The Challenge and Opportunities of Urbanisation in China

While this article focuses on the context of China, the discussion of urban ministry is relevant for work in cities elsewhere. Starting from the context of the urban world, this article looks at the challenges and opportunities of doing urban ministry in China amidst the staggering change taking place in church and society in her cities. The article looks at the pace of urbanization in China, the drivers of urbanization and the need for an appropriate theology for urban ministry. It discusses the critical issues facing urban ministry in China and China’s urban church as well as strategies for urban ministry.


Published as: The Challenge and Opportunities of Urban Ministry in China, By H. P., Mission Round Table Vol. 11 no. 3 (Sep-Dec 2016): 10-20

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1. Our urban world

We live in an urban world. During the twentieth century the world’s urban population increased more than tenfold (from 220 million to 2.8 billion). Then in 2008 an historical milestone occurred when for the first time in history over 50% of the total population of the world lived in cities.[1] To put this in perspective, world urban population was only 2% in 1700,[2] and had only increased to 13.5% in 1900.[3] This recent rapid and steady rise in percentage of the world urban population is illustrated in figure 1.[4] If we look at China alone, the pace of urbanization is staggering. As one analyst has said, “The 21st century will not be dominated by America or China, Brazil or India, but by the city.”[5]

As we seek to obey Christ’s command to make disciples among all the nations, our priorities and strategies must incorporate the fact that the majority of the world is now urban. This fact need not necessarily frighten us, however. As Rodney Stark has pointed out, “Early Christianity was primarily an urban movement.”[6] While the emphasis of this paper will be on the impact of urbanization in China and the way these changing demographics must impact our ministry strategies there, the principles could apply in any urban area in Asia. We will also explore how the impact of urbanization in China will necessitate changes in strategy even for those focused on minority peoples. The urgency and importance of making disciples in urban settings is thus true not just in China, but wherever we serve and whatever people group we focus on.

When we only look at numbers, the urbanization of China certainly presents a daunting challenge. What might be less obvious, though, is that in terms of world missions it also provides an opportunity. The recent growth of China’s urban church has naturally led to much discussion about the potential impact of missionaries from China.[7] When we consider that the world is now majority urban, a case can be made that the urbanization within China provides a training ground for Chinese indigenous missions. As the church in China engages with the rapid urbanization of China, the Lord is preparing it for its role in world missions. Having learned to minister in the context of extensive urbanization, China’s missionaries will be better equipped to face the urban world they will encounter in mission. We too can learn from their experience to tackle the impact of urbanization in other parts of Asia.

2. The special context of urban China

2.1. The pace of urbanization

When I first went to China in the early eighties, only 20% of the population lived in cities. Yet by 2011, in just over thirty years, China’s urban population surpassed 50%! By the year 2030, projections are that it will reach approximately 70%. This corresponds to one billion people! The urban economy will likely represent 90% of China’s total GDP.[8]

A more detailed view of the UN Data for China is given in figure 2. The data show that within the past twenty to thirty years there has been a sea change in the makeup of China’s growing population. In the mid-1960s to mid-1970s, roughly corresponding to the time of the Cultural Revolution, population growth was mainly due to a rapid rise of the rural population. That was a time when over 16 million urban youth either volunteered or were sent to the countryside.[9]

Once China “opened up” after the fall of the Gang of Four, however, urban population growth began to outpace rural growth. This shift is most evident after 1990 when China’s rural population peaked and the urban population began a rapid rise. A linear regression of data shows that the urban population has grown at essentially a linear rate of 18.2 million per year since 1990. This corresponds to an average net increase of close to 50,000 people per day—more than 2.5 times the average growth rate of the total population. Projections indicate this rate will continue until around 2025. Since these projections were made before the recent retraction of the one-child policy, however, their accuracy is slightly suspect. Some experts, though, suggest this policy change will have little overall impact.[10]

Another distinctive factor in China’s urbanization is that it is not focused within one or two cities. Of course there are the “Alpha” cities like Shanghai and Beijing, but there is a substantial number of other cities with large populations. Finding consistent data on the size of various cities in China is difficult, but UN data say that in 2015 there were 106 Chinese cities with populations exceeding one million, and this will increase to 137 by 2025. By comparison, the UK has five and the USA has forty-five such cites.[11] Some pundits predict an even greater number of large cities in China, saying that by 2025 there will be 221 cities with populations exceeding one million.[12] From a ministry perspective, we should realize that the ministry challenges of urban areas are not limited to the “Alpha” cities. As we will explore below, each of these cities will face many common issues, such as migrant workers or extreme work-related stress, but each will also have its unique challenges.

