Two-thirds of the world’s population will live in urban centers by 2050, according to United Nations projections. Across Western Europe, the Americas, Australia, Japan, and much of the Middle East, 80 percent or more of the population live in urban areas right now.*
Most people on earth live in cities, and the number is growing. Although the Seventh-day Adventist Church is still largely a rural or suburban church with a relatively small presence in the cities, it’s working with Holy Spirit power to keep up with population trends and reach people in urban centers for Christ.
In one response to this great need, the world church’s Mission to the Cities initiative rolled out the Three Angels’ Messages Sidewalk Evangelism pilot project in New York City, United States. The goal is to send 100 theology students, seminary students, future pastors, and other young people as sidewalk evangelists worldwide, using Christ’s method to take the three angels’ messages to people in large urban centers. Sidewalk evangelism is designed to give future leaders of the Adventist Church a total immersion experience in urban mission that will influence their ministry perspective for years to come.
Angel Smith and Haram Kim, both students at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, participated in the Sidewalk Evangelism pilot project. They learned that no matter how large the mission field, Christ’s relationship-oriented method still brings success. This experience stretched their skills, challenged their faith, and opened their eyes to new methods.
Smith was stationed in a bustling residential neighborhood in Queens. As a veteran literature evangelist, she decided the fastest way to find Bible study interests was door-to-door canvassing. After all, she only had one month. But at the end of the day, Smith knew something was missing.
She called her mentor, Wayne Jamel, to ask for help. He told her to assess her gifts and talents, then pray about what God would have her do. Smith’s passion is playing basketball and working out at the gym, so she bought a one-month membership, prayed for guidance, and headed to the gym to mingle with people. “It flipped what ministry really looks like in my mind,” Smith said. “I met people just from doing what I love!”
Smith encountered people who never would have invited her in had she knocked on their door. While exercising at the gym, she started a conversation with Tahmina. They decided to work out together and soon were sharing meals too. Smith learned that Tahmina grew up in a home that didn’t discuss beliefs other than their own. She listened sympathetically to Tahmina’s stories from her painful past, and they developed a trusting friendship. Because of this comfortable relationship, Smith freely shared Jesus and Bible truth with Tahmina.
Kim was assigned to Bryant Park in Manhattan, a popular public space where thousands of people pass through every day. He considers himself shy and had little evangelistic experience. How will I reach all these people for Christ? he wondered. Like Smith, he prayed earnestly, and soon he was striking up conversations with food vendors and playing ping-pong with strangers. God also arranged some divine encounters. Once, someone approached him and said, “I like the message on your T-shirt!” Through these encounters, Kim learned about their interests and needs and offered them Bible studies. If he sensed they were interested in talking more, he would offer to treat them to his native cuisine.
“Korean food was my secret weapon!” Kim said with a laugh. He quickly learned that sharing a meal is a great way to form friendships.
True to its purpose, the Sidewalk Evangelism project focused Smith and Kim like laser beams on urban mission. Smith returned to the seminary with ideas for future ministry, thinking deeply about what urban mission should look like. “Maybe we should be planting centers of influence first, with exercise and fitness classes, mental health clinics, vegetarian cafes and restaurants, rather than [starting with] churches,” she shared. “Churches will follow.”
Participating in sidewalk evangelism radically changed Kim’s attitude toward cities. “Before sidewalk evangelism, I thought that God didn’t want us in the big cities because of their worldly influences. But how could I meet so many people, [see] so much diversity, and [witness] peoples’ struggles with health issues, relationships, and financial issues, and not feel the love of God for the big cities?” he reasoned. “The cities are where the people are, and God loves people!”
* United Nations Population Division, “World Urbanization Prospects 2018,” https://population.un.org/wup/Download/Files/WUP2018-F08-Total_Growth_Rate.xls.