up in rural Oklahoma. “But the mission of the 21st century, however much we don’t like it, is going to be in the Beijings, the New Delhis, the massive, polluted, crowded urban areas where billions of people live.”
Do you agree? How should the church respond?