Christianity as an Urban Religion

Christianity as an Urban Religion: An Historical Reflection on Mission and Evangelism, with Implications for Hong Kong and Mainland China Today
24 March 2017 Lutheran Theological Seminary Urban Mission Series


Professor Philip L. Wickeri, Ph.D. D.D. (The Rev’d.)
Advisor to the Archbishop on Historical and Theological Studies
Professor of Church History, Ming Hua Theological Seminary
Provincial Archivist Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui




魏克利牧師於324日在信義宗神學院進行題為「作為城市宗教的基督教:對香港及內地事工傳教的歷史反思」的演講。他以耶利米書第29章第「我  使       那城                                     」統領全篇,闡述了《新約》以及16世紀基督教作為「城市宗教」的概念。與此同時,魏牧師又探討了在現代基督教運動語境中,作為一種城市宗教,基督教扮演了何種角色。此外,又從基督教對於城市的福祉、勞工與傳教、世俗化等角度來思索作為城市宗教的基督教在香港及內地所扮演的角色。




“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on Its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

  Jeremiah 29:7


In theology and Christian mission (missio dei), it is time once again to turn our attention to the city. We need to do this quite deliberately for cities are at the center of Christian mission. The city comes to us as a problem and a possibility for mission. In some parts of the world, urban Christianity is flourishing, even though the cities themselves may be in peril.  In other places, the cities continue to be bastions of culture and commerce, often without a significant religious impact on culture and society. Most often, there is a mixture of flourishing and decay in modern cities, with the church struggling to discern its mission. The problem and possibility of the city always come together in any consideration of mission.


In much of the writing on Christianity in the Global South, a great deal of attention has been directed to rural Christianity in Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. This has gone along with a renewed interest in popular religion, new and indigenous religious movements in rural areas, Christianity as a “folk religion” and the rural and as a bulwark against the urban. The rural has often been romanticized as a pristine and pure place where religious faith flourishes.  The city is corrupt and sinful, the countryside is innocent and clean.


Before the Industrial Revolution, the overwhelming population of most countries in the world was rural, and they depended on agriculture to make a living. The rural sustained the urban. In China, for example, up until 1980, more than 80% of the population was rural, and they provided most of the food for the cities (only a small percentage was imported at that time). Christian missionaries discovered in 19th century China that most people lived in rural areas, and so groups such as the CIM and Agricultural Missions located themselves in towns and villages in rural areas. Interest in the marginalized people sometimes became an interest in the rural poor.  For theologians and historians, social scientists and development experts, the countryside was the focus of attention. ( Of course, the scholars and church workers who studied rural Christianity were by and large urban based.)


I will set this rural interest aside and propose instead that it is the cities that have always been the centers of and for Christian mission:  Jerusalem and Rome, Alexandria and Antioch, Constantinople and Selucia-Ctesephon, Canterbury and Worms, Geneva and Rome (again), New York and London, Nairobi and Cape Town, Seoul and Manilla, Macau, Shanghai and Hong Kong.  The list could go on and on.  The great Ecumenical Councils and the sites for the great 20th century ecumenical meetings are all indicated by a city and a year, for example, Chalcedon 451 or Edinburgh 1910. In all the talk of the shift in the center of Christianity from the North to the South – a theory, incidentally, which I am prepared to contest – it must be remembered that the overwhelming majority of Christian institutions, resources and leadership comes from cities in the North and the South, and that rural Christianity depends on these urban centers for everything from theological education to medical care to evangelism support. Urban Christianity, I want to argue, is the source of the Church’s intellectual and spiritual capital.


