Thursday, November 19, 2009

A tale of five cities

(Watch video about followers of Christ in Jakarta at

My son wants to go to school next year in New York City.

In midtown Manhattan, no less — the Big Apple, the belly of the beast, the postmodern Babylon.

“Are you crazy?” a few friends asked (or implied) when I told them we would be visiting a school located there. No, I’m not crazy, although I had a few second thoughts driving through the Lincoln Tunnel into New York’s frantic traffic.

If my son ventures there, the big, bad city will present quite a challenge for him — more challenge than I could have handled at his age. But I envy him. He will attend an exciting Christian college that prepares young minds to confront the world as it is.

And he will experience the world as it is rapidly becoming: urban.

The stories about Jakarta, Indonesia, posted today at (“Jakarta: City of God” and “Second chance brings changed life”) are the last in a series called “A tale of five cities.” Over the past two years, I’ve had the opportunity to visit and profile five great cities on four continents: Buenos Aires, London, Nairobi, Mumbai and Jakarta (combined population: up to 70 million people). The purpose of the project was to grapple with the realities of declaring the Christian Gospel to a global population that is now more than 50 percent urban for the first time in history. You can read other stories in the series at

To review some of the numbers:

* A projected 88 percent of population growth over the next generation will occur in cities in the developing world. Half of India’s billion-plus people will live in cities by 2020.

* Urban dwellers will double to 6.4 billion by mid-century — 70 percent of humanity — according to United Nations forecasts.

* Nearly 80 percent of South America’s 380 million people live in cities. A third of Argentina’s population, for instance, lives in greater Buenos Aires.

Whether cities fit into the fast-multiplying category of 500,000 to 1 million people, “mega” size (1 million or more) or “super-mega” (above 10 million), they tend to share common characteristics. They attract the young, the rich, the poor, students, job seekers, minorities, immigrants, refugees. Cities speak many languages and encompass many cultures and religions. Sometimes different people groups within cities mix and meld. Sometimes they form distinct, exclusive communities — cities within cities.

In London, called “a world in one city,” you can hear more than 300 languages spoken. The city is home to at least 50 non-indigenous communities of 10,000 or more people each. Mumbai, approaching 20 million people, plays host to India’s Bollywood movie stars, its richest business tycoons — and Dharavi, reputedly Asia’s largest slum. Hindus dominate Mumbai, but 2 million Muslims live there, as well as members of nearly every caste, religion and people group in India. Nairobi is a hub and magnet for all of east Africa, attracting immigrants and refugees from every major people in the region. One area of the city, “Little Mogadishu,” functions as a kind of capital in exile for Somalia, Kenya’s anarchic neighbor.

Cities are aggressively secular — and zealously religious.

“Secularism is the predominant ‘religion’ of the city, but every other ‘ism’ is here in strong force,” says a Southern Baptist missionary in London. “The largest Sikh and Hindu temples outside of India are in west London. London is the Islamic capital of Europe. Satanism and all kinds of mystic practices are also alive and well.”

Cities are hectic, fragmented and violent. Despite their large numbers, city dwellers often live in isolation and fear. They are hard to reach — physically and spiritually — in their locked offices and high-rise apartments guarded by vigilant doormen.

“In a big city, the spiritual strongholds are loneliness and fear,” says missionary Randy Whittall, Southern Baptist team leader for Buenos Aires. “It may seem crazy to think about being lonely when you’re surrounded by 13 million people, but they are.”

How are Christians responding to the challenge of postmodern cities? Not very well, at least so far.

Local churches in the cities I visited tend to be tradition-bound, fearful of reaching beyond their comfort zones, overly dependent on buildings and property (prohibitively expensive in major cities). Mission organizations and other Christian ministries talk about “reaching the cities,” but struggle to find effective ways to do it. Missionaries in many countries have focused for generations on reaching rural regions untouched by the Gospel. While they have toiled in the hinterlands, cities have mushroomed.

“We still have the mindset of rural missions,” observes Whittall. “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.”

What works in such places varies, but smaller tends to be better.

The effective urban Christian workers I met cultivate global prayer networks and pursue city-spanning “seed-sowing” (Gospel distribution), to be sure. But they follow up with focused community ministries among specific people groups, winning hearts and minds for the Gospel — as in Jakarta, London and Nairobi. They start small cell groups and house or apartment churches that multiply over time, as in Buenos Aires and Jakarta. They intensively train committed local believers to make disciples, who in turn train others, as in Nairobi.

In Mumbai, the faithful discipleship of just two Muslim-background followers of Christ by a Southern Baptist worker has sparked the beginning of many worship groups among Muslims in the city.

