Whither Geographically-Informed Christian Missions?

Will our missionaries be prepared for this future?

The discipline of Geography, one of the academic majors represented in the GEO Department at Calvin College, is a sort of rarity. There are only a handful of private Christian-based colleges in the United States that have a geography major, let alone any PhD trained geographers. At Calvin College we have fluctuated between 5 and 4 PhD geographers for the last 20 years and have been striving in geography to understand the intersections of geography and Christian faith. It is a wonder why so many Christian higher-education institutions, which have as mission to impact the world for Jesus Christ, have a paucity of geography? Beyond geography majors, we have a wide range of other majors taking geography courses at Calvin, not just future missionaries, but at its basic level, how can missionaries know where they are going, what the world is like in its human and physical geography, and understand the deep connections of time and space – without geography?  Maybe it is time for Christian colleges in the United States to recognize the importance of this old academic discipline as part of the core fabric of who they are.

Many in Geography have been thinking about the year 2050, such as with recent conferences by an older geographic body of thinkers, the National Geography Society.

As I took my seat in the famous Low Memorial Library of Columbia University in New York City, the mighty pillars of marble stood tall against the backdrop of the stage. Around me were 250 other people from various walks of leadership: the Vice President of Google, the director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency of the United States, the Vice President of Shell Oil, the Geographer of the United States in the US State Department – the list goes on. We were at the Geo2050 conference sponsored by the American Geographical Society, which brought together experts from around the globe in November 2014.

Our task at Geo2050 was to converse broadly about the current state of the world from environment to energy to society to technology. Together, we considered what the world will be like at the mid-point of the 21st Century. The challenges we face are significant, and both hopeful and dire possible futures were discussed. Although the Low Library has etched in the exterior limestone, “For the advancement of the common good and the glory of the Almighty God”, conversation about faith in God was absent from the agenda this year. I could not help but think, as a Christian who happens to be a geographer, about the ramifications for the American Church moving toward 2050.

So what about the Gospel and discipleship over the next 35 years? What should we as Christian leaders consider? The interconnected relationships of humans and the environment are vast and complicated. I explore these connections with students every semester. Whatever your opinions of the issue, it is clear that humans are placing mounting stresses on the environment (natural resource depletion, loss of habitats and species, earth heating, ice melt, etc…), The key to thinking about the future of making disciples for Christ is really based on one simple question – where will people be?

Given the current trends in the world, in 2050:

  • There will be approximately 9.5 billion people on earth, and
  • The vast majority (7 in 10) of the 9.5 billion people will live in urban places.

That second point is vitally important. For the first time in history, more people are living in cities than in rural areas. The crossover to an urban world happened in 2008, and there is no return to a rural world in sight.  Our conversations about the future of ministry should have a significant urban focus. Why?

First and foremost, because that is what Jesus did. Jesus went to the people and met them where they were. You know that too. Any church that wants to thrive in ministry not only opens its doors, but it goes to the people in the community and ministers with real dialogue seasoned with the life-changing Gospel. Where will the people be? They will be in the city. And that is where we should be too.

Are we ready to train the next generation of Christian leaders to understand ministry in the city? In 2050, we will be sending our missionaries to the urban cores of high population density, especially in the developing world where urban growth is currently unprecedented. Will we empower missionaries going to these uncharted urban mazes? Will we train them for the significant challenges they will face with the poor that are flocking to developing cities forming new squatter settlements every day? And what about children? There are 200+ million orphans in the world, according to the latest UNICEF estimates. We need to prepare missionaries well, because the poor and orphans will increase in this urban growth movement.

What will urban growth be like in the next 35 years? Right now the most urban growth is in the developing world. The UN and geographical research estimates that the Earth in 2050 will host in excess of 1,000 cities with more than a million people predominantly in Asia and Africa. China leads the way with well over 160 cities of a million or more. In 2050, India will be our most populous country with the largest urban population on the planet. The absorption of cities into megacities or mega-urban corridors will be the norm, with at least 40 megacities with 10 million people or more. The cities with the most expected growth are outpacing their ability to provide for basic services of water and energy and sanitation.

Will our missionaries be prepared for this future?

What about urban growth in the developed world? The growth rate is much slower at present. However, demands on energy, shifts in natural resources, consolidated ownership of fertile agricultural land and immigration all point to a continued move of people to the city. Edge cities, con-urban landscapes where cities meet cities, and new forms of built environments will be where most people live.

What are some ways we as the church can adapt to this urban future? First, look for new opportunities in your city as it grows and changes. Where are the new places for ministry as change occurs? For example, in my city of Grand Rapids, Michigan, we have many new apartment buildings and condominium towers going up in the downtown. Are existing churches in the downtown changing the way they approach ministry with the influx of new pedestrian-based residents now living there? Are they adapting to the vast opportunities to minister to immigrants coming to the urban sector, and what does that look like? As we get better at these urban ministry approaches, will that translate to empowering our missionaries overseas?

Second, where are opportunities for church-planting? How can the suburban/exurban churches partner with the urban churches in ministry? My suburban church is trying that with an urban church partnership. It isn’t easy, but God is doing some wonderful things. Will we lead new initiatives in these kinds of partnerships?

Third, remember that cities are different and filled with people who are different, so ministry might not look the same from one city to another, and that is alright. You probably know your neighborhood pretty well, but if you do not know some of the basic demographics for your area, you should investigate at least the census details as a start. The American Community Survey (ACS), conducted annually in the USA, is another good way to learn sample statistics about your geography. Perhaps a church and non-profit partnership can lead to a county-wide congregational study that will reveal ministry opportunities in your city?

If you live outside the United States, you can check with your central statistics agency as a starting point for demographics. If you live in the USA, you can check out this mapping application I built to start to learn about your area – Understanding Your Geography (http://calvin.maps.arcgis.com/apps/OnePane/basicviewer/index.html?appid=c069ce1274744b4898033ab2bfde3d9c). As a model for regional congregational studies, you can check out the 2007 Kent County Congregational Study, documented by the “Gatherings of Hope” report (http://www.calvin.edu/weblogs/csr/more/kccs_canvassing_completed/).

During the triumphal entry, we find an interesting, often overlooked, response from Jesus. After the many praises of Hosanna, Holy Scripture indicates, “When He approached Jerusalem, He saw the city and wept over it,…”( Luke 19:41 NASB). Do we have the same compassion for the people of our city and cities around the world?

Author: Dr. Jason E. VanHorn
Support for this Blog Theme comes with additional funding from the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship (CCCS) and Calvin College.