2.2. The drivers of urbanization

When one looks at this data and thinks about the startling implications of this rapid and extensive urbanization, the question “Why?” naturally surfaces. All of this change has happened while China has enforced the one-child policy, so obviously the reason is not because the birthrate in cities has dramatically increased. Detailed reasons for this phenomenon are varied and complex, but four major factors stand out: (1) economic growth, (2) government policy, (3) the Chinese cultural view of cities, and (4) the presence of prestigious universities.[13]

Since the Open Door policy was implemented under Deng Xiaoping, the desire for economic growth has been a major driver for urbanization. One needs to look no further than Shenzhen to understand this. When established as a Special Economic Zone in 1979, it was nothing more than a small fishing village with a population of 30,000. It now has a population well over 10 million.[14] Cities are where the jobs are.

Urbanization is also a matter of government policy. Much of this is pure pragmatism—providing schools, hospitals, and other social services is just easier when the people are in cities. During various trips in western Sichuan, I have even observed that the government was willing to offer free houses to rural or nomadic peoples in their push to get them to settle in towns or cities. This policy became even stronger in 2012 with the implementation of the “城镇化” (Chengzhenhua, “city-town-transformation”) policy. The goal is actually to minimize the rural-urban distinction. The focus will be on the over 20,000 “towns” throughout China and on accelerating their urbanization. This will impact many issues related to land use and involve granting of more urban registrations for the migrant populations.[15] If this old “hukou” system (registration for right of residence) is changed to allow migrants to purchase property and allow their children to attend urban schools without exorbitant costs, the pace of urbanization will definitely increase.

An extreme example of how the Chinese government wants to push urbanization is the recent formalization of plans for “京津冀” (Jing-Jin-Ji), a city that will be the size of the US State of Kansas and have a population of 130 million. This super city will comprise Beijing, Tianjin, and parts of Hebei Province.[16] (Note: Ji is the ancient character for Hebei.)

A third reason for this rapid urbanization is the general view Chinese have of cities. In one meeting attended by about 150 Chinese pastors and lay leaders, my wife and I asked how many of them liked cities. With almost complete unanimity they responded with an enthusiastic and resounding “yes, we like cities.” Chinese flock to cities because they see cities as places that are full of opportunities, better developed, and “热闹” (renao)—lively, bustling. In addition, Chinese people traditionally consider a city to be a place of prestige and security. This preference for cities is easy to understand for anyone who has visited a rural town or village in China. Rural China can be a hard and difficult place. It is small wonder, then, that so many move to the city with hopes of finding a new and better future. The challenge from a ministry perspective is to understand and address the despair and hopelessness so many face when they soon find their hopes dashed.[17]

Part of the prestige of the city is the presence of leading universities. Within a Confucian world view, education is an essential investment for the future of one’s children. The best education options at all levels—primary, secondary, and tertiary—are in major cities, and the disparity between urban and rural education is often huge. Thus, education is a fourth major factor driving urbanization. An illustration of the sometimes unbridled drive by Chinese parents to get good education for their children can be seen in a photo recently posted on China’s social media. It showed a new-born baby with a sign that says “There are still 6933 days until the “Gao Kao” (China’s college entrance exam).” Even some Chinese netizens were appalled by this.[18]

Government policy further intensifies this dynamic. Regulations dictate that children must take the “Gao Kao” in the location of their “hukou” (household registration). A student taking the “Gao Kao” in a rural area has a much lower chance of getting a spot in a prestigious university. For example, the acceptance rate for Beijing University for students with a Beijing “hukou” is more than 25 times greater than a student with a Henan “hukou”. Another inequality can be seen in the chance to get into a “Project 211” university, a list of the (approximately) top 100 universities in China.[19] Beijing has twenty-six “211” universities, corresponding to one “211” school for every 3,000 “Gao-Kao” test-takers. Henan has only one “211” university in the whole province, so there are over 716,000 test-takers per “211” university.[20] Thirteen other provinces also have only one “211” university.

Since the vast majority of universities are in cities, college students from the countryside will naturally become acclimated to urban life. There is little chance that they would want to return to the countryside. During a visit to Ganzi Prefecture in western Sichuan, the director of education told me that while very few students from the prefecture ever made it out of Ganzi to go to university, less than 10% of those who do make it ever return. Another manifestation of this trend is the emergence of the “Ant Tribe” in Beijing.[21] The “Ant Tribe” refers to those who have graduated from premier universities but can’t find adequate work and so must take menial jobs and live in substandard housing. They can’t return to their home towns because this would be a great loss of face. The pursuit of higher education has dictated that they become urbanites, no matter the cost.

3. Remarks on an appropriate theology for urban ministry

Numerous books and articles have been written about urban ministry, so it is beyond the scope of this short article to address all aspects of a theology of urban ministry. A few remarks to elucidate some of my own perspectives and to set the stage for applying such a theology to China, though, will hopefully prove instructive.