“I wouldn’t say so much that we’re failing [in the cities] as that we’ve never tried,” says the worker in Mumbai. “We can talk about the problems, the poverty and corruption and politicians. But it all goes back to the darkness they live in. They need Jesus Christ.”

Whatever it takes, it’s time to try.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Where gang rape comes from

Listen to an audio version of this post at

A 15-year-old girl steps outside of a school homecoming dance and guzzles alcohol in a hangout spot on campus.

She collapses. She is robbed, beaten, stripped. She is raped — not once, but again and again, allegedly for at least two hours. More than 20 people reportedly participate or watch. Nobody tries to stop the attacks. Nobody calls the police.

You’ve probably heard about the incident, which occurred Oct. 24 outside Richmond (Calif.) High School. It made national headlines because of the sheer cruelty of the assault — and the fact that so many bystanders did nothing, or joined in.

“There’s something about the coldness of it ... the attitude of both the people involved and the people who saw or knew about it,” said Dara Cashman, of the Contra Costa District Attorney’s Office, after the Oct. 29 arraignment of three young suspects in the attack.

“It’s just very cold.”

When a crime this chilling captures the attention of a society already saturated with violence, explainers get into the act. Why didn’t a bystander or witness call the police? Communities ruled by crime and fear don’t tolerate “snitches,” law enforcement officials say. Liberals often point to the brutalization caused by generations of poverty and racism. Conservatives tend to talk about the breakdown of law and order, families and traditional values.

Such explanations often “presuppose that humans are basically good before society messes them up,” observes Collin Hansen in Christianity Today. “So we need to identify and fix those dimensions in our society that lead people astray. Surely factors such as the bystander effect, poor schools and broken families testify to what happens when cultures forsake common goods that restrain sin. But the Bible depicts a more realistic view of human nature.”

The Old Testament, in fact, frankly recounts several gang rapes (read Judges, chapter 19, for one heartbreaking instance). “The biblical writers do not seem surprised” by such abuses, Hansen notes. “Rather, they identify the crimes with rebellion against the Lord … .”

Sin, in other words.

Willful rejection of God’s commands leads to worship of self above all else and evil against others. It’s an old, old story. It was the main problem then. It’s the main problem now.

The vicious abuse of a 15-year-old girl for group entertainment is cold, to be sure. But it’s no colder than trafficking a child into the sex industry for profit, or ignoring the cries of the poor, or systematically destroying someone’s life with whispers and lies.

If all the bloodbaths of the last century have taught us anything, it’s that the more things change (technology, social mores), the more human nature stays the same. We are sinners — individually and collectively — and the only solution to sin is Jesus Christ.

Simple? You bet. Simple truth. You don’t need an advanced degree to understand the Gospel. Here it is: The world is lost in sin. We need to repent and return to God. He offers mercy and redemption, through Christ alone, to all who worship and follow Him as Savior and Lord.

Charles Mwangi is staking his life on that truth. A Christian in Nairobi, Kenya, he believes God has called him to reach hurting people in the tough slums of the city.

“Charles has remained faithful in the face of intense persecution from a local gang,” reports a Southern Baptist missionary in Nairobi. “His house has been vandalized and one of his Bible ‘storying’ groups was recently attacked, resulting in the robbery of the attendees’ cell phones.”

Charles prayed he would have a chance to share the Gospel with those who mistreated him. The opportunity came, Charles shared — and two of the gang members repented and accepted Christ as Lord and Savior. They now attend the same Bible group they robbed.

Law enforcement didn’t change the gang members’ hearts. Nor did community programs (although local believers and missionaries participate in social ministries in Nairobi). Jesus changed their hearts.

When enough hearts change, communities change. Whole societies and cultures change.

We need to remember that in a hyper-political age. I occasionally tune in to certain “Christian” radio programs that used to offer inspiration, teaching and global missions information along with a biblical perspective on social issues. Now it’s all politics, all the time, with barely a nod toward missions and evangelism. Even if I agree with the politics, the single-minded emphasis bothers me.

Don’t get me wrong: Christians have a sacred responsibility to speak out for what they know is right in an increasingly hostile public square. But we need to keep our priorities straight. We are citizens, first and foremost, of the kingdom of God.

His priorities are as simple as the Gospel: Love the Lord with all your heart, mind and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. Glorify Him in your community and among the nations by proclaiming His salvation. Make disciples among all peoples.

I sat recently in a church association meeting and heard a shocking statistic. In a representative survey of the almost 500,000 people who live in the region where my church is located, a grand total of 14 percent affirmed this statement: “My faith is important to me.” That’s right, 14 percent — in central Virginia, home of Lottie Moon, guiding star of Southern Baptist missions.

I’m a lot more concerned about that statistic than who’s voting for whom.