The city is not a modern industrial phenomenon. The city dates from the agricultural revolution of Neolithic times, where the agricultural surplus made denser human populations possible. The oldest urban center in the United States is in Chaco Canyon, NM and dates from the 9th century, long before the arrival of the Europeans. This pales in comparison with China, where the oldest urban settlement was in Banpo (半坡), in the Yellow River Basin, beginning in 4,800 b.c.e.  The city, for our purposes, may be defined as a dense and permanent human settlement, economically sustainable, and with its own system of rules for hydraulic administration, governance and housing. (I single out hydraulic administration for the control of water supplies was essential for any city’s survival.)  Historically, and in almost every culture, the city has been the cutting edge of social change, the center of political and economic power and the bearer of civilization. The cities ruled over the countryside. They were the source of its intellectual and social capital.


Christianity as an Urban Religion in the New Testament and in Church History


 Cities in the Roman Empire were relatively small by modern standards, but population density was deep, ethnic divisions were strong and poverty rates were high.[1] It was in the cities of ancient Palestine and then the Roman Empire that Christianity developed as an urban religion. More than three decades ago, Wayne Meeks wrote a social history of early Christianity focusing on the writings of Paul.  He argued that Pauline Christianity was entirely urban. [2]  Paul Himself was a city person. He saw the possibility of the city as the center of the new Christian movement. As a Hellenized Jewish Christian, he travelled and preached in the major cities of the Roman Empire: Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Colossae, Phillippi, Thessalonica and others.  Paul was educated in cities and his faith was formed there, as was the case with most of his Christian followers, both Jewish and Gentile. He was struck off his horse outside of Damascus (Acts 9).  His disorientation and conversion occurred outside of the city. This is significant, lest one conclude that faith is only mediated through the city, which it is not.  But his conversion was confirmed by Ananias inside the city of Damascus. 


Early Christianity was an urban movement, and most of the large cities in the empire had a Christian presence.  Christianity was from the start an intercultural movement involving Jew and Gentile in the appropriation of Christianity. (I will say more about why this is important below.) Early Christians were merchants, trades people and educated women, and the social networks of the early Christians were mediated by ethnicity (Hellenized Jews) and trade groupings, the market.[3] Christians preached in the market places of cities (evangelism), served the poor and marginalized (mission) and created churches in urban centers (ecclesiology). Early Christians were largely literate and had resources to contribute to mission.  Their group identity was sociologically speaking an urban identity. Mission and evangelism arose from an urban base, and from there Christianity was preached in towns and villages and cities across the empire. The city created Christian possibility.


As Christianity made peace with the world (the Constantinian compromise) in the fourth century, one reaction was decidedly anti-urban.  The growth of monasticism and asceticism was an early protest movement against the domestication of Christianity by an urban and urbane culture. But at the same time, it too began as an urban movement.  The earliest ascetics were from the cities. The monks headed for the hills, in horror over what Christianity had become, but they maintained their urban links.   Time and again in the history of the Church, monastic movements and radical Christian communities have attempted to call Christians back to their original vision. They have helped to sustain the Christian message.  We must not exaggerate their anti-urban bias. Throughout history, Christianity has largely been sustained and carried forward by urban Christian institutions, most notably the historic churches. Outside the Roman Empire, Christianity became embedded in cities from Syria and Persia to India and China. With the Fall of Rome, Christianity moved into Europe and North Africa. European culture became a culture of Christendom and the cities of Europe were the centers of this culture.  Christianity helped to build up the cities. This year, we are celebrating 500 years of the Reformation, a movement that was also an urban movement protesting and calling for the reform of what Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others saw as a corrupt Church. Sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia took their urban origins for granted, and they proclaimed their message to the whole world.


