March 2018 Feature
Can the church help envision the cities of the future?
The 21st Century world will be an urban world. The Asian Development Bank states in 2008 that over one billion people would have moved from the rural villages to the urban settings in Asia by 2030.
In another three decades, over 3 billion people in Asia (two-thirds of Asia) would have become urban dwellers. Will we see an urban world where humans and God’s creation can flourish or one with a degraded environment where we live more like savages in the proverbial urban jungle?
Manuel Ortiz states that urban growth is more than a sociological reality; it is the fulfillment of God’s intentions since the beginning of time. The cultural mandate given to mankind to populate and steward the earth indicated that God has intended for human settlements to develop not only in the rural villages but also in the cities.
The earliest cities were built by the sons of Adam in the book of Genesis. The Bible traces how the history of mankind started in the garden but will end in the city.
Singapore is a small city, merely the size of a small district in some of these leading world-class cities in the world, but yet we are recognised today as global city. Singapore’s rise from a small fishing village to a world city, from the third world to the first, is well known now. It now aims to be a smart city in the 21st Century.
Conn and Ortiz note that cities seek to create a dynamic environment as an integrating centre of influence and power, as the “symbolic centres that concentrate, intensify and orchestrate culture’s re-creating forces”. Lily Kong notes that the new Singapore cityscape with her iconic architecture of commerce and culture reflects the city-state’s aspiration and claim as a cultural centre, in line with the government’s integrated urban, national and global ambitions.
However, the more important investment will be in shaping and moulding a people who value the spiritual beyond the aesthetics, who value the soul alongside these technocratic capability. Can a global city have humanity and a soul?
To grow as a city with creativity and cultural influence, we need a sense of spiritual transcendence. It is a call to grow our soul, to touch base with our humanity, to have the courage to fulfil our destiny. It will mean valuing the history of not only the city but the historicity of the man in the street, exploring the social dimensions of our city and probing deeper into our own shared consciousness.
Can a city be a place to foster humanity and community?
Urbanism as the distinctive culture of the city is exciting and evolving, and the creative innovators are constantly transforming and transmitting the urban culture in the city. The church can play a part in the emerging urbanism. The urban church as an organic and organised community is a great resource for developing creative and sustainable urbanism.
However the church would need to be strategically aligned and structured for transformational urban ministry with broader vision and to re-invent herself for the opportunities which will call for innovative solutions and daring responses. The urban church has to step out of the comfort zone, to first engage at street level, to be the Church incarnate and present at street level, in order to contribute to the new urbanscape.
The urban church can consider the three spiritual identities and roles in urban missions, viz. as priests, prophets and pilgrims.
Firstly, the urban church can unleash her members as priests to point people to God and His Kingdom. In the city where the masses live lives of stress and desperation, loneliness and despair, there are many who are constantly seeking Transcendence and the meaning of their lives.
The church and her members as priests can mediate the presence of God by pointing people to Transcendence and divine guidance as they work in the city, whether they are in the public, private or people sectors, whether they are formulating policies, enacting legislation or executing them. By modeling faith in God and faithfulness at school or at work, the church affirms the creation or cultural mandate given by God to be productive as we care for and “till the land”.
Secondly, the urban church needs to speak up and speak out prophetically as we voice and envision the cities which are fit for human flourishing and habitation. Currently, there are over 830 million urban poor living in the urban slums in cities around the world. Such urban mismanagement and urban squalor dehumanises people and perpetuates the degradation of the urban environment and contributes to the ecological crisis and climate change in the world.
The urban church cannot be content with merely saving souls for heaven at the expense of caring for God’s creation and creatures on this side of eternity. We need to speak up prophetically as we envision what God’s shalom would look like for the cities in the world.
The urban church can reference the New Urban Agenda which has been adopted by world leaders as part of the United Nations’ new sustainable development goals, which seeks to provide the roadmap for building cities as engines of prosperity, centres of cultural and social well-being while protecting the environment.
The urban church speaks and acts prophetically when it participates in policy inputs and planning at the municipal level, contribute to development of new urban spaces and lead in community building in the local neighbourhood. The urban church participates through mobilising the members and community with the wide range of skills, training and expertise to help shape the new urban landscape and urban culture.
Finally, the urban church can model for the city what God’s pilgrims look like, a community of strangers who have settled in the city and yet awaiting the arrival of the city, not built by human hands, whose architect and builder is God. The pilgrim community is a community of strangers bonded not necessarily by historical, national, ethno-linguistic or cultural ties.
The pilgrim community is created by faith in Christ, faith in a common eschatological future in the Kingdom of God. That is why it is an eschatological community with the responsibility and power to love one another and to serve one another, especially in the historical situations it finds itself including the times of human suffering.
Can the urban church model and translate the kingdom values of love, acceptance and compassion in new urban communities comprising migrants from over a hundred nationalities and ethnicities? Can the urban church help build communities of perseverance and resilience in times of disaster and crisis based on the pilgrim’s vision of serving one another as we journey together to the celestial city?
The church in the city can become an urban church when it develops an eschatological vision for transforming the city with the transcendent values of God’s Kingdom. Just as Singapore as a city-state had announced the lofty aspiration of Singapore to become a global city serving beyond the Southeast Asian hinterland, the church in Singapore can aspire and envision itself to become an urban church, an Antiochan church serving the cities of Asia and beyond.
 Manuel Ortiz, “The Church and the City” in Manuel Ortiz and Susan Baker eds. The Urban Face of Mission, p. 43
 Harvey M Conn & Manuel Ortiz, Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, the City & the People of God, 2001: IVP Academic, p. 222
 Lily Kong, “Cultural Icons, Global City and National Identity” in Michael Nai-Chiu Poon, ed., Engaging Society: The Christian in Tomorrow’s Singapore. 2013: Trinity Theological College. Pp 24-40
 Lawrence Ko, “The Role of the Asian Church in Missions” in Bambang Budijanto ed., Emerging Missions Movements: Voices of Asia, 2010: Compassion International and Asia Evangelical Alliance, pp 1-10
 Lawrence Ko, “The Church and the Soul of a Global City: An Eschatological Vision for 21st C Singapore” in Sadiri Joy Tira & Tetsunao Yamamori eds., Scattered and Gathered; A Global Compendium of Diaspora Missiology, Regnum Books International, 2016, pp.360-366.
Lawrence Ko is the National Director of Singapore Centre for Global Missions. He has been a pastor, corporate trainer and missions director over the past 27 years, engaged with projects in human resource development, Christian media and environmentalism.