I came across this article this week as I browsed my copy of Evangelicals Now. It’s about the possibility of changing where you choose to live as a Christian. And it’s by Ken Brownell.
Ken is a much respected evangelical leader. He’s the Senior Minister at East London Tabernacle (ELT). Of the area in which ELT is situated, their website says,
More recently its (ELT’s) concern has been for the large number of Bangladeshis, Somalis and other predominantly Muslim groups that live around the church. However the church is a very diverse community with people of many nationalities and a wide social mix. While one ward near the church is one of the most socially deprived in Britain another has one of the highest concentrations of university graduates. With a number of universities the area is also home to many international students. Also effecting the church is the shift of London’s centre of gravity eastward with the development of Canary Wharf and the Thames Gateway.
Ken runs a flourishing ministry in what must be one of the toughest environments in London to grow a church. In addition to his church responsibilities, he edits Foundations, the theological journal of Affinity. In short, this is a man worth listening to.
In the article, his contends that for the past century evangelicals have been moving out of the inner city. This is killing some churches, he argues. And so he pleads with evangelicals to give serious consideration to the issue of relocating for the sake of the gospel. We need to hear this. I like much of what he says.
He suggests five possible types of people who might consider relocating for the gospel.
1. Wealthier Christian families could move into the inner city since they can afford both a nice house and independent schooling for their kids. He’s right; they could. And then they could use their decent sized kitchen-diner, their spacious living room and their garden for the gospel and benefit their poorer Christian brothers and sisters at the same time. We had a family leave CCB a while ago to do just this. And I think it’s brilliant. They’re involved as a senior family in a (albeit it large) city centre church. But they could have easily decided to throw their lot in with a smaller work if they’d wanted to and been a great blessing to them.
2. Childless Christians could move into the inner city and redeem their desperately sad circumstances by using the opportunities that their situation has created for gospel ministry. I know of a handful of couples for whom this is their situation. They add an immeasurable benefit for the gospel ministry in their churches. Providentially God has liberated them from the concerns that come from raising children. And wonderfully, in the kindness of God, they’ve been able to see their situation as a means to bless others. I’m not saying it’s easy. But I am saying that it’s wonderful.
3. Retired Christians could move into the inner city after their kids have flown the nest. Friends of mine have done this. They’ve exchanged a spacious suburban dwelling for a bijou flat in zone 1 in order to support the ministry of a recently appointed incumbent at a tiny Anglican Church. They have years of ministry under their belt and more experience than you can shake a stick at. They understand the pressure of ministry on ministry families and so they’ll be a great support to the Minister and his wife. They’re servant hearted and so they’ll do what they can to help.
4. Comfortable Christians who are fed up with their own unwillingness to embrace self sacrifice could do something courageous and challenging for the gospel. Some of us have the aptitude and opportunity to be a little bit more adventurous than the norm. Why not give it a blast rather than die wondering?
5. Suburban Christians who either travel in to a large city centre church or who attend a local suburban church could stay living where they do and travel in to help support a struggling ministry. This is the one I like least. I think I just disagree with it altogether! Commuting Christians isn’t an idea I’d want to encourage at all. I’m an unashamed supporter of the local church.
Ken doesn’t spend long in the article talking about why the small evangelical churches are small, though he does acknowledge that there are reasons for that. He writes, ‘While in some churches there are some deep problems that may need to be addressed, many are relatively healthy spiritually, though small’. The issue of church growth, the suitability and competence of a minister and the ministry patterns of the church are sensitive and delicate issues. I understand that. And I’ve personally felt their force over the years. But we need to ask the questions even if we’re not sure that we’ll like the answers. For example, did the church start small? In which case, why has it remained small? Why haven’t people joined it? What have been the barriers to growth? Or did the church start big? If so, why have they shrunk? Why have people left? Why haven’t people joined? It simply can’t be the case that evangelicals leaving the inner city is the only contributory factor, can it? White middle class evangelicals may have left the inner city (as the map above shows). But Ken acknowledges that they’ve been doing this for a century. So it’s not a new problem. These churches could be struggling for the very reasons that he identifies and putting new Christian families, couple or individuals in them may not be the answer.
In Balham we’re on the cusp of Zone 2 (which is my way of saying that I’m unwilling to accept that Balham can share the same zone as Wimbledon). It’s like doing ministry in a river here. We have a stream of people leaving us every summer; often for good reasons. But we also have a steady flow of people coming to have a look at us. For sure it’s demanding and disappointing. We often say goodbye to some of our best; people we’ve known and loved, people we’ve trained, people we’ve served and helped them grow in ministry competency. But it’s also thrilling. Every year God brings us people at the other end of the maturity spectrum. Recent graduates or people who’ve moved into the city for work come and pay us a visit. They’re looking for a home. And we’ll happily provide it for them.
But I want to suggest a more radical proposal to the struggling innner city churches. Give away your buildings. There are churches round us with fantastic buildings; spaces and rooms that could be used for the gospel. But they’re only used for that purpose on a Sunday. During the week they’re rented out to independent nursery schools. These educational businesses sustain the dying church ministries. The church congregations are often tiny. These elderly congregation are declining as they bury their friends one by one. Anyone who ministers in that situation is, in my book, a hero. They do the saints a great service; helping them to die in faith. Whatever I say should not be taken to undermine the impressive servant heartedness of those who fuflil such a wonderful ministry. But is there a better way? Rather than bury the church as they bury their friends, why not give the building away. Give it to a church that lacks the space and could use the building for the gospel throughout the week. Give it to a congregation that doesn’t need a secular business to keep the church afloat. I said it was radical. But surely that’s better for ths gospel, isn’t it?