The Urban Billion

“Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like a sheep without a shepherd.”

When was the last time you encountered a large crowd?

By ‘large crowd’ I mean a mass of humanity – think of the tube during rush hour, or when everyone heads for the exits after a sporting event. That type of crowd. When you saw it, how did you respond?  Were you inclined to move towards it, or away from it?  To see it as a nuisance to steer clear of, or as an opportunity to embrace? As a problem best avoided, or a people in need of compassion?

These questions are particularly pertinent when we consider the massive  urbanisation underway in China, which is giving birth to the greatest collection of crowds the world has ever known.   

Urbanisation in China

Urbanisation is not a recent development in China. It began in earnest during the late 1970s under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping and the reforms he initiated. Yet at that time 80 per cent of Chinese people still lived in rural areas, subsistence farmers with little disposable income, and few opportunities for better employment or education.

by 2030, one billion people will be living in China’s cities

By 2010, however, China’s 1.3 billion people were equally divided between the cities and the countryside. A tipping point had been reached. Today, over 53 per cent of the population lives in urban areas, and that percentage continues to increase. The government’s goal is that by 2025, the mirror image of the early 80s population balance will be realised, with 80 per cent – 900 million individuals – dwelling in urban centers.1 A study by the consultancy firm McKinsey and Company takes that further, They estimate that by 2030, one billion people will be living in China’s cities.2 This is what we call ‘The Urban Billion’, a crowd of people if ever there was one. 

Yet what matters is not what we call this phenomenon but the response these crowds call from us.

As followers of Jesus, how should we respond to this mass of humanity?

There are no easy answers and our response requires much thought and prayer. But some things are clear, Christianity is growing by leaps and bounds in China. Estimates as to the number of believers in the country vary, from an official government figure of under 30 million to upwards of 100 million by some observers. Though the exact figures are disputed, everyone agrees that the overall number of Christians is rising, with Dr. Yang Fenggang predicting that by 2030 nearly 250 million believers will call China home.3

It’s also clear that the growing urban church is young – filled with new believers, led by ‘slightly less-new’ believers. It needs mature followers of Jesus who will dare to plant themselves long-term among these congregations, demonstrating what it means to love and honour Jesus at work, as a parent and as a husband or wife. Christians who have walked the road a little bit further, can pass on what they have learned to these younger believers.

Equally apparent are the vast numbers of people in China who have not embraced Jesus yet. While there is the exciting prospect of 250 million believers by 2030, there will still be over one billion people outside the fold. Granted, numbers alone don’t tell the whole story, but they may help shake the apathy out of us. If one billon individuals in need of Jesus doesn’t move us to respond, I don’t know what will!

If it’s been a while since you’ve seen a vast crowd, maybe in these last few moments you’ve caught a glimpse of those forming in China’s cities and their spiritual need. My hope and prayer is that seeing will lead to doing. That like Jesus, we would not run from the crowds, but rather embrace them with love and compassion, choosing to plant ourselves as emissaries of Christ in their midst. That the enduring image of ‘The Urban Billion’ would not be of sheep without a shepherd, but that we would see Jesus – through us – in the midst of the crowds.

For the glory of God and the good of these people, may it be so.

1. Ian Johnson, China’s Great Uprooting: Moving 250 Million Into Cities The New York Times (June 15, 2013

2. Preparing for China’s urban billion, McKinsey Global Institute, February 2009, (accessed 19 June 2013).

3. China on course to become “world’s most Christian nation” within 15 years, The Telegraph (19 April 2014)., Dr. Yang Fenggang, Director of Purdue University’s Center on Religion and Chinese Society.