Christianity as an Urban Religion in the Missionary Movement


We move ahead to the modern missionary movement, beginning in the 16th and 17th centuries.  This was the vehicle for the transmission of Protestant Christianity to Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Pacific Islands. Over these centuries Christianity has itself been a globalization movement.  Through colonialism, the Church spread to the far corners of the world, and it proclaimed a message that was open to all.  But it rode on the back of colonialism, and set itself up in colonial capitals. Taking only the British as an example, think of the architecture of Nairobi, Accra, Bombay (Mumbai), Delhi, Shanghai or Hong Kong. The architecture, including church architecture, were designed to create shock and awe. [4]   In each of these cities, the churches occupied prime real estate and helped build up a colonial Christian culture.  Missionaries and missionary institutions played prominent secular roles in the societies that had been colonized. It was not just the architecture that the missionaries adopted, but also the cultural assumptions and forms of administration that perpetuated an “us” versus “them” mentality. Missionaries brought “civilization” to native and indigenous populations.  In extreme cases, they thought that people had first to be Westernized before they could be Christian. For colonial Christianity, the cities were a problem more than a possibility.


 From the cities, the missionaries sought to spread the gospel inland, using an urban base to proclaim Christianity to rural people.  Mission groups such as the China Inland Mission were among the few whose missionaries actually settled in rural towns and villages. Most missionaries stayed in the relative comfort of urban areas, and so they developed no real understanding of what rural Christianity was like.  There were exceptions, of course, for the missionaries who spent time in rural areas wrote important studies of rural life.  


From the time of Robert Morrison, Christianity has developed in urban centers in China, first in Macau, then in the Treaty Ports, and then in the small and medium size urban areas (now called third tier cities) all over the country. The direction of the transmission of Christianity was from the cities to the countryside, and the transmission itself was intercultural. (The primary exception to this was the Christianity of the Taiping Revolution, but even there, Taiping Christianity had an urban origin.[5]) Christianity in China, and in almost all parts of the world, was an intercultural (跨文化) religion.  Let menow  say a bit more about what intercultural means.


 The word “intercultural” in the study of history means the inevitability of mutual interaction between different cultures.  It is a descriptive not a prescriptive term.  Any religion, when it enters a new historical context, has an intercultural component, because religion is always imbedded in cultures.  The intercultural aspect of religion may be conscious or unconscious, it may be imposed or shared. The intercultural phenomenon means that scholars must take both “sending” and “receiving” cultures into account. Intercultural processes involve the transmission, reception and appropriation, but the extent of each varies greatly from period to period and from community to community.  In the history of Christianity in China, “cultural aggression,” “cultural exchange,” “Christian evangelism,” social service, education, indigenization and contextualization are all intercultural processes. The current emphasis on Sincicization (中國化) implies the prior intercultural aspect of Christianity in Chinese history, so that the social and cultural appropriation of Christianity in China is now given priority.


The intercultural involves both the rural and the urban. But the intercultural transmission of Christianity goes from the city to the countryside. The “folk religionization of Christianity” is a rural phenomenon, but, especially in recent years, it moves to the city as rural Christians migrate to urban areas and bring their religious practices and beliefs with them. I do not regard the “folk religionization of Christianity” as a good thing.  As I have written elsewhere, it introduces traditional Chinese folk practices into Christianity; it is led by semi-educated charismatic leaders who function as shamans; it rejects the authority of the Bible, and has no use for creeds and structures of ecclesial authority.[6] It is the responsibility of the Chinese Church to criticize this phenomenon as it educates Christians so that they may develop a better understanding of historic Christianity and the rational (as well as spiritual and the practical) bases for faith.  


In China, I mentioned above that the rural population was above 80% in 1980.  Today, the rural population is only 45% of China’s 1.37 billion inhabitants.[7] Christians in China have traditionally been more numerous in the countryside.  It was estimated in the 1980s, that the number of Christians in rural areas more or less reflected the demographics of the Chinese population as a whole.  But today, there is an increasing urbanization of Chinese Christianity, which leaves the rural church bereft of young people and educated leadership, as indicated in recent field studies.[8] As young Christians have migrated to cities in church of jobs, rural churches have declined in numbers.  Because of the shortage of pastoral care, many older Christians have turned away from the church.  In some parts of Henan, for example, the churches are not growing but declining. We are used to speaking of the rapid growth of Christianity in China, but this may now be changing.


