“Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like a sheep without a shepherd.” -Matthew 9:35
When was the last time you encountered a large crowd?
By “large crowd” I mean a mass of humanity—think of the subway during rush hour, or when everyone heads for the exits after a sporting event. That type of crowd. When you saw it, how did you respond? Were you inclined to move toward it, or away from it? To see it as a nuisance to steer clear of, or as an opportunity to embrace? As a problem best avoided, or a people in need of compassion?
These questions are particularly pertinent when we consider the massive urbanization underway in China, which is giving birth to the greatest collection of crowds the world has ever known.
Urbanization in China
Urbanization is not a recent development in China. It began in earnest during the late 1970s under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping and the reforms he initiated. Yet at that time 80 percent of Chinese people still lived in rural areas as subsistence farmers with little disposable income and few opportunities for better employment or education.
by 2030, 1 billion people will be living in China’s cities.
By 2010, however, China’s 1.3 billion people were equally divided between the cities and the countryside. A tipping point had been reached. Today, over 53 percent of the population lives in urban areas, and that percentage continues to increase. The government’s goal is that by 2025, the mirror image of the early 80s population balance will be realized, with 80 percent—900 million individuals—dwelling in urban centers.1 A study by the consultancy firm McKinsey and Company takes that further. They estimate that by 2030, one billion people will be living in China’s cities.2 This is what we call “The Urban Billion,” a crowd of people if ever there was one.
Yet what matters is not what we call this phenomenon but the response these crowds call from us.
As followers of Jesus, how should we respond to this mass of humanity?
There are no easy answers and our response requires much thought and prayer. But some things are clear; Christianity is growing by leaps and bounds in China. Estimates as to the number of believers in the country vary, from an official government figure of under 30 million to upwards of 100 million by some observers. Though the exact figures are disputed, everyone agrees that the overall number of Christians is rising, with Dr. Yang Fenggang predicting that by 2030 nearly 250 million believers will call China home.3
It’s also clear that the growing urban church is young—filled with new believers, led by “slightly less-new” believers. The church needs mature followers of Jesus who will dare to plant themselves long-term among these congregations, demonstrating what it means to love and honor Jesus at work, as a parent and as a husband or wife. Christians who have walked the road a little bit further can pass on what they have learned to these younger believers.
Equally apparent are the vast numbers of people in China who have not embraced Jesus yet. While there is the exciting prospect of 250 million believers by 2030, there will still be over 1 billion people outside the fold. Granted, numbers alone don’t tell the whole story, but they may help shake the apathy out of us. If 1 billion individuals in need of Jesus doesn’t move us to respond, I don’t know what will!
If it’s been a while since you’ve seen a vast crowd, maybe in these last few moments you’ve caught a glimpse of those forming in China’s cities and their spiritual need. My hope and prayer is that seeing will lead to doing. That like Jesus, we would not run from the crowds, but rather embrace them with love and compassion, choosing to place ourselves as representatives of Christ in their midst. That the enduring image of “The Urban Billion” would not be of sheep without a shepherd, but that we would see Jesus—through us—in the midst of the crowds.
For the glory of God and the good of these people, may it be so.
1. Ian Johnson, China’s Great Uprooting: Moving 250 Million Into Cities The New York Times (June 15, 2013).
2. Preparing for China’s Urban Billion, McKinsey Global Institute, February 2009,
http://go.omf.org/mckinseybillion (accessed June 19, 2013).
3. China on course to become “world’s most Christian nation” within 15 years, The Telegraph (April 19, 2014). http://go.omf.org/telegraphchina, Dr. Yang Fenggang, Director of Purdue University’s Center on Religion and Chinese Society.
This article was originally published in OMF’s Billions magazine.