Journal of Applied Missiology, Volume 3, Number 1


On The Urban Scene, We Must Know The Territory

Glover Shipp
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

One of the major complaints that a competing salesman had against Professor Harold Hill, in the musical, "The Music Man," was, "He don't know the territory!"

Those attempting to sell anything from Coca Cola to computers realize that it is necessary to know the territory. In other words, market research is essential, in order to assess the preferences of a given population. Without investigation, a salesperson may try to sell freezers to Eskimos or left-hand-drive American cars to right-hand-drive Japan.

Negative Attitude Toward the City

What does this have to do with urban research? Everything! Historically, many religious groups, and churches of Christ in particular, have avoided the city, considering it hopelessly evil and difficult to penetrate, and therefore, beyond the pale of our spiritual responsibility. Hear what some have observed on this attitude toward urban centers:
    "There has been a tendency in our mission work to focus attention on rural areas and pass by the great cities. With few exceptions, missionaries have been concentrated outside the urban centers, a policy which now is being changed" (Lightbody, in Urban Mission, January 1986:30).

    "I would say that the greatest growth challenge facing the church today is that (it) has not yet learned how to take a city. Today the churches of Christ are numerically strong only in those cities in which they grew up with the town. . . But we are yet to go into a large, burgeoning city, plant a virgin work and experience long term wholesale growth. Compounding that problem is that we have not found a way to maintain momentum in a congregation when the neighborhood changes its ethnic mix" (Michael Armour, private correspondence, 1982).

And in January 1992, when a discussion was going on about the difficulties encountered in penetrating the heart of large cities, a prominent minister suggested that "perhaps the Lord didn't intend for us to reach into these cities. Perhaps we should concentrate instead on suburban areas and new housing developments."

Inadequate Planning

This is our lingering attitude toward cities in our own nation. How do we fare with the great megalopoli in foreign countries? Perhaps a little better, for some of us see the need for planting the church in them. However, in strategy sessions for reaching the cities of Russia or Romania, Bulgaria or Brazil, China or Chile, preliminary research of these centers is seldom considered. The Continent of Great Cities ministry targets all of the capitals of South America, which is truly visionary. Yet, little thought is given to in-depth research of these cities, before mapping strategies for them. On the contrary, strategies are developed even before teams arrive on the field.

In most cases, if we aim at establishing churches in the world's great urban centers, we fail to take into consideration that cities are not all the same or that a pre-planned strategy may not succeed well in them. The Discipling Movement, based in Boston, fails in this respect. To its leaders, all cities are essentially the same. Therefore, they believe that the identical method may be applied in all cases.

This is incorrect thinking. Although every city in the world has much in common, such as poverty, crime, problems of keeping up with city services, education, and the like, all cities are different. This difference stems from the geographical setting, ecology, history, industry, economy, political structure, people groups, cultures, religious patterns, growth rate and other factors at work in a particular city.

Each City Researched

Therefore, each city must be researched, evaluated and strategized, because it embodies a unique personality and set of challenges. As urban centers reach 10, 15, 20, 25 or more millions of inhabitants, the challenges they pose to government and to the church become more and more formidable. Actually, no one knows how to manage a city of 25 to 50 million people. Such a challenge has never been faced before.

Our business as missiologists is to prepare evangelists today to fulfill the same orders that Jonah received from God: "Go to Nineveh (or Nanjing or New Delhi or Nantes), that great city." Our business is to go where people are. Nowhere is there a greater need for preaching a focused message of salvation than in the world's great cities, where millions pass by on their way to a hopeless destiny.

In order to focus our evangelism into the heart of urban worldviews worldwide, we must first understand the city. We must identify with it and communicate with it on its level and to its situation.

Steps Toward Successful Urban Work

This calls for several steps, which must be relentlessly instilled in future urban workers:
  1. Research, research, research.
  2. Once the research is done, it must be examined, tabulated and presented in such a way that valid plans for reaching our target city can be developed.
  3. Then the plan itself must be developed, but only after much prayer has gone into the matter. Let us not be guilty of running ahead of the Lord, creating our plan and then presenting it to him all packaged and ready to be sealed with his blessing.
  4. Our planning must be based on sound anthropological, sociological and church growth principles.
  5. And it must be flexible, with alternative plans in mind and an ear tuned to the Holy Spirit's guidance. One time, in Acts 16, Paul wanted to go to Bithynia, and then to Ephesus, but God's Spirit had other plans for him. Paul was to reach the great cities of Macedonia and Greece, in the next stage of his mission.
  6. Then the plan must be carried out. We are often strong on planning, but weak on execution. Any plan for evangelism and church planting must be "bought" by all concerned, rather than an isolated effort.
  7. Finally, progress must be reviewed at intervals and God given the credit for growth. Paul told the Corinthians that he had planted, Apollos had watered, but God had given the increase (1 Cor. 3:6). It is not our responsibility to force baptisms or growth. It is our task to investigate intelligently, plan, prepare the soil, plant and water, thus enabling God to bring about growth (Shipp 1986:10-17).

