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WORLDVIEW: Cities: challenge of a new era

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RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Buenos Aires, Argentina, represents the direction where the world is rapidly moving: sprawling, crowded, ethnically and socially diverse, fast-paced, urban masses of people.

Emphasis on urban.

As reported in this space last year, more people now live in cities than in rural areas — for the first time in human history. A projected 88 percent of human population growth over the next generation will occur in cities in developing countries.

Buenos Aires, profiled in today’s edition of Baptist Press, is the second-largest city in South America. With more than 13 million people, it is one of 20 global metro areas with populations above 10 million. Cities with populations exceeding 1 million people each total 380 worldwide. Much of future global urban growth will come in smaller cities (500,000 and under), but it will still be distinctively urban.

The urban trend certainly applies in South America, where nearly 80 percent of the region’s 380 million people live and work in cities, a percentage that will rise in the years to come. The continent counts 39 cities with populations topping 1 million.

Buenos Aires presents all the challenges of other urban giants, reports missionary David Bufkin*, International Mission Board leader for the mission team working with Argentine Baptists to reach the city.

“A third of Argentina lives in Buenos Aires,” Bufkin says. “Certain neighborhoods in the capital have nearly 40,000 people per square kilometer. They live stacked on top of each other in high-rise apartment buildings.”

Besides sheer numbers and sprawl, Buenos Aires encompasses many distinct population segments — majority Argentines, numerous immigrant groups from near and far, students, professionals, the rich, the poor, the middle class, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, postmoderns.

In other words, cities within cities.

And the heart of the city is overwhelmingly lost — less than 3 percent evangelical Christians, according to recent statistics.

“Obviously we don’t have the personnel or the resources to wage a battle on every front,” Bufkin admits. “You have to strategically pick certain areas that best fit your people, their gifts, their calling and abilities. We try to match those with the different strata and different groups represented here.”

In 2006, International Mission Board teams and their Baptist partners applied church-planting strategies in 170 urban centers, most of which were unreached (less than 2 percent evangelical). Twenty-eight of those centers were engaged by mission workers for the first time.

There’s a long, long way to go — and a major change in mindset is required to get there.

“Among Southern Baptists, we still have the mindset of rural missions,” says Bufkin, who changed his own mindset after growing up in rural Oklahoma. “But the mission of the 21st century, however much we don’t like it, is going to be in the Beijings, the New Delhis, the massive, polluted, crowded urban areas where billions of people live.”
*name changed
Erich Bridges is senior writer for the International Mission Board. View a multimedia presentation about Buenos Aires — including video, sound and additional photos — here. Listen to an audio version of this column here.

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  • Erich Bridges