3.1. Understanding God’s desire for a city

From a missional and theological perspective, the importance of cities is in many ways obvious. As Tim Keller has said, “In cities, you have more image of God per square inch than anywhere else in the world.”[22] Nevertheless, a wide range of theological perspectives on cities exists. David W. Smith summarizes the two opposite ends of this spectrum: “the city is the concrete expression of the human fall from grace” and “(the city) is the instrument of human liberation, opening up previously unknown possibilities of freedom and creativity and promising the arrival of the kingdom of God on earth, or of utopia.”[23]

This spectrum exists because within Scripture and throughout history there have been competing desires for the city. Robert C. Linthicum says, “Every city has both Babylon and Jerusalem in it, for every city is the battleground between the god of Babylon (Baal, Satan) and the God of Jerusalem (Yahweh, the Lord) for domination and control.”[24]

If we look at Scripture, particularly the Old Testament, we can find some rationale for the thought that the city is an expression for man’s fall from grace:

  • The city indicated a desire for self-security from enemies (The Hebrew word does not always imply a walled city, but often does.[25])
  • The city represented a desire for self-importance (Gen 4:17; 10:8–12)
  • The city marked the pinnacle of success: the center of culture, prosperity, and power (Gen 11:4)
  • The city has always been a center for the expression of religion (Dan 3; 1 Sam 5)

Yet, in contrast to this, we can also see some of God’s views of and desires for a city:

  • A place for worship and praise, a source of joy (Ps 48:1–2)
  • A place of blessing, safety, and refreshing (Pss 107:4–9; 46:4–7; 127)
  • A place for justice and righteousness  (Zech 8:16; Deut 21:19; 22:15) [Note also the concept of the city of refuge (Num 35:9–34)]
  • A place where the righteous make an impact  (Prov 11:11) [Note also the forty-eight cities for the Levites and their role for teaching (Lev 10:11; Josh 21:1–42)]
  • A place that is to display God’s glory and be a witness to the nations (Jer 33:9)
  • A place that is our ultimate hope and future  (Heb 13:14; Rev 21:2)

This vision of a city is certainly not a description of cities in China nor of cities in any other place in the world. Yet, if our future is to be a “city,” then we must affirm that a city cannot be inherently bad. As Harvie Conn and Manuel Ortiz say, “Despite sin’s radical distortion of God’s urban purposes, the city remains a mark of grace as well as rebellion, a mark of preserving, conserving grace shared with all under the shadow of the common curse. Urban life, though fallen, is still more than merely livable.”[26]

3.2. Understanding God’s mission for his church in a city

The Great Commission involves “making disciples” (Matt 28:19) as its focus, and has the “end of the earth” (Acts 1:8, ESV) as its scope. God’s concern is obviously for people, not geography. The church then is to take the gospel to wherever there are people. Fulfilling the Great Commission must equally involve taking the gospel into the city as well as the most remote village.

On one level, God’s mission for his church in the city is no different than his mission for his church in any other part of the world. In Jeremiah 29, though, we are given a special insight into God’s plan for impacting the city. While the theological implications of this passage are numerous, a few pertinent observations and applications will hopefully shed some light on God’s missional plan for his people in cities today.

In his grace, even though they had rebelled against him, God’s plan was to use the Jews to bless the Babylonians! In Jeremiah 29:7 he commanded the Jews in exile to do two things and gave them one promise. Many English translations do not make it clear, but the verse actually reads like this: “But seek the shalom of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its shalom you will find your shalom” (emphasis added).

The first command then is that they were to seek the shalom of the city. The word for seek includes the idea of caring. The problems of the city where they lived were their problems. Interestingly, when Jeremiah described the people in exile, he included officials and craftsmen as well as the elders. They likely had the skills to help deal with many of the problems the cities faced. God had placed the Israelites there to be a blessing to the community (cf. Gen 12:2–3).

In some amazing way, they could only truly experience shalom when their city experienced shalom. God not only planned to give shalom to the Israelites in Babylon, he also wanted to give the Babylonians shalom. His shalom for his people is also shalom for their neighbors. Why? He is God of grace. The reason God so strongly repudiated the message of the false prophets in vv 8–9 is that their message painted a false image of God and his plan. Their message implied that God was only concerned about Israel. Their message was almost like those today who preach a “me-centered” gospel or a prosperity gospel. Our God is not a selfish God. He wants to show both his own people as well as all the nations that he is a God of blessing and a God who saves. Our vision for ministry in the city must demonstrate that our God is a God of grace.

God’s second command is to pray for the city. The officials and craftsmen could help on one level, but ultimately shalom can only come from God. By asking the Jews to pray for the city, God affirmed that he was willing to hear their prayers and bless the city.

So, what is God’s mission for his church in the cities? God has placed his people in cities for his redemptive purposes. He wants our cities to experience his shalom. The challenge to us is that this can only happen when God’s people are repentant and wholeheartedly seeking the Lord (Jer 29:12–14). There is no shalom, either for God’s people or for their cities, apart from a relationship with God.