Anthropological Research

Someone has said that the worst one to ask about water is a fish, because it is so accustomed to its environment that it takes water for granted. Sometimes, like fish, we view a city, or even live in it, without really seeing it. How then do we go about taking a fresh, accurate look at Megalopolis?

The first major stage is anthropological research of the city. Anthropology is the study of man. Urban anthropology is the study of man in the city. It stresses:

  1. Culture and society in an urban environment.
  2. Behavior as conditioned by urban living.
  3. Micro studies (individuals and small groups).
  4. Qualitative analysis of evidence gathered.
  5. Participant observation of the city and its cultures.
  6. Real-life settings in their urban context (Hiebert 1981:1).

Urban anthropology looks at the ecology of cities. What makes a city what it is geographically and physically? What is its shape? Why has it formed in this way? How dense is its population? What are projections for future growth?

Cities are shaped in part by ecological factors. They are also shaped by human decisions. For instance, how is a particular city structured? What kind of government is in place and how does it shape the city? How much urban planning and renewal are going on? Are there zones for different functions? The wise church worker will pay close attention to the development of cities, for evangelistic planning must fit into patterns of human growth and mentality.

Sociological Research

Urban research must also take into account sociological methods, Sociological research stresses the larger groupings in a city, their social behaviorism, the use of statistics and lab settings, as well as real life, in analysis of the urban setting and detached observation (Hiebert 1981:1). In other words, sociological research looks at the forest more than at the trees, deducing from this macro approach certain conclusions.

This method is valid in that it gives a broad perspective of the city that anthropological methods cannot formally achieve. Both are certainly necessary in urban research. Cities are too large and complex to depend entirely on one research approach over the other.

Sociology relies heavily on surveys. These include population by age categories, life expectancy figures, professions, percentage of population in different income levels, types of housing, religious affiliations, educational levels, business and industry, crime figures, health and welfare information and other such figures.

For religious purposes, such matters as directions and rate of growth of the city, immigration and changes of residence, literacy, mental and spiritual health, ethnic mix and distribution, churches and their growth and outreach, patterns of public transportation, and feasibility studies for planting new churches in the city are valid survey topics.

Church Growth Research

Church growth methodology can also be applied in doing urban research for religious purposes. Effective evangelism and church growth do not come automatically. There are certain research and methodological requirements necessary, in order to encourage growth of the Lord's kingdom in major cities.

The first of these is to see the city through "church growth eyes" (Wagner 1981). Without vision and planning, we may spend many years in a city and never build a growth-oriented work.

The second requirement is to research and seek out receptive units of an urban society. Factors such as migration, famine, war, death, divorce or other traumatic events can facilitate receptivity of groups and individuals.

A third consideration is that of expanding the base of seekers. Once receptive elements are located, effective methods for bringing them to a knowledge of Christ and to obedience must be utilized.

Finally, it is important to present a sound Biblical message, but his message must be contextualized; that is, clothed in the garments of the particular group in question. Again, research will help us determine how to find cultural bridges to that group.

Human Systems in the City

Cities are not merely physical structures, but also human systems. The government of progressive Singapore, a blue-ribbon example of urban development, stresses its most important product: people, a rich and complex mosaic of people (from the government- published book, Singapore:The Next Lap,1991).

Urban residents can be classified in many different ways. In this study we will look briefly at webs, networks and associations.

Among all of the sub-units within the social complexity of a city, two of the most important for the investigator of urban life are family webs and networks of acquaintances. Both of these are important channels of communication and mutual support in an otherwise cold and inhuman atmosphere. That these channels function has often been proved. News of a death or of some other personal joy or calamity is transmitted rapidly throughout a city, even in cases where there may be few telephones and automobiles to aid in the communication process.

Family webs, even tough fractured in part by migration and the pressures of urban life, are a basic structural element in cities, especially those in which the extended family still has an important role in society. This extended family may total several hundred people, including godparents and their families, patrons (those connected by ties of friendship, employment or mutual interests) and any persons employed by the family or being reared by it.

The urban researcher is duty-bound to explore family webs and begin to penetrate them, in order to bring entire family units to Christ, rather than scattered individuals. In exploring and influencing extended families, however, it is important to make first contact, if possible, with those recognized by the family as its most influential members and spokespersons. If contact is pursued with the youngest family members, or with family mavericks, these richly-connected webs will remain largely closed to investigation and evangelization.

