I’ve been part of Westminster Chapel for over 12 years now. That has given me a lot of time to reflect on the dynamics of being a city centre church. As we’re about to plant another city centre church these considerations — on the pros and cons of city centre church life — have weighed heavily on my mind.
The church community is very transient, so that you are constantly saying goodbye to people who may have only arrived a few short years earlier (and often months earlier). This makes it difficult to forge deep and lasting friendships.
People have a tendency to move to the suburbs. A lot of the people who were young and single when I was younger and singler have subsequently found a spouse and made babies, and quite a few have moved to the suburbs. That makes it a lot harder to be friends in a meaningful way. It also means that typically those people have either let their commitment and involvement in church drop, or they have found a church that’s closer.
Church folk live all over the place. There are a few who live nearby, but there is a good proportion of the church who travel in from somewhere nearer the outskirts of Greater London. That makes it a lot harder to drop by and have a cup of tea, not least because it seems to take 40 minutes to get anywhere in London. And even when they live on a decent train line, which might make it easier to travel the 8 miles to their house than the 1.5 miles down the road, there’s still the strange psychological barrier of doing the journey that makes it an obstacle to just hang out.
There are lots of other churches doing what you do, but sometimes better. This means that quite a few people go to one church for a season, and then decide it’s time to jump ship and try something else. It’s always sad, and not a little awkward, to say goodbye to someone who’s now attending a church 10 minutes away.
You have to grow as fast as you’re shrinking in order to stand still. Churches in small towns tend to grow if they take in a handful of new members in a year; a central London church might still be shrinking unless they can figure out how to gain people faster than they lose them. And, related to this whole theme, this creates lots of uphill battles in terms of discipling and training people to take on responsibility. Who knows if they’ll stick around for long enough to make it worthwhile?
You get to meet the most diverse array of people. Having grown up in the idyllic southern city of Winchester I was fascinated when I moved to London by the extraordinary diversity I met here. I am often discovering jobs and careers that I didn’t know existed. I meet people from countries I haven’t heard of. There are few things more enjoyable than sitting and learning about some aspect of life on earth you never knew about before — the food they eat there, the daily grind they experience in that job, the family dynamics of that culture. And I reckon the church of Jesus is unique in its power to draw together such diversity, and never more so than in the heart of great cities like London. Which means that city centre churches probably look a bit more like heaven.
You get to meet some extraordinary people. Cities like London attract high flyers in every walk of life, and a portion of them are believers. This means that a central London church can have some very talented people. Again, it’s hard to imagine anywhere else where you’d get to brush shoulders with successful people in such different walks of life, and actually be friends. And for the rest of us Average Joes, something of the high-flying aspiration can rub off and help us to up our game.
There is great potential for mission. If church life in a city centre environment is consciously leveraged towards mission, church-planting, and sending, there is enormous potential. For one thing the spread of church members across the city means that it’s not too difficult to start planting churches where there are clusters and concentrations of people. Some of the big London churches are leading the way on that front, hiving off groups of members and planting new and successful churches, while the rest of us have been taken to school; it’s time to get our act together. Another point to note here is that, whereas traditional mission work has had an emphasis on going to the nations, being in a city centre guarantees that the nations will come to you. I can’t help but feel that this is going to become increasingly important in the goal of training up indigenous missionaries; they come to you first, then you send them out.
I’m aware that planting in central London exposes us to the same frustrations and challenges I’ve experienced over the past 12 years at the Chapel. But somehow the potential for Christ’s work in this great city, along with my raw fascination with the wonder of London, means that I’m ok with all of that. In fact, I’m excited.