In the year 1800 when we were at the height of our industrial revolution in England, only 3% of the world's population lived in cities. By the year 2100 this is expected to have rocketed to 90%
Today, the Economist reports that China's city dwellers now outnumber it's rural residents. Of China's 1.35 billion people, 51.3% lived in urban areas by the end of 2011. What happened for us in Europe relatively slowly, is now exploding in the developing world at an unprecedented pace.
The figures in last week's blog show that by 2050 all of the world's top 10 most populous cities will be in Asia or Africa. Shanghai and Tokyo are the only current large cities which will feature on the list that we would call in any way developed. These new mega cities promise to be sprawling masses of low cost housing, close to high risk industry. Massive poverty colliding with a huge migration of people groups. Previously separate cultures and religions living in close proximity but splendidly isolated. Again, much like our own revolution, but at warp speed!
If cities define culture as most commentators assume, then we should get ready for a massive shift away from western, American/European thought and culture. Our ways, our words, our languages could become increasingly irrelevant as the cultural and financial centres of the world rapidly migrate south and eastwards. Maybe a post Obama USA will come to accept a new, secondary role in world affairs as they discover what the post colonial European powers have found over the last 50 years? Again, the shift from European to American supremacy took 300 years. Now it will move south in a mere generation.
But it's not all about a shift in business, culture and politics. Away from the glass and chrome skyscrapers in these new economic centres, poverty will be off the scale. It is estimated that 23% of the global poor will live in mega slums, around mega cities by 2050, that is somewhere around 2 billion people.
In such conditions, disease will spread more readily and rapidly than ever before. The Hollywood 'outbreak' style disaster movies could be right. The potential is there for resistant viruses to multiply like the plagues of medieval Europe, but now on a global scale. New diseases like HIV, SARS, Ebola, Bird Flu will bring chaos in these dense urban conditions. More so where climate change, dwindling natural energy resources and poor government make cohesive society and social care almost impossible.
Into this bleak picture, what hope is there for the church? Weren't we supposed to be the hope of all the world? Is this really all that the post christian generation has to look forward to?
In the first instance, complacent churches need to wake up and realise that already the old world order does not exist. It is time now to change our thinking and strategies for these new global challenges, rather than believing the way we have always done things will connect meaningfully with the emerging world culture.
There is room for hope and confidence when we look back. Christians have long been able to adapt and evolve to reach the urban poor. We have been at the forefront of learning new linguistic and cultural ways in the past which have enabled us to communicate the gospel with relevance. The church was always the first to care for the sick, the dying, the marginalised. We pioneered in health care long before governments saw it as their responsibility. It is the believing church which has attempted to deal with the root causes of disease and poverty, working for heart change in the man, rather than simply adjusting his environment.
If these future trends are anywhere near correct, the church which emerges now, out of this generation, will need to be taught to be as radical and dynamic as the very first church which took the world by storm. The needs of the planet may be greater than ever, they will need a saviour more than ever before. How much more will they need a vibrant church which will not only tell them, but share with them in their suffering and still show them Christ?
Stats taken from The Future of the Global Church - Patrick Johnstone