Networks are another vital element in urban research. According to Barnes, a pioneer researcher of networks,

    "A network is a set of points some of which are joined by lines. The points are people, or sometimes groups, and the lines indicate which people interact with each other" (1954:43).

There is a great diversity in networks and the ways in which people use them in interacting with one another. Basic networks are personal (anchored on a specific individual) or social (involving a group). Individuals in a city are "the core of a network of relationships which include various groupings, both homogeneous and heterogeneous" (McConnell 1986:2-3). Davenport and Davenport maintain that networks are based upon "kinship, friendship, employment, recreation, politics, ethnicity, education, religion or other common interests" (1982:106).

For the urban church worker, networks offer a rich opportunity to study how relations develop and are maintained at different levels of society. One informant may lead the researcher to many other potential contacts, at different levels of society. Incidentally, an individual in an urban setting actually has multi- tiered network contacts. He or she may know people from top government and business levels, down to those holding menial positions in the city. Once such networking is understood, the urban evangelist can penetrate it and use those with multiple- network connections as bridges to reach even more networks.

In a sense cities are composed of thousands of "villages" of associations, webs and networks, each a more or less homogeneous unit within the larger units of the metropolitan area itself. If the city appears too big a monster to bite into, it can be broken down into smaller bite-sized pieces, represented by these groupings.

One such grouping is associations. Hiebert says that associations not only fulfill a primary function (for which they ostensibly were formed), but other functions as well.

    They ". . . reinforce an individual's sense of personal identity, of validating his status in the community, and of exercising social control" (1976:245).

Associations are important to the religious researcher, because they are special-interest sub-units in a city. These units can become important connecting links or bridges to entire people groups within the city.

Researching Urban Worldviews

Urban research should also include individual and collective worldview as it is modified by life in a large city. Worldviews in cities are pluralistic, with the individual modifying certain aspects of his or her assumptions, values, allegiances, culture and habits, as association is made with diverse worldviews. In order to convert others in an urban pluralistic society, it is necessary to understand and help modify in a Christian manner the basic assumptions and values of the individual. Understanding of worldview and worldview change comes through observation, participation and research (Shipp 1986:119-133).

Urban Societal Groupings

We need, desperately, to understand the various societal groupings and classes in large cities. Each has worldview and cultural habits of its own. We need to learn how to analyze these levels, such as urban poor, and better determine how to penetrate them successfully.


There are many other aspects of urban research that could be explored, but suffice it to say, in closing, that the serious urban church worker must know the territory. With a basic understanding of how his or her city is organized and how its webs, networks, associations and worldviews function, the worker can realize far greater results than can be achieved without such research.

Urban structures and groupings are natural. The wise urban missiologist knows them well and uses them for the glory of Christ and the natural expansion of his kingdom. Cities are too large and complex, and workers are too few, to waste years in unproductive efforts, which has often been the case historically. Going to modern-day Ninevehs means much more than 40 days of preaching, as in God's mandate to Jonah. It means years of research and intimacy with the city and its ways, in order to penetrate it along its existing human maps and leave it with powerful, rather than pitiful, churches. Jeremiah urged Jewish exiles in Babylon to seek the good of the city in which they found themselves (Jer. 29:7). The greatest possible good that modern megalopoli need is to be introduced to the Prince of Peace. Can we do less than to carefully research the city, in order to find how best to make this introduction meaningful and lasting in the urban context?  


Armour, Michael 1982 Personal correspondence with the speaker.

Barnes, John A. 1954 "Class Committees in a Norwegian Island Parish." Human Relations 7," February 1954.

Davenport, Judith and Joseph III 1982 "Utilizing the Social Network in Rural Communities," "Social Casework 63," February 1982.

Greenway, Roger S. and Monsma, Timothy 1989 Cities: Missions' New Frontier. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House.

Hiebert, Paul G. 1976 Cultural Anthropology. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippencott. 1982 Urban Anthropology and Church Planting. Pasadena, Calif: Fuller Theological Seminary.

Lightbody, C. Stuart 1986 "New Strategies for a New Era." "Urban Mission," January issue.

McConnell, C. Douglas 1985 Urban Ministries Training: Evaluating for Effectiveness. Altadena, Calif.: Barnabas Resources.

Wagner, C. Peter 1981 Strategies for Church Growth. Pasadena, Calif.: Fuller Theological Seminary.

n.a. 1991 Singapore: The Next Lap. Singapore: Government Printing Office.

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