Urban Mission

A London life



My working life in London has largely been involved in the field of urban mission. I first became aware of urban mission through talks by Jim Punton at Greenbelt and then by reading Faith in the City.Then when I moved to London , I gradually became involved with the scene particularly through working with London ECUM (evangelical coalition for urban mission) . But what is urban mission?


Urban mission really began in London at the start of the 19th century. This is because London was the first modern city, using the fruits of the industrial revolution to grow to a size and shape that had not previously been known.  The familiar patterns of life were uprooted by this change, just as people uprooted themselves and flocked in ever increasing numbers to London and other industrial cities.  The most convincing account of the start of urban mission that I have a read is in Callum Brown’s The Death Of Christian Britain, particularly in the section the myth of the unholy city.  Developing his argument from William Cowper’s famous line “God made the country, and man made the town” and focusing particularly on the work of Thomas Chalmers he illustrates how the city was constructed as a place of vice and sin which was in need of mission.


Since then many have engaged in urban mission, from the city missions and Salvation Army of the 19th century, through the work of Thomas Barnardo and other famous names into the contemporary world of the Urban Theology Unit, Cherubim and Seraphim churches and Urban Expression.  All the mainstream churches have become involved in urban mission whether it be through the financial resources of the established church in the Church Urban Fund or the more modest attempts of the United Reformed Church in the Urban Churches Support Group.  But at the heart of urban mission there has always been the local urban church and the projects and groups that have sprung from these. These local expressions have always been my main interest and the attempt to develop a contextual theology, in word and action, which springs from them. 


From these grassroots initiatives a different theology has emerged which does not see the urban simply as a place of vice and sin, although you cannot deny that these are present, but as a place of vitality, radical experimentation and new understandings of God.  Their strap line might go “the Bible began in the garden but ends in the city”.  I am certainly sympathetic to this reinterpretation of the city but also like to emphasize that the city is just a place of ordinary life.  A place where people try to hold on to some of the good things in life that they have managed to achieve, where they live with change and disruption with as much cheerfulness as they can manage, and the emotions of anger and fear, as well as joy and laughter, are normally very close to the surface.  The city is above all a place where people live, they are more tightly crammed together, things do change more rapidly and the people who live next door (at least in London) are quite likely to have a very different ethnic and cultural background. But it is just life.


It is also worth pointing out that when I talk about urban I am not talking about the whole city.  I am talking about the inner city areas and outer estates where poverty is concentrated, rather than the ‘comfortable’ suburbs or wealthy districts of the central city.  There is often confusion about this, people claim that urban mission is important because most people live in the city but when they produce figures to support this they lump the suburban with the urban.  The truth is that the urban is only a minority even of large cities and even indisputably urban areas such as Hackney now have very large swathes of prosperous streets whose relationship to urban mission is complicated.  But then urban mission has always been a complicated matter, there are no easy defining lines and there are definitely no easy solutions.  Below are some of my attempts to understand this confusing but always stimulating world.


A Brief History of Urban Mission in London.  This paper seeks to create a narrative of how urban mission has developed in London and finishes by identifying key modern trends

An Introduction to London for Christian workers.  This was written for worker I did for a few years introducing people to ministry in London.  Whilst it does include serious analysis, it is in many ways a poetic meditation on the city and a reflection on my working relationship with it


What’s different about ministrying London.  This repeats some of the material from the previous paper but also focuses on specific issues, many of which arose from the sessions introducing people to ministrying London.


The Place of the Church in The Urban Community.  I wrote this paper after completing my Masters degree at Goldsmith’s College for a meeting of the Baptist Urban Group.  It relies on research that I undertook was completing my Master’s and particularly looks at the church as a family, which was the subject of my Master’s dissertation.

The Church as a Grassroots Urban Institution
.  This paper is my latest reflection on the role of the church in urban mission.  It seeks to embrace the essentially conservative nature of the urban church whilst seeing it as a place where the radical and new can happen. 


Black majority churches.  Here are three papers that relate to my encounters with black majority churches in London.  This has been a very important part of my life.  Encounters with Africa is a description of my personal encounter with the African diaspora in London and includes some reflections on racism. Black majority churches in Hackney was written to support a funding application to develop a directory of black majority churches in the borough.  Black majority churches and mainstream churches is a sketch of how the relationships have developed since the 1950s.


Hackney and nonconformity.  When I moved to Hackney in 2000 I became interested in its nonconformist history, something which seems to still determine it today for it has a strong alternative and anarchist tradition.  I was reminded of this recently looking at the results of a Mori survey which looks at the attitudes of the third sector organisations to their local authority.  Hackney had the lowest response rate in the country – 29%.  From this research into Hackney nonconformity I also wrote a paper exploring the history of Dissenting Academies in Hackney.


Models of Christian social involvement.  I wrote this paper for the Hackney Churches Development Group which was a group of churches looking to redevelop their buildings.  People seemed to find it useful and it was quite widely circulated.


Urban training.  When I worked for London Evangelical Coalition for Urban Mission my main work focused around urban training.  Providing appropriate training for people involved in urban mission has always been a problem, academic institutions struggle with it; the Masters in urban mission that I was involved with at Spurgeon’s College only lasted a few years.  This is somewhat out of date and incomplete but the fundamental issues remain the same


Housing estate guidelines.  These guidelines came out of a number of years of work I did with the Urban Churches Support Group of about churches on social housing estates.  Previous to this I had spent seven years living on two different council estates in South London and these strongly drawn that experience.


Urban mission and truth.  A version of this short paper was given at the London Urban Theology Project, an initiative run by Rev. Steve Latham, the minister of Westbourne Park Baptist church. This is an excellent project which, over the years, has gathered dozens of stories and reflections by people ministrying in urban London.  They are available at www.lulu.com.


A sermon about regeneration.  This is a development of a sermon I gave at a small church which was caught up in a huge regeneration process in South London


Churches and mental health.  This was an essay I wrote for of course at Birkbeck College.  It received a lower marker than any of my other essays on the course.  I had agreed the title with the lecturer but when I asked about the mark I was told us that it would have received a higher mark if it wasn’t about the church!  This was particularly odd because the marker herself was a Christian, it seemed to me to be clear evidence of an institutional prejudice against religion within the social sciences.  Looking back on it now – it was written in the early 1990s it doesn’t seem to me particularly well written but it is an interesting commentary on the life of a local church.