India’s swift urbanization is reshaping the nation’s identity, with over one-third of the population now in major cities. For many missiologists, this new demographic reality calls for a recalibration of the church’s approach, one that moves beyond traditional rural missions to address the complexities of urban life.
In recognition of this shift, in 2014 the Evangelical Fellowship of India created the National Centre for Urban Transformation (NCUT) to educate and train Christian leaders to reach migrants, professionals, the poor, women, and students in urban environments. NCUT develops urban ministry courses for Bible colleges and seminaries, conducts research, and is working in 32 of the country’s cities with populations ranging between 500,000 to 9 million residents.
This September, the organization released Rethinking Urban Mission and Ministry in India, edited by urban missiologists Atul Aghamkar, who is also NCUT’s national director, and James Patole.
CT spoke to Aghamkar about India’s shift from village to city life, how Christians are reaching call center employees and other professionals, and why the rest of the world should pay attention to “Christward” movement models.
How have Christians historically engaged cities?
Christian missions historically began in cities, evident with the arrival of the first Protestant missionaries in Tharangambadi (a coastal city in southeastern India) and William Carey’s leadership in Kolkata (the capital of West Bengal State). Recognizing the strategic importance of cities, missionaries established their bases there, initially focused on reaching the upper castes, especially Brahmins. When this strategy struggled to take hold, they shifted to the rural areas and ministered to outcastes, which is where attention has largely remained until today.
Despite this shift, cities remained vital. Educational, medical, social, and philanthropic initiatives flourished, with large churches catering to the educated and upper-class converts. Organizations like YMCA and YWCA continue to influence urban masses. Prominent educational institutions and medical facilities have left a lasting impact, and today, this legacy of urban missions continues with a fresh vision and commitment.
Gandhi said, “The soul of India lives in its villages.” Has that changed now?
M. K. Gandhi was devoted to liberating India’s village-dwelling masses. He envisioned each village functioning through a Panchayat (village council) in independent India—a decentralized form of government where each village manages its affairs, forming the political foundation.
In the past 75 years, India has rapidly urbanized, challenging Gandhi’s traditional viewpoint, with over one-third of the population in “million-plus” cities and cities with populations between 200,000 and 800,000. But satellite images suggest 63 percent of India’s built-up area is urban, largely concentrated in the poorer northern belt.
Urbanization in India goes beyond city boundaries; it’s about the pervasive urban mindset even in villages, which are no longer as close-knit as they used to be, and individualism and consumerism on the rise.
When we say “urban missions,” what are we distinguishing it from? Why is that important?
Traditionally, mission focus prioritized reaching remote tribes and rural populations, resulting in strategies and perspectives rooted in a rural/tribal mindset. While modern mission work has successfully impacted these populations, urban areas have been overlooked.
The rapid urbanization of the world hasn’t been swiftly acknowledged by global missions agencies, necessitating a paradigm shift. Many agencies continue to focus on the unreached in remote areas, neglecting millions in urban centers. Unlike rural mission that might follow established models, urban mission requires tailored strategies to address the complexities of city life, including diverse populations, sociocultural dynamics, and the fast-paced urban lifestyle.
Does India have a history and legacy of urban mission?
Early missionary societies, like the Church Missionary Society (now known as the Church Mission Society) and the Methodists, began their work in urban centers, focusing on cantonment, or army, areas. The Salvation Army, YMCA, and YWCA also concentrated on urban outreach, particularly among the poor.
Recently, significant urban ministries in South India, such as megachurches, have emerged, impacting educated urban youth. Independent churches in city peripheries reach lower-income communities.
One of the most impressive and unique models now seen in key northern Indian cities are the various “Christward” movement models. While there have been reports from gatherings as large as 2,000 to 20,000, most are small groups of people from urban areas who hail from middle- to low-caste backgrounds who come together to learn more about Jesus. Led by bi-vocational pastors/leaders drawn from within their communities, these movements demonstrate a spontaneous response of urban people to the person and teachings of Jesus Christ without becoming part of the established church or traditional Christianity.
