I wrote the following article for a website that I contribute to called reachtheisles.com, but I felt it would be appropriate to share on here.
The largest urban area in the United Kingdom is London. Apart from being one of the most famous cities in the world, it is also one of the most diverse cities in the world. Over a third of London’s residents were born outside of the UK. And some sources claim that around 300 different languages are spoken in the city.
Naturally, when people visit the UK, their first stop is usually London. It is a hub for much of the nation’s history, culture, tourism, commerce, and politics. And, when people think about evangelism and church planting in the United Kingdom, London for good reason gets its fair share of the interest as well.
So, what about the need in London? Is London completely devoid of gospel witness? Or is it overrun with churches and church planters? Should churches and missionaries still consider it a mission field?
Like most things, answers to these questions will vary wildly depending on who you are asking. Since others give their opinion on these things, allow me to give mine. I spent almost an entire year (January 2013-January 2014) researching and surveying the city, looking at areas where there seems to be gospel need, focusing primarily on areas that might need a church to be planted or revitalised. Here are a few of my observations from that year and from the last four years here in this city…
First, London has lots of churches.
Everywhere you go there are churches in London. From churches with hundreds of years of history to brand new churches meeting sometimes one right after the other in local community centres. I have heard of churches meeting in business parks, warehouses, pubs, boathouses, and offices. When we first started Downham Baptist Church, we struggled to find any place to meet on Sunday mornings because it seemed every building and community centre had at least one religious group meeting in it on Sunday morning. We finally settled for a Sunday night service in a community centre with two other churches meeting before us.
Second, London does not have as many Biblical churches as you might think.
The difficulty with assessing gospel need in a place like London is that is there such a long religious history here and so there are many church buildings all over the city. Yet it is hard to know if these churches are actually preaching a clear gospel message and if they are holding faithfully to God’s Word. In our time of surveying, we soon found out that just because there is a building with the word “church” on the outside does not necessarily mean that they are holding faithfully to the Word of God and proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. Even having a denominational tag or having membership within a particular denomination or association that claims to be evangelical does not necessarily mean that that church is preaching the gospel, teaching the Bible, and/or strong enough to effectively evangelise its immediate area. So, in an area like London, it is very important to carefully research what is actually going on, what the churches are actually doing, and what they actually believe and preach before determining that an area needs a new church plant.
Third, London has tons of people.
The other factor to consider is that there are over 4000 people per square mile in London. There are 32 boroughs plus the actual City of London (“The Square Mile”) and each borough has anywhere between 150-380,000 people. The population of the London urban area is close to 10 million people. Even if one church could reach out to 50,000 people, it would take 200 churches to reach the entire city. More realistically, one church per 20,000 people would require 500 churches. So there is plenty of need and plenty of people to go around.
Fourth, London is very diverse.
There are very deprived areas and very affluent areas and everything in between. There are areas with a predominately ethnic minority population and areas which are almost completely middle-class. Some areas are almost like a cross-section of world cultures, languages, and religions. And most likely each different group of people and each community will need a strong gospel preaching church. So, some church plants will be in a very unique culture that will require creativity and skill.
So, does London need more churches? If you consider all religions and all church buildings as churches, then no. But if you feel that a church as defined by the Bible is a group of baptised believers who have come together to carry out the Great Commission of evangelising the lost, teaching God’s Word, building up the believer, and observing the ordinances, then there are certainly many areas that need more churches. And if you feel a church should be a vibrant community surviving by more than a thread, then most certainly some churches need to be revitalised where possible and new churches planted where declining churches seem opposed to revitalisation.
My advice (for what it’s worth) for those praying about church planting in London would be:
- Carefully evaluate why you have chosen London. Is it because God has given you a clear burden and vision for this city? Or is it simply because it is London and you think it is a hip place to live and work?
- Carefully research before you start to plant. Take the time to identify where areas of genuine gospel need are. This would include getting a clear understanding of what is actually going on in the community you are targeting through talking with local church leaders, visiting any churches in the area, and evaluating what is already going on.
- Look for open doors. Maybe there is an opportunity to come alongside an existing church that needs help or has a vision for church-planting. Maybe there is a place that comes to your attention that is less “strategic” and a bit “out of the way,” but there is a great need or an opportunity there. In Acts 16, when Paul was praying about where to go next, it made sense to go to Asia or Bithynia, but it was not God’s time or God’s will (Acts 16:6-10). Certainly, we should carefully research, but we should also be sensitive to the Lord’s leading and to God opening/closing doors.
- Get wise counsel. It would be absolutely silly to “parachute” into a city like London and pretend that there are no other gospel preaching churches in your area. Though you could technically proclaim the gospel anywhere, it would be great to consider the work that has been going on and to seek to complement rather than compete with that work.
- Consider a housing estate. Instead of thinking about trying to reach the entire city and have them all commute to you, why not move in and adopt a housing estate or a community without any evangelical church? Even though people in London often commute to work, there are many benefits for the church and for the individual believer if most believers attend a local church within walking distance or a few minutes drive/commute.
- Consider somewhere outside London. It might seem odd that I would suggest this when I am a church planter in London. But, having spoken with several British pastors, it seems there are considerable areas across the UK with thousands of people and no evangelical church to speak of. Being in a city is exciting because people tend to be more receptive and the demographics are more diverse, but cities can also swallow you up with their pace of life, cost of living, and sheer size. So think carefully about your gifting and whether you want to be a “small fish in a big pond” or maybe a “slightly bigger fish in a smaller pond.”
- Consider the poor. It seems that across the UK, evangelical churches are stronger amongst the middle class. Working class and poorer areas seem more neglected and less evangelised. For more on this in the UK, go here.
- Consider a team. Church planting is hard no matter where and when you do it, but it is extra hard when you are trying to plant on your own. So, consider coming alongside an existing church or partnering with others who have a church planting vision. It takes a special dynamic to work as a team, but if you are willing to be humble and to serve one another, it can be a huge benefit to all involved.
Feel free to offer your thoughts in the comments section below. I am still very new to the London scene. But sometimes people ask me what I think, so for what they are worth, here they are…