Making Christ known in cities like London may be avenue for worldwide change

Making Christ known in cities like London may be avenue for worldwide change

By Bob Terry

Editor, The Alabama Baptist

Phil Barnard describes London as a “post-Christian society.” Then with determination in his voice, he quickly adds, “And my task is to help our churches turn the situation around.”

Barnard is regional minister and team leader for the London (England) Baptist Association. He came to the task earlier this year after almost 10 years as pastor of Mitcham Lane Baptist Church where he helped the congregation grow in attendance, baptisms and financial strength.

But Barnard had a call from God to help the 300-plus Baptist churches in London that cooperate with the Baptist Union of Great Britain to take seriously the adopted goal of “reaching London for Christ.” Barnard hopes to emphasize Christian discipleship, which he calls the only way to have a “transformational impact in a post-Christian, multifaith setting.”

That is a God-sized task. According to statistics, London proper is home to about 8.5 million people. Metropolitan London (inside the superhighways that circle the city) is home to about 14 million people.

Small fraction

About 50 years ago more than 96 out of 100 people claimed identity with some form of Christian faith. Today about half that number (47.8 percent) say they are Christian in the best sense of the term. Evangelical believers make up only a small fraction of that percentage. Some say only 2 percent are evangelical believers today.

At the same time those who report no religious faith have climbed from 3.2 percent in 1963 to 44.7 percent in 2015.

Other world religions now account for 7.5 percent of Britain’s population, up from 0.6 percent in 1963.

That means there are more people in London who reject a Christian heritage than there are who embrace it.

To call London diverse is an understatement. The area is home to more than 270 nationalities with more than 300 languages spoken, according to the Guardian newspaper. There are more than 50 ethnic groups with 10,000 or more people. The International Mission Board (IMB) of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) reports 66 unreached people groups in London, the second-highest concentration of such people in the world.

IMB also reports 28 unengaged people groups in London.

The Guardian article declared, “Virtually every race, nation, culture and religion in the world can claim at least a handful of Londoners.”

That is why some refer to this largest city in Western Europe as “The Capital of the World.” Forbes Magazine ranked London as the most influential city in the world.

Change continues

And London continues to change. Reports indicate 37 percent of today’s population were born outside of the United Kingdom. Of that 37 percent, a quarter arrived in England in the last five years. Still Barnard is resolute. As we sat together in his central London office about three blocks from the British Museum he outlined plans to lead the churches in the association to present Christ to “all people in all places by creating strategic alliances and partnerships with other agencies.”

Baptists, like other Christian groups in London, have a surplus of buildings that could make wonderful ministry sites. What they do not have are resources.

The 300-plus Baptist churches have a total membership of about 25,000. That means most of the churches are small-membership congregations. One study reported that London’s Christian churches average about 20 people in attendance.

Barnard shared that some Baptist congregations failed to sufficiently emphasize evangelism and discipleship in past years.

‘Good works’

He recalled one church that for more than a decade sponsored a methadone clinic as an outreach to its community. When the methadone clinic closed, the church was left with only a handful of aging members because the church had not practiced evangelism. The church had anticipated its “good works” would be enough to attract new members but that was wrong, he said.

“It is necessary to live out the compassion of Christ for all people,” Barnard declared. During his pastorate, Mitcham Lane Church sponsored a community garden and founded an organization called Christians Against Poverty.

“But we must always tell our neighbors about Jesus and lead believers to become disciples of our Lord,” he explained.

Only months into his new role as regional minister and team leader of the association Barnard has already put his vision into practice. He shared about a group of evangelical believers who had a vision of working with college students and young adults in a particular community.

Baptists had a church building nearby but few other resources. After a period of negotiation the church building became home for the new group and the church’s members were given opportunity to become part of a new ministry.

Barnard explained that with the task so great and the resources so few, there is no time to argue about denominational differences. The goal is to proclaim Jesus is Lord.