We must be careful not to equate shalom with material prosperity. In Old Testament poetry, shalom is often placed in parallel with righteousness, justice, and truth. It impacts every relationship: our relationship with God, our relationship with our neighbor, and even our relationship with our environment.

Ultimately, shalom can only be found in a relationship with Jesus (cf. Eph 2:14). When we consider all these aspects of shalom, we could actually say that shalom is the outcome of discipleship, namely, the transformation of our worldview, our behavior, and our relationships that come as the result of knowing Jesus. This transformation brings shalom. Thinking in this way will help us define the full scope of what it means to take the gospel into the city.

3.3. Understanding the forces that impact a city

Jeremiah’s directive to seek and to pray for the shalom of a city is an implicit reminder that citizens in the cities of his day or those of our day do not yet experience shalom. On many levels there have been some wonderful changes in China’s cities. The huge rise in the standard of living for many urban Chinese over the past thirty years is hard to imagine, even for those of us who have witnessed the changes first hand. Housing and educational standards have improved. Owning a car is no longer an impossible dream. Tourism—travelling to popular places within China and even overseas—is a booming industry.

These gains have had their costs, however. Work pressures take an incredible toll. Stresses on family life are immense. Pollution and other environmental problems are well documented. These struggles are similar to urban issues faced in cities around the world. As mentioned above, material gain is not equivalent to shalom.

Simply attributing all these problems to the aftermath of Genesis 3, while obviously true, is not particularly instructive in addressing the issues confronting both believers and non-believers in cities. There are various spiritual forces and/or systems that bind people and prevent them from coming to faith or from growing in their faith. These could be summarized as:

  • Political power/systems
  • Economic power/systems
  • Social power/systems
  • Religious power/systems[27]

We must first realize that any of these various systems can place people under bondage. For example, economic and social systems can place people under as much bondage as an autocratic and oppressive government. It is hard to find another way to explain the emergence in China’s cities of the previously mentioned “Ant Tribe” or another phenomenon called the “Rat Tribe.”[28] The “Rat Tribe” consists of about one million Beijing people, mainly young, who live in makeshift rooms in basements or former underground air-raid bunkers.

Another example is the whole migrant worker phenomenon in China, which is also driven by economics. The havoc it has wrecked on families is easy to observe. A Chinese pastor once told me that the whole family structure within China is being distorted because of young people migrating to the cities. Traditional Chinese family structure is hierarchical and power within the family was always with the elderly. Now, however, the elderly must submit to their own children who are working as migrants because they are the ones bringing home the money. Further, there are an estimated 61 million “left-behind children” (about 20% nationally) who must grow up without one or both of their parents. In addition to their trauma of separation from their parents, there are issues of dwindling educational opportunities in the villages and also cases of abuse.[29] Understanding dynamics such as these is essential for a holistic ministry within the cities of China.

In addition, we must recognize that each city is different. The more relaxed nature of Chengdu is vastly different than the frantic pace of Shanghai. The “idols” of each city are also different. In admittedly overly simplistic caricature, we could speak of Beijing worshiping the idols of politics and academics, and Shanghai and Hong Kong worshiping money. If the goal of our evangelism and discipleship includes worldview transformation, these idols must be understood and confronted. As Tim Keller has pointed out, “In ancient times, the deities were bloodthirsty and hard to appease. They still are.”[30]

4. Critical issues of urban ministry in China

As we have seen, the impact of urbanization in China is pervasive. In the coming decades it will be one of the major influences, if not the major influence, on Chinese society. For us, however, a key concern must be how the church in China will respond to this massive demographic shift. Will she be a quiet observer of the changes or an active participant seeking to impact life in China’s cities? Actually, these questions could be asked of the church in any metropolitan area in the world. Lessons learned by the church in China could be applied in other settings. As mentioned above, these lessons could also be instructive as China’s church moves out in mission.

By God’s grace, China’s church, both urban and rural, is a rapidly growing and maturing church. I strongly believe that the Lord would have the church become a major force in shaping modern China. Yet the church is at a very critical juncture. With all the changes within China coupled with the stress of its own rapid growth, China’s urban church faces some daunting challenges. The church is relatively young with a large percentage of first generation believers. Pastors need encouragement. Mentors are needed to help young believers know how to live out the gospel each day in the marketplace and to know how to raise a family in an urban pluralistic world. Disciple makers are needed to help the church discern how best to bring the gospel to the marginalized within their city.

While a multitude of challenges and issues could be discussed, a few seem to have special significance and applicability in other settings in Asia. The first is to recognize that we cannot look at China’s cities as a simple monolith. Rather than making church planting strategies by looking at a 2D map and asking which street corners do not have churches, we should begin to think three dimensionally. A church on a given street will impact certain segments of society, but other segments of society on that same street will not be impacted by the church in any way.[31] In much the same way that missiologists have understood that unreached people groups will not be reached with the gospel unless the church makes a concerted effort to cross the various language and cultural barriers that separate them from the “reached” people groups, so reaching the numerous people segments within the cities will also require a concerted effort by the church to cross the various boundaries that isolate them. Although these barriers are not necessarily defined by ethnicity or language, they can still form an equally mammoth divide.

