The missionary challenge of the urban poor

Here is the first installment of my notes from David Smith’s address at the Reaching the Unreached conference. David was pastor at Eden Chapel in Cambridge before going to Nigeria as a missionary. More recently he was lecturer in urban theology and world mission at the International Christian College in Glasgow. He’s one of the UK’s top missiologists. His book, Mission After Christendom is highly recommended purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US.

David gave an historical reflection on the social location of evangelicalism in the 21st century under the title ‘How Did We Get Here? Class, Culture and the Gospel’. Here are my notes on his introduction. I’ll post the historical heart of his talk on another occasion.

The urban poor constitute a missionary challenge. There is a loss of the Bible story. Other stories – or no story – are now determinative. So we need the skills and commitment that historically has constituted cross-cultural mission. We must be realistic and honest. It raises some difficult questions.

1. Do we recognise the futility of occasionally evangelistic forays into alien territory? We would never operate that way in Africa or Asia. We recognised in doing mission overseas that mission demanded something in relation to the incarnation: ‘immersion’.

2. What might be involved in translating the gospel into other sub-cultures? Helmut Thieleke said: ‘There is only one gospel. Our task is constantly to change the envelope in which it is send because those to whom we wish to send it are constantly changing their addresses.’

We are in a very fragmented and divided culture, one which is often broken. Some doubt we can even speak of having a culture because it is so broken. To the old division between classes is added the enormous diversity provided by immigration. We have ‘hybrid cities’. So the cultural situation is far more complex than it has been in the past. So mission involves a real effort the understand the nature of the society in which we are working.

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2 thoughts on “The missionary challenge of the urban poor

  1. Tim,

    I was at the conference as well, and I thought it was OK …

    I was a bit disappointed by David’s talk (although I missed the first 15 mins – someone then gave me the outline – which still didn’t seem to improve it for me)

    2 big points –
    i) he didn’t deal with the 20th Century … a long time ago on your blog you posted a comment of mine on this … and I was surprised he never got into the development of our 20th century middle class bias of our churches – thankfully Melvin Tinker did comment on this – which I think saved the day for me.

    ii) there seemed generally confusion in who exactly we were talking about reaching at the conference, working class, under class, urban poor – who do we mean … no one defined who exactly who they meant – and David’s illustration of the family who threw their daughter onto the street and into prostitution muddied the waters further. The various descriptions seemed to be used interchangeably which I think was unhelpful …

    illustrative of this was a question whether the working class (who ever they are) were the majority of the UK population – no they’re not ..

    and I don’t think that this is just semantics … we risk stereotyping, patronising etc if we aren’t clearer in who we are talking about, particularly when lots of conservative evangelicals are keen to launch a whole load of social progs potentially for people who don’t want or need them …

    now I think there are some general difficulties in defining class in the UK – to me the term working class is unclear, and urban poor to me is also unhelpful (if they exist they are a small subset of the working class ???) …


    PS on the history of outreach to the ‘working class’ I have just read Donald Lewis ‘Lighten their Darkness’ – highly recommended …

  2. Pingback: What’s the best term for the urban poor? « Tim Chester

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