Future partnerships might be possible with Southern Baptist representatives working in London. Some representatives work with unreached people groups living in metropolitan London. Others are part of a new program called Global Cities Initiatives.

Around the world people are moving to the cities in record number. In response, the IMB has identified five world cities, including London, for special emphasis. Representatives in London often relate to religious charities and openly live in the country as religious workers.

Seizing opportunities

In parts of the city Southern Baptist representatives share their faith openly trying to make friends with college students and young adults, networking where possible, starting Bible studies and taking advantage of every opportunity to share Christ.

Working with college students is a possible place of cooperation. Student work is a high priority for SBC representatives, a group of state paper editors were told during a visit in late September. London Baptist Association has established work in more than a dozen area colleges and universities.

Barnard said he had been approached by one representative about the possibility of cooperation and he looks forward to future conversations.

“We look forward to working with groups that are Christ-centered and biblically driven,” he said. “If each shares his strength then we can each give God and one another our best efforts. That is the best way to make disciples for our Lord.”

Other representatives have a more guarded identity because they work among people groups that have been resistant to the gospel historically. In parts of the city Pakistani Muslims are the majority population. In other places it is Bengalis, Tamils, Hindus, Poles or another of the many ethnic groups.

One day during my September visit I walked around part of the city with an SBC representative working with a Code 3 security clearance — no names, no pictures, no direct references. We walked through an area inhabited primarily by Sikhs. We visited Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, the second largest Sikh temple in the world. We talked with a Sikh priest and other friends of this worker.

We walked along streets adorned with all the rudiments of a street in India from food to fashion.

We walked past churches — Presbyterian, Church of God. The Baptist church was a few streets over.

The most memorable part of the day was sitting in a shop with a Christian believer from a Hindu background. The woman described her journey to becoming a Christian and the long, painful process of telling her family about her newfound faith.

For years her family persecuted her and her sister, also a Christian believer. But now her mother helps promote evangelistic events that the daughter sponsors each year in her home village back in India.

The SBC representative is making inroads in the Sikh community, partly because of being fluent in their language and partly because of skills like the ability to listen and to make friends for the gospel.

‘In all places’

There are others like my host that day who work among unreached people groups across the city. With the London Baptist Association, they share the common goal of making Christ known “in all places to all people.”

Walking a busy London street or riding the iconic “tube,” it was impossible not to be dazzled by the different dress and customs, the variety of foods, the varying skin tones and the number of languages one hears. London really is the world’s gathering place.

Reach London with the gospel, and one just might reach the rest of the world.

That is Barnard’s goal and the goal of the churches in the London Baptist Association. And that is the goal of SBC representatives ministering in the London area. It is good to know we are not alone in the work. God has provided potential partners if we are wise enough to seize the opportunity.



New initiative partners IMB, local church

Cities like London are growing at a breathtaking speed — 1.5 million people are moving into cities every week. This represents a new Singapore or a new San Francisco every month, all over the world,” McKenzie “Mac” Pier said at a recent conference in New York City on reaching cities for Christ.

Pier, founder and CEO of The New York Leadership Center, cited the rapid growth to underscore the importance of focusing on urban ministries in large cities. It’s vital, he said. And it’s a strategy the International Mission Board (IMB) has recently implemented through the Global Cities Initiative.

Leveraging skills

The Global Cities Initiative is a partnership between local Southern Baptist churches and IMB to mobilize Christians to move abroad and leverage their marketplace skills and careers in global cities around the world, according to IMB’s website. Global cities provide professionals, students and retirees opportunities to join church planting teams and contribute to the work of making disciples. Currently the initiative includes Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai and London.

“In the words of Tim Keller: ‘The Church, despite its growth, is not growing fast enough to (meet) the great unmet needs of our cities.’ God is disrupting the world by choreographing the nations of the world in the neighborhood of our cities,” Pier said, adding that London is a prime example of a city with hundreds of nationalities.

For more information about the Global Cities Initiative, visit (TAB)