While it is common to think in terms of groups like students, young professionals, the elderly, or migrants, the reality of the “three-dimensionality” of China’s megacities is much more complex. The appendix contains a list of some unreached people segments within urban China.[32] This list is merely indicative and is in no way meant to be exhaustive. Most of the groups mentioned in the appendix are in some way marginalized from society as well as from the church. There are other groups, though, that would not be considered marginalized from a social or economic point of view; nevertheless, they often have little or no contact with the church. Examples include university professors and the scientific community, government workers, shop keepers, and construction workers. Although the specific people segments will differ, identifying such unreached people segments would be a constructive exercise for developing a ministry strategy for any city in the world.

A second dynamic is the number of ethnic minorities in the cities. Most are ethnic minorities from within China who have moved to the cities along with other migrant workers. Detailed and verifiable data are difficult to obtain. Some figures that apparently come from government sources indicate that at some point before July 2009 there were over 200,000 minority people in Guangzhou, representing 1.7% of the population.[33] A slightly more detailed breakdown for five ethnic groups with long-term residents exceeding 10,000 is given in the table in figure 3. Since these figures are at least seven or eight years old, the current number of ethnic minority residents in the Pearl River Delta is certainly much higher.[34] The data clearly indicate that ministries among China’s ethnic minorities must also consider working in urban areas. Thinking in these terms would likewise be applicable in any city in the world. Although migration within China is extreme in its scale, migration of people is a worldwide phenomenon. In the Asia-Pacific region alone, an estimated 120,000 people migrate to cities every day.[35]

In addition, as China’s economy booms, it becomes more attractive to other nationalities. For example, government figures indicate that the number of Africans living in Guangzhou is around 16,000.[36] There are also large communities of foreign students in China, especially from India and Pakistan. God’s mission for the church in China certainly includes all of these peoples.

5. Critical issues facing China’s urban church

The critical issues facing China’s urban church go beyond identifying the type of people who need to be evangelized. Several major challenges exist within the church itself. Not the least of these challenges would be the lack of unity within the church. The most obvious division is between the government-approved church (TSPM, “Three Self Patriotic Movement”) and the unregistered “house” churches (HCs). Unregistered churches, however, are also fragmented. This disunity comes from many factors including fear of persecution, theological and ecclesiological differences, and distrust caused by fear of infiltration by cults. Unless the church in China, whether rural or urban, can overcome this disunity, the church’s impact on society will be severely limited.[37]

As mentioned above, China’s urban church contains a large percentage of first generation believers. Two great needs surface as a result of this fact. First, as with all churches around the world, there is a need for discipleship of these young converts. Because of the relative lack of mentors with experience in the urban Chinese world, however, addressing this pressing need is difficult. Further, the rapid change in urban China means that it is harder for the few older believers to journey with these young believers to bring about transformation of life, worldview, values, and ethics. Yet only those “who live a transformed life can transform those around them and have an impact on the society.”[38]

A second impact of the large percentage of first generation believers is that leadership development must be given a high priority. Indigenous seminaries are being formed, but the quality and content of the training varies greatly. Attempts have been made to establish some accrediting associations to provide guidance and supervision for the seminaries. The variance in the academic backgrounds of the students means that obtaining consistency in seminary training is difficult. While some urban colleagues are going overseas for advanced studies and some schools are pushing to develop full-fledged Master of Divinity, Master of Theology, and even doctoral studies, other seminaries have students who have at most a middle school education. Given the rapid growth of the church and the desperate need for pastors, leadership development will have to remain very flexible in terms of academic standards. Some Chinese leaders involved in seminary education have emphasized that, regardless of the academic standards, the focus of seminaries should be on training pastors and missionaries. They must be equipped to help the church confront the various threats to the continued growth of the church. These threats include not only cults, but also materialism and the prosperity gospel. Yet the leadership needs of the urban church cannot be met by seminaries alone. Informal training of lay leaders training must be maintained and strengthened.

In addition to leadership training, there is a great need to see indigenous theological reflection at China’s seminaries. What God has done in the past thirty-plus years in China is a great display of his power and wisdom. We need to encourage our Chinese brothers and sisters to reflect on this so that we can learn from their experience. China’s church has much to give the worldwide church in terms of things like ecclesiology, a theology of suffering, and even parts of theology proper (cf. Eph 3:10). With the growth of China’s urban church, more believers now come from China’s intellectual elite. Though they tend to be comparatively young in their faith, they have the academic background and capacity to handle complex theological issues. The danger, however, may be that they could treat this task as just another academic task without it flowing from a deep spiritual transformation. It will be important, therefore, that there be adequate interaction and conversation between these urban believers and their spiritual elders from the countryside. Such conversations will be important not only to preserve and to transmit the strong spiritual heritage of these elders, but also to comprehend the full impact of what God has done in China. Those who could mentor and encourage these young theologians will be doing a great service to the church worldwide.

