Every day, the world is becoming more and more urbanized. In the U.S. while several cities are struggling economically and actually have declining populations, many others are healthy and expanding at an alarming rate.
Worldwide, the dramatic population growth areas are around cities. Countries are investing in urban infrastructure, and urging (sometimes requiring) citizens to move to them. If a country wants to expand their economy, the best way is to create strong centers for business and commerce. Cities meet those requirements because they concentrate the workforce.
For some dramatic examples of urbanization, of all skyscrapers over 800 feet tall in the world, roughly one in seven (45 at last count) are located in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (New York City is second with 19.)
Busan on the southeast coast of South Korea is an exploding city larger than Chicago and has built eight of the giant skyscrapers in the last decade.
China has over 90 skyscrapers, more than any other country. One in three buildings in the world over 800 feet tall are in China. The Chinese government has been encouraging/requiring citizens to move to cities for decades and the result has been some enormous economic centers rivaling any city in the world.
So what does this mean to writers and authors?
It could mean that more and more people will want escapist fiction portraying life that is anything but urban. It could also mean that urban settings will become more popular in novels.
While there will always be core truths that are transferable no matter where someone lives, no doubt urban pastors and churches have different issues to deal with than their suburban or rural counterparts.
With the urbanization of the world, I would guess that the following issues will need to be addressed in greater detail in the coming years:
- Living in multi-cultural/ethnic neighborhoods
- Worshipping in multi-cultural/ethnic churches
- Families consisting of a wife, husband and a dog. (no children)
- Families with one child.
- Unmarried single living.
- Raising children in an urban environment.
- Homeschooling in a city
- Kids in urban schools
- Working in a stressful urban environment.
Fiction will always be an escape, so maybe themes for novels will have little or nothing to do with reality for most urban readers, but certainly the urban setting is filled with action and drama, giving a possible plot and character “playground” for authors.
Non-fiction will be challenged as a category, since many of it’s authors are not urban dwellers, but sometimes living far, far away from the issues of the inner city. Sometimes intentionally.
As a suburban dweller myself, I cannot presume to entirely understand the challenges of a Christian living in an urban environment any more than I could understand what it is like to live on an Amish farm.
Adding to this trend of urbanization is the issue of globalization, where languages have no boundaries, borders between countries become blurred and the internet and other communication devices make the world a homogenous interactive organism with billions of smart-phones connecting everyone.
For those of you who are serious about writing and want to communicate in the future, think about the audience to whom you are writing. Imagine a world for Christian books where the only unifying characteristic between readers is that they follow Christ?
- They don’t all live in comfortable suburbs.
- They ride public transportation everywhere.
- They don’t all have access to libraries or bookstores.
- They don’t all have the same technology options, or…
- They have technology options you don’t have.
- They don’t look like you.
- They don’t think like you.
- They like different kinds of music.
- They don’t have your politics.
- Their churches don’t look like yours.
My point today is that we shouldn’t assume we have everything figured out and that our lives and experiences are the same for everyone, everywhere. The world and the way they read is changing drastically. Writers need to be savvy, informed and open to learning new things.
Life-long learning is a valuable trait for the 21st century. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
If you like numbers, click here for a list of the world largest urban centers.
Having just returned from Nepal, I read your list of “They don’ts” and thought, “I don’t have to imagine that. I just spent time in that situation attempting to understand what I can bring as an American pastor and teacher.” I knew walking in that I didn’t want to export “american” but I realized that building around the Gospel provides tremendous opportunities for each culture to inform the other. I understand Colossians much better, having read it in a Nepali cultural context. The people I was teaching understand a way of study. And I find hope in pursuing what you describe.
There are some things we simply cannot learn in school. Thanks Jon. (Hey, your reply is not 300 words!)
Dan, outstanding post! We live in a world where people need hope and solutions for today. Thanks for your wisdom.
Thought-provoking post, Dan. I hadn’t really considered the reality of urbanization and what it means for writers. I’ve lived in the suburbs most of my life. I have a lot to learn about an urban lifestyle to be effective as a writer.
I’m glad you shared this post. I need to be thinking about how to write in a way that can reach readers where they are.
I’m looking forward to reading others’ insights.
Very thoughtful post. Thanks for making me think.
The dominant form of work taking place in cities is knowledge work. Even those engaged in seemingly “physical” work like construction or the trades, or consumer-driven work like retail, are actually knowledge workers.
The work of the world has fundamentally changed for a majority of people. So whatever we write that is intended for urban centers needs to take into account the nature of knowledge workers and their work.
The problems that knowledge workers encounter almost always boil down to some version of this statement: “I don’t know what to do in this situation that confronts me.” What they need are not “answers” per se (i.e., “Do this or that”), but rather models of how others facing similar situations have dealt with the problem. They are also looking for mentors to walk with them as they work their way through the problem.