 Urban churches in China – and here I mean church structures such as the Christian Councils and Three-Self organizations at county, municipal and provincial levels – need to do more for rural areas, even as they continue to build up the church in the city. The only way to save rural Christianity is through the cities. As I have tried to indicate in this lecture, city churches and church institutions have historically provided the resources needed for the Church as a whole. Urban Christianity is the center of Christian intellectual and spiritual capital. Urban Christianity has also been the source of economic capital and material resources.


Implications for Mission in Hong Kong and Mainland China Today


My reflections on Christianity as an urban religion are designed to help us develop a better perspective on theology and evangelism in and for the city. In conclusion, I want to speak briefly about three ways in which Christianity as an urban religion has meaning for mission in Hong Kong and mainland China today. 


  1. Welfare of the City: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on Its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:7) Jeremiah reminds us that our mission is to the welfare of the whole city, and not just a narrow evangelism emphasizing the conversion of people to faith in Christ.  The Church is part of the city, as we have shown, and evangelism must be a holistic commitment to all aspects of urban life. Education and social welfare work, issues of the environment and sexual orientation, evangelism to the poor and the marginalized – all these are part of the church’s mission.

    Seeking the welfare of the city, means that the Church in Hong Kong should be a reconciling presence in a city that is deeply divided, between young and old, and rich and poor, as well as divided politically, as the current election process shows. At all times and in all places, the Christians are called to a ministry of reconciliation and pastoral care for all. In this age of uncertainty, Christianity has a universal message. Moreover, we open ourselves to our community, as we seek to promote mutual understanding in the spirit of dialogue through a recognition of differences and a commitment to the common good, and in working for peace and concord of the society of Hong Kong. This has been a consistent concern for Archbishop Paul Kwong in Hong Kong. [9] His understanding of identity in community speaks of the overlapping identities which Hong Kong Christian share, as Hog Kongese, as Chinese, as Christians and as members of a wider world community.

    On the mainland, seeking the welfare of the city has come to mean the greater participation of the churches in social service and welfare activities. The message of salvation in Jesus Christ has not changed, but churches now have an historic opportunity to live out their witness in society, so that Chinese people can come to a better understanding of what Christianity means. God is love, and this simple affirmation can overcome all cynicism and corruption in society.

  2.  Labor and Evangelism: The modern city grew up alongside capitalism and industry.  And with capitalism, particularly during the period of primitive capital accumulation, there arose class society, with all its injustices and social divisions. This has not lessened in the 21st century, and the division between rich and poor, and capital and income inequality has even grown worse, as is clear from the work of Thomas Piketty.[10] This is especially the case in Hong Kong.  Protestant and Roman Catholic churches have, since the 19th century, ignored or shied away from the concern for the labor movement and the working classes.  They have generally preferred to sit comfortably alongside the bourgeois businessmen and women who, after all, were the major supporters of their work in mission, and represented the man or woman in the pew.

    The singular exception was the urban industrial mission movement which began in China in the late 1940s, and, with the support of the WCC and other ecumenical organizations, flourished in Asia in the 1960s and 1970s, including right here in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee, which still exists as a support group for workers' rights, did pioneering work in labor evangelism.[11] Two key figures in this movement, Raymond Fung (馮偉文) and Hans Lutz (陸漢思), are retired, but still active. This history needs to be studied for clues on how mission and evangelism among labor can be recreated for the 21st century. 

    On the mainland, the challenge is somewhat different, for the main challenge is that of rural migration to the cities. The rural migrants are China's urban poor. They lack social services, educational opportunities and medical care. I am not entirely clear about the migrant problem in the cities, but I know that the Amity Foundation (愛德基金會.) has been studying the problem and trying to see what it can do. There is the need for advocacy on behalf of migrants, but perhaps the time is not yet ripe for churches to engage in this very sensitive project. Service to migrants is itself an important aspect of the mission of city churches.