These movements do not fit into any traditional mission mold and are unique because they allow those interested in Christianity to participate without them crossing the sociolinguistic and cultural borders. That is, they retain many of their cultural and linguistic distinctives, but their theology is Christian. This model of the emerging Christward movements may serve as a strategic example for the rest of India and perhaps the world.
Do you know of any existing urban outreaches to professionals and students in India or elsewhere that can serve as models for urban churches looking to expand their ministry to professionals and students?
While we may not have many specific models for reaching urban professionals, some urban churches regularly reach particular professionals. For example, an IT company in Bangalore, led by a Christian group of professionals, makes a very conscious effort to engage with non-Christian IT professionals and arrange some innovative and creative events, through which they attempt to communicate Christian values and perspectives on issues that these professionals face.
Another Christian group has started a similar ministry among call center professionals, who usually work at night and leave early in the morning. This church has identified Christians at different centers in Bangalore who network with these young professionals and organize events in their cafeterias, where they can interact with other Christian professionals and connect with other Christians who keep in touch with them after their work.
Ministry leaders also organize preaching and teaching sessions for call center professionals, create spaces for people to share their life concerns, and offer Christian counseling. Other times, seekers’ events are organized for those who show further interest to help them know more about Christ. In some call centers, early morning praise and worship events are scheduled, keeping in mind that non-Christian professionals may also attend. The younger Christian professionals lead these with contemporary gospel music and contextually appropriate messages.
In Prayagraj in the state of Uttar Pradesh, a medical professional organizes meetings and defends the Christian faith through a regular Facebook blog. Christian coalitions and organizations equip professionals to engage with their secular counterparts.
For students in major cities, organizations like the Union of Evangelical Students of India and the Evangelical Graduate Fellowship, along with intercollegiate prayer fellowships and independent churches, disciple university and college students during their transitional phase.
What has been the hardest part of your urban mission work?
With all the efforts we are putting in to create an awareness about contemporary cities becoming urban mission fields, the urban church leadership is slow in becoming an urban mission force. It’s frustrating at times.
The other matter is financial. Most donors don’t see the need for supporting urban mission, as they think that there are sufficient financial resources available in cities.
Finally, most leaders who are serving in the city are not trained in any aspect of understanding and engaging the city, hence, there is little proactive urban witness undertaken by them.
Please elaborate on what the church can do to minister to the urban poor and migrants.
In every city, slums house a significant portion of the poor, mainly rural migrants with minimal skills for urban survival. Exploited and underpaid, they form a substantial unorganized labor force.
The city’s church is obligated to show Christlike compassion by addressing the needs of the poor. This involves healthcare, education, nutritious food, job training, and legal assistance for settlement issues.
The church must be particularly sensitive to migrants forced into the city due to natural calamities. Providing acceptance, food, shelter, and sustenance, the church can also communicate the gospel effectively within the migrants’ networks, both in the city and in their native places. This requires the urban church to develop holistic plans, networks, and partnerships with experts working among the urban poor.
Over half of the urban population in the church are women. How can urban churches address their concerns and realities?
Women in urban churches actively participate in worship services and support activities like prayer fellowships and visiting the sick. Despite their involvement, formal participation in structural ministries is often limited due to denominational or doctrinal distinctions.
Urban churches can harness the potential of women by empowering them to contribute to various ministries. Their skills in teaching, nursing, administration, and IT can be utilized effectively and women can play a vital role in outreach and community engagement.
Recognizing women as guardians of faith and organizing seminars and workshops can nurture Christian values, impacting families and strengthening the church. Women with counseling abilities can assist couples and children during crises. Urban churches can involve women in afterschool tuition classes to support children.
While exploring women’s ministry potentials, it’s crucial to also address their concerns. The church can assist newly married couples facing issues and provide fellowship through cell groups for women experiencing loneliness in cities.