As was highlighted above, the fact that the world is now majority urban means that China’s urban church is in a position to play a special role in cross-cultural missions. Much effort has been given to encourage the development of indigenous mission movements within China. In addition to mission strategies and structures to reach UPGs, there must also be holistic missions “into” the city, embracing a city’s “three-dimensionality.” The point here is certainly not to downplay the need for mission efforts to UPGs, but to emphasize that China’s church could make a tremendous contribution to urban missions around the world. Those who journey with the church must endeavor to ensure that missions does not become a program or an activity, but rather an integral part of the church’s vision, mission, and values. Further, discipleship and leadership training must emphasize that the whole church should be involved in missions.[39] China’s church is a praying church, so as church members are educated about the needs, challenges, and opportunities of cross-cultural missions, a tremendous prayer force will be unleashed.

A final critical issue for the continued growth of China’s urban church is how to handle the post-house-church era. Already there is a move from the house church model to form urban congregations as the political climate in China has become more relaxed.[40] A congregation’s stability and its ability to provide more ministries, such as children and youth ministries, is obviously attractive. There will also be greater potential to have a visible impact on society, such as that seen in the churches’ response to the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008. Yet there is a danger that as China’s church makes moves to be more “stable,” she could lose the fervency of faith and the willingness to sacrifice that have so characterized her these past few decades. Lessons from the changes in the early church after Constantine became emperor in 312 AD and from the explosive growth yet eventual decline of the Korean church might be helpful. Much wisdom from the Spirit and dependence on his power will be needed during this transition.

6. Strategies for urban ministry

The needs that have been expressed in this paper are only the tip of an iceberg in terms of the needs that must be addressed if the church is to penetrate and impact China’s cities. The massive scale of these cities could lead one to wonder if anything that we do would make any real difference. Similar comments could actually be made of many other cities in Asia. Yet obedience to the Great Commission demands that we and our local brothers and sisters embrace these cities and trust that God will move to transform them (Zech 4:6). Detailed strategies will of course vary, but below are a few illustrative strategies that are at the same time both fundamental and universal.

If we are to have an impact on the cities, we must perhaps first and foremost value and practice partnership. Partnership must become a fundamental theological conviction, not just a matter of convenience or efficiency.[41] Partnership is hard work, and often takes more effort than doing things on one’s own. Yet the Lord is glorified when we work together in unity. In China’s cities, a community working together in unity and caring for one another will be extremely attractive. Studies have shown that conversion has a distinct social component and is not just a matter of doctrine.[42]

As we engage in ministry in cities, we must seek to see the city as God sees the city. We must learn to look beyond the glitz and glamor of the city and see those who are isolated and hidden by economic, social, educational, or ethnic barriers. Discipleship of the young urban Christians must also engender a compassion for the poor and marginalized. As is true in almost every culture, it will be very counter-cultural for young professionals to care for the marginalized since many of them have had to work very hard to climb the “ladder of success.” Yet my experience is that almost every Chinese person has an idea that helping the poor is a good thing, even if they personally would never get involved. If the church can be seen as actively helping the poor, she could gain much credibility in the eyes of the average Chinese person.

At the same time we must realize that the gospel must also transform those with power and influence in society.[43] Otherwise some of the systemic issues that entrap the marginalized will not be addressed. The biblical view of a righteous king is that he will care for the poor (Ps 72:4). Only with this two-pronged approach can cities become the place of justice, righteousness, joy, and worship that God desires of them (Zech 8:16; Ps 48:1–2; Jer 33:9–11). The urban church in China consists of many students and young professionals who move, or someday will move, in the circles of power and influence. The church must seek to implant in these students and young professionals a vision that God has placed them in the city to be his instruments of blessing to their city. These young urban professionals may also be key in helping to negotiate a better working relationship between the Chinese Government and unregistered churches.[44]

Ministries relating to the family can also be one way to impact both ends of the social spectrum. Any issue relating to the family is a strongly felt need by both believers and non-believers, by both the rich and the poor. Addressing these needs can impact all levels of society within a city and also influence basic core values.

