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Missionaries tackle world’s urban centers

EDITORS’ NOTE: The International Mission Board recently released its 2007 annual statistical report, which provides information on how God continues to move around the world. This story is part of a three-week series in November taking a closer look behind the numbers at the lives changed by the work of Southern Baptist missionaries and their overseas Baptist partners.

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–She stands in her kitchen with tears in her eyes. A close family friend has died and she struggles to understand why.

After a lifetime of turning to priests and saints for solace and answers, this Italian woman is still searching. She asks International Mission Board missionary Charlie Worthy, “Why does God let this happen?” For Worthy, it is a golden opportunity to share his faith and relationship with Jesus Christ.

“She was really broken,” he said, “and she had some serious questions.”

Worthy and his wife Shannon have encountered many similar situations since moving to Naples, Italy, in 2005. The couple, who have three young children, were the first IMB missionaries assigned to this metropolitan area of 3.5 million people -– less than 0.5 percent of whom are evangelicals.

This metropolitan area is one of 28 “urban centers” around the world where IMB missionaries like the Worthys began church-planting strategies last year, according to the International Mission Board’s 2007 annual statistical report. Of those 28 urban areas, 19 of them are less than 2 percent evangelical.

“While we continue to emphasize the importance of taking the Gospel to every people group, we cannot ignore the fact that peoples all around the world are migrating to the cities,” said Scott Holste, the IMB’s associate vice president for research and strategic services.

“This year the urban population of the world surpassed that of its rural population for the first time in history.”

While many urban centers are rather small, Holste noted that researchers estimate there may be more than 450 cities with populations exceeding 1 million.

“Our field personnel report that these large urban centers frequently are less reached [with the Gospel] than rural areas where many missionaries have tended to work in the past,” he said.

With Naples’ elaborate cathedrals, Italian delicacies, scenic ocean view and warm Mediterranean climate, most people may overlook that millions live there without a relationship with Jesus Christ.

Like many other missionaries working in urban areas around the world, Worthy remembers feeling overwhelmed at the number of people in the neighborhood surrounding his apartment building. More than 20,000 people can live in an area of less than two square miles.

“It doesn’t take much to stand on the castle in the middle of the city that’s been here for almost 1,000 years and … [you] realize that vast sea of lostness below you,” Worthy said.

“It is considered the densest city in Western Europe. You’ve got people on top of people.”

Since moving there, the Worthys have immersed themselves in their community -– reaching out to people in their apartment building, the schools, shops and everyone else they encounter daily. The missionary couple hope to begin their first church group in Naples in the coming months.

Being the only American family in their neighborhood has helped strengthen their visibility. Worthy stepped into a nearby coffee shop one day, and a woman he’d never seen before proceeded to tell him where he lived.

But he doesn’t seem to mind the notoriety. Living in a social culture, where meals can last four hours and everything centers on the family, Worthy and his wife encounter daily opportunities to talk about Jesus Christ.

“As we go to the market, the post office, the shoe store or the bank … we’re going there to talk to people,” he said. “We’re not just going there to get food, money or clothes.

“Inevitably -– at least eight times out of 10 -– [the conversation] will turn to something spiritual, especially over those three- or four-hour dinners.”

Worthy believes some of their closest friends may be on the brink of turning their lives over to Christ.

“When those three or four families come to faith, I think it is going to bust the seams of our neighborhood,” he said. “That is what it is going to take.”

Reaching a heavily populated urban area is a monumental task, Worthy acknowledged, but the eternal reward of more people coming to Christ is far more spectacular than the cathedrals and views outside his front door.
Shawn Hendricks is a writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. For more information on becoming involved in international missions, go to imb.org. To see other stories of what God is doing around the world, go to commissionstories.com.

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  • Shawn Hendricks