African Cities: A Case Study in Urbanization and the Rapidly Changing Missions Landscape

For ages, the African landscape has been synonymous with images of remote villages, tribal peoples cooking over an open fire, thatch huts, and exotic animals. Although those realities are certainly a part of Africa’s character, Sub-Saharan Africa is quickly redefining itself with bustling economies, fast-paced lifestyles, technological enterprise, competitive real estate, and global entrepreneurs.

The rapid shift from a rural to an urban landscape presents a pressing need for Christians to learn how urbanization affects our call to the cities of Africa.

It’s not so much the reality of urbanization that’s alarming, but rather the speed. The urbanization of Africa is expected to be the fastest in human history. According to the City Mayor’s List:

  • In 1950, Sub-Saharan Africa had no cities with populations of more than one million. Today, it has over forty.
  • The fastest growing metropolises, such as Nairobi, Kenya, are expanding at rates of almost 4 percent per year. That is almost twice as fast as Houston, one of America’s fastest-growing metropolises.
  • Sub-Saharan Africa is home to two megacities (more than ten million) with three more expected to emerge by 2030.
  • Eleven of the twenty-five fastest growing cities in the world are in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Although it’s tempting to see these changes as exclusively aesthetic and economic, the subcontinent’s rapid shift from a rural to an urban landscape presents a pressing need for Christians to learn how urbanization affects our call to the cities of Africa.

For centuries, the cross-cultural worker has gone to extreme lengths to find unreached peoples that had never heard the gospel. Yet, as they migrate to cities in search of better jobs, education, or safety, missionaries are anticipating and exploring a new reality in which remote tribes are becoming easier to access in the cities.

Urbanization Obstacles and Opportunities

As cities emerge, they begin to formulate identities. For example, in Cape Town, South Africa, there’s a concentration of urban life in what’s known as the “City Bowl,” a pressure cooker of varying ideas and lifestyles. The uber-wealthy operate businesses alongside homeless communities. The call to prayer, church bells, and gospel music echo through the same neighborhoods. Philosophies abound among students at the city’s two major universities and the elite private schools.

Therefore, residents in this African metropolis are rapidly adopting a postmodern worldview that accepts all spiritual decisions, including the idea that everyone arrives at the same place after death. This example points to one of the greatest misconceptions of the gospel: the false notion that the gospel is simply another idea in the kaleidoscope of possible ways to God, or that we can tailor it with our own extra-biblical practices. The gospel we find in the Bible is not one of many truths; it is the only truth. Jesus is the only way of salvation, and that message must boldly be planted and proclaimed in Africa’s emerging cities.

As these global cities deploy enormous influence in the coming years, the gospel they export will also influence the next generation of church.

As these global cities deploy enormous influence in the coming years, the gospel they export will also influence the next generation of church. Christian workers have a great opportunity to train and partner with urban African brothers and sisters to plant more churches and ensure the gospel proclaimed throughout the city, the continent, and the world is the true, biblical gospel.

Admittedly, the mission in urban Africa is fairly new ground. We still seek answers for how to best use this God-given opportunity to reach the unreached. To that end, here are four practical ideas we’ve started to employ:

  1. Work Hard to Understand a City’s Personality

    Most Americans would agree that U.S. cities have different personas, formed by the ethos and activities of its people. African cities are no different, so it’s important to learn what a city values, what its idols are, and how its history has defined it thus far. To do this effectively, get out of your car. Walk the streets, use public transportation, and spend time asking people questions. While you’re learning, you’ll be amazed at how asking “getting-to-know-you” questions can lead to gospel conversations.

  2. Root All Labor in Strategic Prayer

    Prayer declares that we depend on God for the gospel to go forth. Build prayer networks both globally and locally that focus on key cities and needs. For example, build networks that pray for migrating unreached peoples, sections of the city, or even specific individuals.

  3. Proclaim the Gospel

    Although various worldviews, false teachings, and broken systems are widespread in Africa’s growing cities, we can be confident that the gospel is powerful enough to transform lives and bring worship to God. Let’s join our African brothers and sisters in sharing Jesus Christ as they carry the gospel to their own people. Make a daily commitment to leave your own house with the intention of connecting with someone in your city, as well. If you have computer work or simply want to read a book, find a local café, a park, or public space in order to be around people. As you meet them, build bridges to gospel conversations.

  4. Make a Personal Investment in Your Community

    One way to invest in the community is to add value to it. Providing blankets for refugees, food for the homeless, job training for the unemployed, or forming partnerships with an existing NGO such as Baptist Global Response can enhance the well-being of Africa’s cities and meet needs holistically. Also, don’t forget about opportunities through the local church. Become a member, partner with them, disciple with them, train with them, and help them multiply disciples locally and among the nations.

We long to see African cities filled with joy because they are rooted in the true gospel.

Regardless of the approach we embrace, work in Africa’s urban centers will be messy. We are praying for the coming generation of Africa’s church to produce gospel-centered doctors, lawyers, teachers, entrepreneurs, engineers, theologians, and more. We are also praying for U.S. partners to take jobs, study, teach in seminaries, and retire in African cities so they can influence these networks with the gospel.

Like the city in Acts 8:8, we long to see African cities filled with joy because they are rooted in the true gospel. We must join with gospel-centered believers to proclaim the only message of hope so that these places become cities on a hill that cannot be hidden, as people boldly display the beauty of the one true God.


Matthew Crawlings serves in leadership in Sub-Saharan Africa with his wife and three children. He has spent the past sixteen years doing university ministry and church planting in cities with both the North American Mission Board and the International Mission Board.


To read further about the urbanization of Sub-Saharan Africa, check out this article and accompanying media on The Rise of Africa’s Cities. You can also visit the Sub-Saharan African Peoples page, or search for trips or projects among SSA peoples that you and your church can participate in.