In the early days after China’s “Open-Door Policy” began, ministry by foreigners often centered on student work at universities. While this remains an extremely vital ministry, the need for missional business has become increasingly important. Actually we can learn some things from our brothers and sisters from Wenzhou in this regard. They have used business platforms to help plant churches all over the world.[45] But the need for missional business goes far beyond being a platform for church planting. To see the gospel penetrate the cities, the church must be able to influence the business community and see the gospel transform it. The economic growth experienced within China in the past few decades has been perhaps the biggest cultural change agent during this period. When I first went to China, people were poor, but it didn’t matter—everyone was poor. Now China has one of the largest income gaps in the world, where the top 1% own 33% of the wealth and the poorest 25% combined have only 1% of China’s wealth.[46] (It should be noted that this disparity is still less than that in the USA.) Recent government crackdowns indicate that corruption, tax evasion, and many other unethical business practices are commonplace. Unless the church develops a theology for the marketplace and helps members understand and apply Christian ethics in the marketplace, Christianity will not be able to speak into this major aspect of modern Chinese culture. The church would then likely remain on the fringes of Chinese society. The complexity of missional business is well known and beyond the scope of this paper.[47] Nevertheless, we must continue to pursue it as a fundamental strategy for reaching cities.

Cities are complex. Urban ministries will therefore be equally complex and varied. There will never be one single strategy, or even a simple set of strategies, that will be adequate to see the gospel penetrate a city. Yet to attempt to do everything will likely be equivalent to doing nothing; the issues are simply too multifaceted for cursory efforts. The challenge for practitioners will be to maintain focus in the face of overwhelming needs and opportunities. This demands much prayer, humility, and dependence on the Holy Spirit

7. Conclusion: The privilege and opportunity of a journey

China’s urban church is facing a crucial period as it deals with all the issues and needs for strategic development that have been mentioned in this paper. What happens in the next ten to fifteen years may well determine whether the church will be a transforming influence to society or if society will transform the church. I believe the Lord has given us a unique privilege and opportunity to journey shoulder to shoulder in partnership with China’s urban church during this critical juncture. We can write up all kinds of ministry plans and strategies, but perhaps the most effective strategy of all is simply to be willing to walk humbly side by side, day after day with Chinese brothers and sisters. Without this incarnational approach, without developing deep partnerships, mutual discipleship, and close fellowship, the deep changes in values and worldview that are needed to impact China’s cities will be harder to achieve. It is hard to imagine a greater privilege than investing our lives in this way.

Let me conclude with some thoughts on the type of people who will be needed for this journey with the urban church of China in dealing with the many challenges it faces. I often say that we need “entrepreneurial servants.” New workers need to be “entrepreneurial” in the sense that they need to be people of vision who are unsatisfied with the status-quo. They should be able to identify new areas of ministry and to cast a vision for how God wants to change things. But unlike typical entrepreneurs, they must also be servants. They must be humble, teachable, and able to resist the temptation to just do the ministry themselves. They must be willing to invest in local brothers and sisters and equip them to do the work. These “entrepreneurial servants” are the people who can best journey with today’s urban church in China. I assume that this would actually describe the kind of new workers needed in many parts of Asia.

God is doing amazing things. Those of us who have had the privilege of witnessing the manifestation of his power through the church in China can never doubt we have a big God. The most amazing thing, though, is that he continues to invite us to join him in this work. Let us pray that the Lord of the Harvest will raise up many more to join him in this incredible harvest field in the cities of China.

[1] United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), “State of the World Population 2007: Unleashing the Potential for Urban Growth,” George Martine, lead author (New York: UNFPA, 2007), (accessed 7 March 2016).

[2] David W. Smith, Seeking a City with Foundations: Theology for an Urban World (Nottingham: IVP, 2011), 31.

[3] Calculated by comparing data from Michael Kremer, “Population Growth and Technological Change: One Million B.C. to 1900,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 108:3 (August 1993): 681–716, (accessed 21 March 2016) and UNFPA, “State of the World Population 2007: Unleashing the Potential for Urban Growth.”

[4] United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2012). World Urbanization Prospects: The 2011 Revision, CD-ROM Edition.

[5] Parag Khanna, “Beyond City Limits,” Foreign Policy (16 August 2010), (accessed 27 December 2010).

[6] Rodney Stark, Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome (HarperCollins e-books, Reprint edition, 17 March 2009), Kindle, 2, Loc. 124–126.

[7] See for example articles on “China’s Indigenous Mission Movement,” China Source Quarterly 15, no. 1 (Spring 2013), (accessed 11 April 2016).

[8] McKinsey Global Institute, “Preparing for China’s Urban Billion,” March 2009, (accessed 19 June 2013).

[9] Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China, 2nd ed. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999), 604.

[10] Leslie T. Chang, “Why the One-Child Policy Has Become Irrelevant,” The Atlantic (20 March 2013), (accessed 3 March 2016).

[11] United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2014). World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision, CD-ROM Edition

[12] McKinsey Global Institute, “Preparing for China’s Urban Billion.”

[13] I am indebted to Dr. Calvin Ma for the insight regarding universities and the role that education plays in a Confucian worldview. He provided extremely helpful feedback as the reviewer of an earlier form of this paper presented at the OMF Missions Research Consultation held April 2016 in Singapore.