Interesting thought…like the tower of babel…we have to write truth and not babel, if we are going to face our calling to write. It’s noisy out there and the voices are many. But, the truth will penetrate no matter the setting: urban or suburban. Thanks for another well thought out lesson in writing – writing right.
Dan, I do think the Christian fiction market wants more urban/suburban-centered fiction. My first book is set in downtown Chicago, right on the edge of Grant Park and Lake Michigan, and a number of my early reviews and comments on my blog tour have said how refreshing it is to find good Christian fiction set in a big city.
Having grown up in the Chicago suburbs, I know I long for more stories with urban settings. There are tons of Christians that live in the city, and as I’m sure you know, there’s a very different mindset between people from the country and people from urban areas. There will always be readers who want stories about a “simpler life,” but there will always be a lot of readers who want settings they identify with. I so hope we see more of these urban settings!
It is very true, as you say here, that the move toward major cities (it has been going on for a while, hasn’t it?) means differences in issues. Too much of my faith writing seems to have a fortress-like, backward- looking, apologetic, defensive stance. How interesting it is, then when a good urban minister advances positive examples of living the faith in tough, crowded, multi-cultural settings.
Great post! One of the biggest problems I have in the Christian picture book submissions I get is that so many of them are about a child visiting Grandma on the farm and learning about God from nature. I find them to be unrealistic because Grandma doesn’t live on the farm these days. She lives in the city and she goes to yoga classes, and for vacation she’s sky diving or bungee jumping. Or, now I see, she may be cliff jumping off a skyscraper in Dubai.
Sandy Faye Mauck
Cities were never what God intended. When you put people in skyscrapers, you take them away from creation. I grew up in the city—not inner city but I got excited when they tore up my asphalt road and made it dirt (before they repaved). I dreamt of riding a horse down the street and green fields and farms. I remember going to my teacher’s house and seeing a painting of the way our area used to look like. It was like heavenly green rolling hills not wall to wall houses on the coast. I wanted to be there!
I raised my kids in the country for a long time and their lives were full and I learned so much about God from gardening, watching the skies, and enjoying His creation. Romans 1:20 comes to mind.
Amen, Dan! When I started reading Christian fiction, I liked that it was somewhat escapist, and gave me opportunities to learn about life unlike my own in the suburbs of the Baltimore-Washington megalopolis. But after a while, it wore on me. So many stories were taking place in the small town I began to wonder if Christians even liked us near-city-dwellers. At my last Christian homeschool gathering I sat at a table with my closest friends: one from Jamaica, one from Japan, one from Poland, and one from Ethiopia. I guess I was their “token” white American friend. My daughter’s friends are from other countries, their parents are from other countries, or they are of mixed race. I rarely sit around and think about how multicultural my neighborhood is because multicultural IS our culture. That is the world I write and publish.
In my upcoming release, I have different characters going to three different Christian churches. It dawned on me while writing it, I’ve only seen multiple churches mentioned in Christian fiction when the author bashed one against the other. That is not the way it is here. We go to ones that are nearer, have ministries that fit our needs or our gifts, ones with music we like OR ones that have services in our native language—all of which are solid biblical churches. And then we have other churches that vary in what they mean by Christian. That is not to mention the mosques, synagogues and houses of worship less defined.
If we neglect all these types of settings and characters, we are not only missing a large target audience who want to read about characters like them, living where they live. We also neglect the ministry opportunity to speak to those who don’t come from a solid church community (we have many many of those around here). I hope to see Christian fiction branch out myself. I’d love to see a greater variety of settings and characters.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this too… and waiting to see what’s next. For a while now, I’ve felt like the best recent fiction is based in cities like London (Zadie Smith), and Brooklyn (Jonathan Lethem), but then we have these wonderful new novels like Lila, by Marilyn Robinson, and Enon, by Paul Harding, which are set in extremely rural areas. In fact much of the beauty and draw of them is the setting. Perhaps what’s most striking is that suburbia seems to be quickly fading. It’s likely that, for the reasons you point out, fiction will tend to be set in cities, but also in very rural areas – both extremes, as people will want their fiction to reflect both where they live and also the quiet places they seek.
Rebecca LuElla Miller
I think this is thought-provoking, Dan (as are so many of your articles). But I did think about the US movie industry and its influence on the world, not by catering to the world but by being true to American stories and themes. (I’ve heard accounts, true or not, of people living in other parts of the world who thought the Indian Wars were a thing of the present and gunslingers still strolled boardwalks in western towns because movies depicted these things). The point is, I wonder if the urban future will necessarily influence reading habits. Isn’t one of the things readers like, to be transported somewhere else?
I think, for example, of Kay Marshall Strom’s, series set in India or the one set in Africa. What great stories about a different culture, in a different time–especially as they showed how God works in people’s lives no matter where the location.
I don’t know. I think stories about the persecuted Church in Southeast Asia may be as important and as compelling as ones set in an urban center.
Just thinking out loud. 😉 Thanks again, Dan.