Skip to main content

Mindy BelzVoices Mindy Belz

Population concentration

New megacities open new doors to disciple the nations

Population concentration

Hong Kong (Didier Marti/Getty Images)

New York City’s metropolitan area became the world’s first megacity in the 1930s, when its population passed the 10 million mark. By 2015 New York City had fallen to No. 9 in a rapidly urbanizing world with 30 megacities. By 2018 there were 33 such cities, and forecasters anticipate 15 more megacities by 2035—perhaps six within the next decade. A World Bank report of a decade ago was right to pronounce urban growth “one of the most important challenges of the 21st century.”

China is expected to continue to lead the world in urbanization and population growth, but Jakarta may overtake Tokyo-Yokohama as the world’s largest metropolis in the next decade. For the English-speaking West, London will be the only emerging megacity (though some forecasters add Chicago). The rest show how the world’s center of gravity continues to shift east and south, with Dar es Salaam in Africa; Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, and Surat in India; Kuala Lumpur; and Seoul.

The world’s megacities most likely will be dominated by adherents to Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism, led by governments that restrict religious and other freedoms. Cities can highlight the sinful grit of the world, the very physical breakdown of humans living close together without God. But because cities are full of human potential, life created in the image of God, they can become places of potential. This helps us think differently about the urbanizing planet we live on. 

Because cities are full of human potential, life created in the image of God, they can become places of potential.

Le Corbusier saw modern cities as “machines for living” and imagined metropolises streamlined for production and consumption. But humans with souls long for meaning and purpose. They gravitate to cities in ever greater numbers—despite Tokyo’s gridlock and Baghdad’s power outages—not simply because they will find roads, hospitals, and restaurants. They go because they will find other people. Living in the city should also mean building community.

A friend moving to Washington, D.C., is teaching me about this. She, her husband, and two young children could be seeking a nice house near good schools, but they feel called to foster-parenting. So they are looking for a racially mixed neighborhood near ministries helping broken families where, as she says, “We can be humble and learn how to be part of a community we want to help but don’t understand very well.”

An eye toward community-building has application for megacities far away. When we look at U.S. trade policy, for example, we should be mindful not only of what trade barriers mean for our GDP or the cost of a new automobile, but also of what they mean for the trade in ideas. Countries that consistently rank most free and prosperous on any index (try the Index of Economic Freedom put out by the Heritage Foundation/Wall Street Journal) have somewhere in their history Christian foundations, however imperfect. For those of us living in the post-Christian West, business and trade can be a conversation starter where other forms of evangelism fail. 

Chinese authorities understand business evangelism very well, underwriting major projects in Africa to gain access to the continent’s mineral wealth. We can have similar zeal but show a better way, something many American businesses and nonprofits already are doing in overseas partnerships.

How do we spread the aroma of Christ in urban settings dominated by other religions? By being creative, learning to spread the gospel not only through traditional missions and church planting, but “when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way” (Deuteronomy 6:7). 

In an emerging megacity like Baghdad, churches have turned a refugee crisis into outreach simply by welcoming Muslims and other nonbelievers into church-based medical clinics, schools, and handcraft workshops. 

Coffeehouse ministries, places where students from all religious walks come to study and talk, is another way tent-making enterprises become culture-shaping, heart-changing opportunities. Especially in the melting pot of the world’s megacities, these and other small steps may mean discipling the nations.