[14] Winsome Tam, “The History of a ‘City without History’,” Asia Society Hong Kong Center, 4 May 2010, (accessed 4 March 2016).

[15] Mi Shih, “Making Rural China Urban,” The China Story, Australian Centre on China in the World, 18 June 2013, (accessed 4 March 2016).

[16] Ian Johnson, “As Beijing Becomes a Supercity, the Rapid Growth Brings Pains,” The New York Times (19 July 2015), (accessed 7 March 2016).

[17] The OMF prayer guide “China’s Cities” gives several stories of this type of situation.

[18] See for example (accessed 28 July 2016).

[19] The name “Project 211” comes from the Central Government’s efforts to strengthen approximately 100 universities for the twenty-first century, (accessed 8 August 2016).

[20] Andrew Ross, “How China’s Cities Bar the Door to a Better Education for Migrant Students,” China Economic Review (13 July 2015), (accessed 29 July 2016). Ross references a detailed compilation of data by Yiqin Fu at (accessed 29 July 2016).

[21] Zhao Yanrong and Qian Yanfeng, China Daily (8 December 2009), (accessed 9 Jan 2013).

[22] Timothy Keller (27 February 2015), (accessed 7 March 2016).

[23] David W. Smith, Seeking a City with Foundations: Theology for an Urban World (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2011), 23.

[24] Robert C. Linthicum, City of God, City of Satan: A Biblical Theology of the Urban City (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), Kindle, loc. 281–82.

[25] “The significance of the city lay, rather, in the protection that it could offer in times of distress not only to the inhabitants but also to those who dwelt in the immediate vicinity. Only in the course of time did the cities also become the economic, intellectual, and cultural center for the Israelites. Urbanization progressed as the former seminomadic structures of life became more remote.” E. Jenni and C. Westermann, Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997), 882.

[26] Harvie M. Conn and Manuel Ortiz, Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, the City and the People of God (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2001), 87.

[27] Adapted from several chapters in Linthicum, City of God, City of Satan.

[28] Ian Johnson, “The Rat Tribe of Beijing,” Al Jazeera America (24 January 2015), (accessed 29 September 2015).

[29] April Ma, “China raises a generation of ‘left-behind’ children,” CNN (4 February 2014), (accessed 5 February 2014).

[30] Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters (New York: Dutton, 2009), Kindle, loc. 85.

[31] D.C., a colleague in China, private conversation with the author.

[32] S.D., a colleague in China, researched and provided this list to the author.

[33] The data was on a fax dated July 2009, but the actual date and source of the data is not known.

[34] The Chinese National Bureau of Statistics 2000 census indicated that “only” 42.4 million migrants left their home province, with 35% of these going to Guangdong province. Since the total number of migrant workers crossing provincial boundaries in 2014 exceeded 168 million, the number of ethnic minorities in the Pearl River Delta (Guangzhou/Shenzhen) has certainly increased significantly in the last six or seven years. (See for the 2014 data).

[35] International Organization for Migration, “World Migration Report 2015 – Migrants and Cities: New Partnerships to Manage Mobility,” (Geneva: International Organization for Migration, 2015), 17, (accessed 11 April 2016).

[36] Roberto Castillo, “How many Africans are in Guangzhou?,” October 2014, (accessed 9 March 2015).

[37] Brent Fulton, China’s Urban Christians: A Light That Cannot Be Hidden (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick, 2015), 109–25.

[38] Dr. Calvin Ma, feedback received as the reviewer of an earlier form of this paper presented at the OMF Missions Research Consultation held April 2016 in Singapore.

[39] The ideas expressed in OMF’s “Six Ways” easily come to mind here, but these would need to be indigenized for China’s urban church.

[40] At the time of the writing of this article, the situation in China has become more tense, especially in Zhejiang province with the removal of crosses from churches. (See for example: It remains to be seen if this will become a more general trend throughout China. Diligent and fervent prayer is needed.

[41] See several helpful papers in Mission Round Table 10:1 (January 2015).

[42] Stark, Cities of God, Kindle, 11, Loc. 255

[43] I am indebted to a brief conversation with Prof. Viv Grigg of Azusa Pacific Seminary for this insight.

[44] Fulton, China’s Urban Christians, 126–34.

[45] See for example: Nanlai Cao, “Boss Christians: The Business of Religion in the ‘Wenzhou Model’ of Christian Revival,” The China Journal 59 (January 2008): 63–87; or Huo Shui, “Between Riches and Poverty: Chinese Christian Business People,” China Source (19 December 2006), (accessed 4 April 2016).

[46] Gabriel Wildau and Tom Mitchell, “China Income Inequality Among World’s Worst,” Financial Times (14 January 2016), (accessed 10 March 2016).

[47] An extensive reading list and other resources concerning missional business can be found on the Business 4 Blessing website,

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