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.
“Pack a bag, we’re moving to Riyadh!”
If my husband, Mike, came home and told me that we were moving to Saudi Arabia to help a mission team, I’d be alarmed for several reasons. I’d worry about the heat, the hostile culture and leaving all of my stuff behind. But my main sadness would be saying goodbye to my loved ones: my parents, my church family and my community.
I think that’s a normal reaction. Relationships are a huge part of our lives. People often choose where to live based on their support network – staying in the community they grew up in, moving to be nearer parents, or choosing to live near friends. Moving away to join a church plant or a mission team may feel impossible. How could we manage without the people we love around us? What if there’s no one else there like me? What if my children are the only ones in their Sunday School class?
Often, living in a city for the gospel will mean being part of a small church, with few people in the same life stage as us. Some city-centre churches will always have students and graduates in them, but if you choose to stay into your thirties, forties etc. you might gradually have fewer peers around you. Joining a new church plant may mean months or years of being part of a team that doesn’t feel big enough. It looks too scary, too lonely and too difficult.
I’m always encouraged by Judges 7, in which the Lord commands Gideon to reduce his army from 3,000 to 300 men, “or Israel would boast against me, ‘My own strength has saved me.’” (Judges 7:2b) In our church, we often feel that things really would be better if we had more people and more resources. But I feel sure that one reason the Lord hasn’t yet made our church feel big and strong is to stop us from being proud and boasting, “Our clever, gifted people and flashy church programmes have saved this council estate."
For example, there was a time when I found myself, baby-on-hip, running a toddler group alone. I was in charge of setting up, being welcoming, making tea/coffee, chatting to people, leading the story/song time, tidying up and washing up. It was overwhelming. Greater than the physical challenge of it all was the huge sense of responsibility and burden I felt for the mums. More than any of the hard work, it was the loneliness that got to me.
This is not a good ministry model for reaching out to local women! I’ve been to seminars on it. They tell you that you need a whole team if you’re going to run a toddler group. I didn’t do it alone because I’m some superwoman who never gets tired. I did it because I love Jesus and at the time there was nobody else who could do it. It wasn’t ideal, but the Lord likes to do amazing things through weak people and feeble efforts. One of the women who I met at that group is now wonderfully saved and living faithfully for Jesus. God makes his church grow – to him be all the glory. Perhaps one of the benefits of being in a small, urban church is that we get to see this more clearly than we might in a larger, more comfortable, better-resourced setting.
For me, amidst all the challenges of living in the city, the very hardest thing is this: people leave.
If you choose to live in the city you will see people come and go much more than you would in the suburbs or the countryside. At times this has left me heartbroken and bereft.
I grew up in a village in which very little changed. And the village was near a small town from which people do not move away. I was not trained as a child to cope well with change. If you think you’d find it too hard to say goodbye to people over and over again then I am quite confident that I have found it just as hard. So let me share with you some things I’ve learnt through the goodbyes.
Goodbye to Unbelievers
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools…
Firstly, the transient nature of the city has an effect on our evangelism and relationships with unbelievers in general. If I were trying to look at things very strategically, I might try to invest in friendships with people who are not going to move to Surrey or Scotland or Sweden any time soon. Once I’ve invested in a friendship with someone and they’ve shown some interest in spiritual things, it is deeply frustrating to learn that they are moving away in a month’s time. It makes me wonder why I bother. My efforts seem completely futile. Plus, it’s sad because I will miss them! The important thing is to keep “stooping and building” with the same old “tool” of the same old gospel. Trying to make disciples in the city certainly requires perseverance.
These challenges force me to trust in the sovereignty of God. The Lord does not need me in order to save his people. My method and programmes are not the formulae needed for people to become Christians. Instead, I’m reminded that when God does save people, it is always for his glory - and not mine.
It might be that the people I meet and invest in will later repent and believe the good news. I pray they do! I hope that in the new creation I will meet these people again so that we can worship the Lord together for all eternity. But even if that doesn’t happen, I have this command in God’s word: ‘Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.’ (1 Corinthians 15:58) A life lived faithfully is never wasted. Sometimes I wonder why God would take an unbeliever away from a Bible-believing church and from a friend who wants to share Jesus with them. But who am I to question God? He gives me the glorious promise and reassurance that his word ‘will not return to [him] empty, but will accomplish what [he desires] and achieve the purpose for which [he] sent it. (Isaiah 55:11)
Goodbye to Church Family
As well as unbelievers moving in and out of London, believers do it all the time. This is harder. Over the years at our church we have said goodbye to many, many dear friends. Most have gone to Bible college, some have moved to help elderly parents and some have had to move for jobs. Our small church feels very much like a family, so we have loved each and every one of these people as brothers and sisters. Indeed, the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do for Jesus is to say goodbye to loved ones. I continue to pray that God would keep me from becoming disillusioned and hard-hearted as a result.
Yet I can see the Lord using this. As I form strong friendships, one danger is that I spend all my time with the people I feel comfortable with rather than showing hospitality to others. For Christians, the comfort zone is a dangerous place. As our loved ones leave I am persuaded to look around me at the people who remain and invest in them. This is surely what the Lord wants me to do, and so I choose to trust him and get on with it.
In recent years I’ve been very encouraged by what Scripture has to say about all this. In the past, I’d often imagined the apostle Paul planting churches and being so focused on his work that he wouldn’t really form strong bonds with people. He’d never be so sentimental as to weep over people leaving to plant new churches, surely! How wrong could I be? You only need to read the end of each of Paul’s letters (those bits we always skim over) to see that he loved his brothers and sisters deeply. And when Paul is headed for Jerusalem, the Ephesian elders wept over him: “What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again”(Acts 20:38a). When we find it hard to say goodbye, it’s because we’ve loved people as family, as the Lord has commanded us to do.
The more people leave us, the more we rely on the Lord. Time and again he reminds his people “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). And of course, Jesus himself comforted his disciples with these words: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20). When friends leave, we’re forced to lean more on the One who never does.
Saying goodbye to people also makes us long for Jesus to return soon. In the new creation, there’ll be no more goodbyes. There’ll be no unreached people groups, no sick relatives, no war zones, no more tears. It would be nice if my church family could stay together here and now, with nobody having to leave, but then we wouldn’t look forward to heaven enough. And one day, we will be with our brothers and sisters for eternity.
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.
 Rudyard Kipling, If.