  3. Secularism: Secularism has been a major challenge to Christianity since the time of the Enlightenment. Charles Taylor has summarized this challenge in his magnum opus, The Secular Age.[12] He identifies three forms of secularism: the secular as “public spaces emptied of God,” i.e. the disappearance of government legitimacy dependent on religious belief, and of state sanctioned religion. This can be termed political secularization. The secular as “the decline in religious belief and practice” in modern society.   This refers to the modern phenomenon of the decline of religion in comparison to the supposed flourishing of religious belief in traditional societies. This can be termed sociological secularization. Finally, the secular as “a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged…to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.” The secular, in this sense, describes the plurality of belief and non-belief in modern society, and the need for individuals and communities to make religious choices. This is “the condition of belief in our age,” and may be termed cultural secularization

    It is this third form of secularization that most concerns me in present day Hong Kong. A generation ago, Harvey Cox spoke of “the secular city,” by which he meant something somewhat different. Today, all religions in Hong Kong face the challenge of a cultural secularization that threatens to eliminate religion having any real meaning for life. In a busy world, where people are struggling to make a living, and facing all sorts of threats to human life, the religious choice is, for many not a choice at all. How can we create reconciliation and harmony in a world in which religion plays little or no part?  The challenge for the church is to affirm the saving power of Christian faith in a world in which traditional religious categories make little sense, and a new religious language has yet to emerge.

    On the mainland, the growth of religion over the last four decades has been in part due to the spiritual vacuum in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. Since the late 1970s, all religions in China have been growing at a tremendous rate, because they represent a transcendence of secularism. The Buddhists, more than the Christians, have been better positioned to respond to the challenges of secular society.  But, we can say, the very existence of the church is a witness against the purely secular life.  It will take time for Christians to discover or to recreate a Chinese theological language that speaks effectively to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke of as the need to speak of God in a world come of age.

In conclusion, I have attempted to describe the city both a problem and a possibility for the churches.  This has been the situation of the Church at least since the time of St. Paul and the first urban Christians. But, as I have tried to show, the nature of the problem and the vision of the possibility changes from age to age and from time to time.  Students, faculty and friends of the Lutheran Theological Seminary (and I, as an Anglican priest, count myself as one of you, as student, faculty and friend), we believe in a God who “calls into existence the things that do not yet exist.” (Romans 4:17) With God, and through our faith in Jesus Christ, we are co-workers (I Corinthians 6:1), and this means we must not only imagine new possibilities and develop a new language, but directly take part mission to the city. Our challenge is to keep this at the forefront of our life and work. [end]




March 2017

Hong Kong

[1] “The Spread of Christianity – An Urban Story,” accessed 17 March, 2017. 

[2] Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), p. 3 and passim.

[3] Material in this paragraph is from “The Spread of Christianity” and Meeks, The First Urban Christians. Also see Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (San Francisco: Harper, 1997).

[4] See John Darwin, Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain (London: Bloomsbury Press, 2013).

[5] 周偉馳,《太平天國與啟示錄(修訂版)》(北京:中國社會科學出版社,2016)。

[6] Philip L. Wickeri, “A Critique of the Folk Religionization of Christianity in China,” unpublished conference paper, September, 2014.  Some scholars and “progressive” theologians outside of China have romanticized this phenomenon, without knowing very much about its origin, nature or destructive impact.

[7] “Urban and Rural Population of China from 2004-2014,” accessed 20 March 2017.

[8]  唐晓峰、段琦:中国城市基督教格局及趋向。基督教中国化与中华民族命运共同体的建设,北京,中國社會科學院,世界宗教研究所,11 23-25 2016

[9] Paul Kwong, Identity in Community: Toward a Theological Agenda for the Hong Kong SAR (Berlin: Lit Verlag, 2011).

[10] Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-first Century (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2014).

[11] Raymond W. M. Fung, The Gospel is Not for Sale: The Story of the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee (Hong Kong: Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee, 2005).

[12] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).