In this series of articles, a member of a Co-Mission church reflects on the blessings and challenges of living in central London for Jesus.
“By seeing London, I have seen as much of life as the world can show.”
As a child, my parents took me on at least one trip to London to see the amazing sights and experience the culture. I’m so grateful they did that. I’m sure I had a brilliant time and we’ve still got the photographs of us posing by the lions in Trafalgar Square. I do vividly remember, though, seeing a nursing mother sitting on the steps of Oxford Circus underground station, repeatedly begging, ‘penny for the baby.’ I’d never seen a homeless person before. London, to me, seemed like a dark and dangerous place.
Often there are valid reasons why cities have reputations for being dangerous and violent places. In recent years, knife crime has risen in urban areas, which is worrying for many city-dwellers, perhaps especially parents. Fear may put us off moving to the city altogether, or make us keen to move ‘out’ as soon as we can. Some people think that my husband and I have been unwise to stay so long in the city with our children. As one person has said, ‘How will they not end up in a gang?’
But is growing up on an urban council estate really so dangerous? The factors which make young people vulnerable to joining gangs have less to do with their postcode than their personal and family situation. They are the same factors which make young people vulnerable to joining terrorist groups and to child sexual exploitation. For example, if there is some sort of personal crisis, such as family tensions or a serious problem with a friendship group, this leaves children vulnerable to grooming as they look for a sense of identity and belonging. If a child feels rejected by their community or family, they may find a sense of acceptance in a gang. Or if they have previous experiences of crime in their family or their own life, they’re also more at risk of joining a gang or a terrorist group. Many of these things can occur just as easily in the suburbs or the countryside as they can in the inner city.
If you’ll allow me to oversimplify: if my daughters don’t feel loved and accepted and we don’t know where they are after school, they are at risk of being picked up by a group of predatory men. If my sons don’t have a strong sense of identity and belonging, they are at risk of being drawn into a criminal gang. Gangs, terrorists and child abusers are like wolves, looking out for the weaklings in a herd and picking them off one by one.
This is awful and tragic, isn’t it? But, while many things are outside of our control, children in Christian families and churches should not be vulnerable in these ways. In Christ we find answers to questions of identity, belonging and acceptance. We find our sense of purpose and value. God is our Heavenly Father, who loves and accepts us no matter how many times we fail. He tells us that we’re made in his image; we’re valuable; we’ve been given every spiritual blessing in Christ. We have a hope and a future. We know who we are because he’s told us:
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (1 Peter 2:9-10).
As we teach our children God’s word and bring them up amongst our church family, they have a strong sense of who they are. They’re loved and accepted, and this is not conditional on how they perform or even how nice they are. They know this because of the things we say to them, the way we treat them and the songs we sing with them.
I’m not saying that our children are immune to gangs or exploitation. We’re not promised that. But I hope you can see that as Christian families and as church members we have been given the best tools to protect our children from such dangers.
If only more children knew that they’re made in God’s image. If only every young child in the city could know that there is a church near them who would welcome them: a place where they could be safe, accepted, loved and respected. If only there actually were churches like this in every part of every city!
But there aren’t.
Sadly, many children do not live near a Bible-believing church. In many cases, this is because Christians are avoiding the dangers of living in the city. Of course, it’s not bad to live outside of the city. I do believe, however, that the gospel is the only thing that can truly change a city. And the only way a city will hear the gospel is if some of God’s people are in the city, preaching it. Let’s remember that if nobody had ever stepped out of their comfort zone for the gospel, we’d never have heard of Jesus.
Whether we’re concerned for our own safety or that of our loved ones, we all need to ask God for wisdom about where to live. The Lord doesn’t promise us protection from danger, but he does promise to work all things for the good of those who love him. He is more powerful than any criminal and is completely sovereign over our lives. Statistically, some places are more dangerous than others, for sure. But he’s not bound by statistics. Nothing happens to us that’s outside of his control.
In his talk, “It takes a City to Raise a Child”, Tim Keller argues that a city isn’t just an OK place to raise children, but it’s a better place to raise them. One reason is that children see brokenness up close at an age when their parents are there to help them to make sense of it. His wife, Kathy Keller, explains the same point in an online article:
That sin should be so visible, and appear in its true, ugly colours, is of inestimable value in a culture that glamorizes depraved behaviour, laughing off drunkenness and promiscuity as “partying” and mocking those who don’t participate. I never had to give one lecture on the evils of drunkenness to boys who had seen them live, in living colour, for themselves.
In the city, your kids see sin and its consequences while you are still with them and can help them process it. Eventually they’re going to encounter it for themselves, usually when they leave the protected environment of home for the big wide world—just when you are no longer around to discuss things. 
We have seen this insight to be true in our own lives. My children are not traumatised when they see homeless people because it’s normal to them. Sometimes a person sleeps outside our front door for a few weeks before moving on, and in the meantime we might take them food or buy them some milk. It’s normal to our children that sometimes we buy an extra McDonald’s meal or coffee for the Big Issue seller. Rather than them becoming hard-hearted about the homeless, we can help to nurture in them compassion for people for whom life is a terrible struggle.
Similarly, mental health issues and addictions are sadly a real part of this fallen world we live in. These things can be difficult and upsetting to explain to our children, but because they’re learning about them within their family context they feel safe and are able to ask questions - and to see why people so desperately need to hear about the Lord Jesus. They’re seeing that the gospel is about a God who draws near to the messy, broken people of this world and transforms them from the inside out. This, wonderfully, helps them to see the awesome and miraculous power of the gospel.
The brokenness and mess of the city isn’t just ‘out there.’ It’s in our own hearts and in our beloved church family. Growing up in the city, our children are seeing that church is not just for clean, well-mannered people but is for the desperate, the lonely and the ‘unlikely’ people; “the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.”(Luke 14:21). Anyone - anyone at all - is welcome to come and find rest in Jesus. As the Lord himself said, ”It’s not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners’ (Mark 2:17).
Catherine Brooks and her husband Mike are members of St John's Church, Chelsea. Her main job is caring for their four children but she also works part time in a secondary school for boys. She loves music, books and cups of tea. She blogs about parenting and living for Jesus at muminzoneone.com.
 Samuel Johnson 11 October 1773. Quoted in The Life of Samuel Johnson
 Kathy Keller, Why the City is a Wonderful Place to Raise Children, The Gospel Coalition, February 14th 2012 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/why-the-city-is-a-wonderful-place-to-raise-children/