It became known that a group of foreign extremists – “terrorists” to most people – had re-grouped in London after being imprisoned and tortured in their own country. A City Missionary who spoke their language was anxious to find them, so he quietly sounded out some of his contacts, and after several unsuccessful attempts, met with them in an area that had become almost totally populated by ethnic minorities. He told them that he had come on behalf of the Christians of London to offer advice and sympathy. He spoke of God’s love and of his justice. Most of the group were antagonistic, intent on violence, but the City Missionary went back repeatedly to talk with them….
In one of London’s poorest areas a City Missionary walked through an overgrown garden to knock at a door. A man opened the door, but would not let him in. He was suspicious and troubled. After a short conversation, the missionary offered to return and tidy the garden. The work was done – and the missionary was invited indoors. A friendship developed, and the man began attending the local mission hall to play pool, and joined a Bible Study. He began attending Sunday services at a local church, whose members regularly helped with his garden ….
Two stories, one dramatic, one domestic. Both occurred in London, both involved troubled people meeting with the London City Mission and being introduced to the gospel of Jesus Christ. And both could have happened this year, or at almost any time in the past 175 years.
Founded in 1835 through the determination of David Nasmith, the LCM was revolutionary, with Christians working together despite fierce denominational suspicions, taking the gospel to the squalid slums of the London of Oliver Twist and Bill Sykes. Nasmith believed that only a “gospel partnership” would suffice to meet the enormous challenges of an age of terrible social conditions, growing crime rates, high immigration and widespread ignorance of the most basic facts of Christianity. LCM’s strategy was to divide the neediest parts of the city into manageable “districts”, appointing a worker to each, to visit each person there, telling them about salvation through Jesus Christ, and “doing them good by every means in your power”. The aim was to bring people into the gospel churches of London. Support was drawn from across the evangelical spectrum, stimulated over the years by the involvement of such Christian leaders as Thomas Fowell Buxton (who had led the parliamentary fight to abolish slavery, in 1834), Lord Shaftesbury, J C Ryle and C H Spurgeon.
The Mission grew, and soon became a familiar part of life in overcrowded houses, pubs, and ill-regulated workplaces. The early missionaries had no authority behind them, other than that given by their faith, courage, good humour, and knowledge of the people’s lives and problems. They went alone into courts and warrens where no policeman would ever venture unaccompanied, and where “disturbances often occurred that required from forty to fifty constables to march in, armed with cutlasses”. Armed with nothing but his Bible, the missionary went from house to house, and from room to room (often 2 or 3 families lived in one room), from attic to cellar, speaking to every man, woman and child about the way of salvation. Good humour and painfully-gained wisdom were evident, as in the order “from attic to cellar” - “Enter and make for the top,” said one veteran to a new recruit, “because if you begin with the people on the ground floor you may not be allowed to go up any further; but if you make for the top floor before knocking you will be sure to come down, even though they throw you down!”
More than one missionary was literally thrown out, when first attempting to visit – and one was so severely beaten and trampled on that he died a few months later.
Nor were the dangers limited to physical violence: missionaries worked throughout cholera epidemics, in conditions described by one visitor in Bermondsey: “ Hundreds of people have no water to drink except the water of the common sewer which stagnates, full of dead fish, cats and dogs, under the windows….I saw them throwing untold horrors into the ditch and then dipping out the water and drinking it!” Living close to the people, missionaries like Robert Yeeles knew only too well that they and their families were not immune to disease: in 1874 he buried three of his children within 6 months.
Courage, good humour, and a strong, compassionate faith, continued to be evident amid the hardships of two world wars, the carnage of the Blitz during the Second World War, and the trials of the Great Depression. They were essential, too, in the very different challenges brought about by the massive social, moral and cultural changes of the 1920s, the 1960s, and the most recent era.
Of course, the ranks of City Missionaries over the years have not included any angels! Some abandoned the work after a few months or years, finding it too tough and unrewarding. Others fell out through moral failure, a loss of faith, or an inability to work peaceably alongside others. Some were so deeply wedded to old ways that they found it impossible to relate to the people of a new and changing population. But always there has been a solid core of dedicated, humble, gifted men and women to carry on the work. In 1902, Charles Booth (a Unitarian) summed them up:
“The place these missionaries fill and the part they play are quite unique: their experiences are related with conviction and they are absolutely satisfied of the truth and sufficiency of the simple Gospel they preach. They have a good word for every Evangelical Church. Not too far removed in social status from those they visit – father confessor at once and friend - they are, more than all the rest of Christian workers, in tune with the sentiments of the people.”
You only need to walk through the streets with a City Missionary to realise that Booth’s assessment is still valid today.
LCM has no doubt made many mistakes in the past 175 years. It has sometimes been prone a “para-church” mentality, as when an inadequate concept of the “mission hall” made it a rival of the local churches rather than a servant, or when it has pursued the latest fashions in evangelism at the expense of its basic activity of patient, sympathetic, relevant, conversational engagement with its local community. Such things have to be admitted, learned from, and corrected. But, by the grace of God, much has been accomplished: LCM undoubtedly had an enormous social impact on Victorian London, not so much by developing its own branded social ministries as by bridging the gap between the wider Christian community and the inner-city masses, facilitating the creation of ministries providing schooling, housing, recreational resources, care homes, and political action, among many others.
LCM has never counted “conversions”, but for much of its history gathered objective statistics of “people who had been received into church-membership”. These show that, on average, about 1,000 people have been added to the city’s churches each year. (In addition, many visitors to London have joined churches back in their own lands – including two of the “terrorists” mentioned in the opening paragraph!) At a missionary’s funeral, a minister testified that, over a period of three years, his church had received an average of 1 new member each week, purely through the work of the missionary. In truth, no-one can isolate the spiritual impact of one particular mission, for God works in each life through a wide variety of means and influences. But it would seem that the LCM has, for a remarkably long period, been one of the means used by God to build and sustain his church in London.
Today, London’s churches are facing up to new challenges and opportunities, as they get to grips with planting churches in the more deprived areas, and among immigrant communities, as well as in very secular, professional areas. LCM is eager to put its experience and resources at the service of the churches, and is currently assisting 16 church-plants, as well as providing full-time evangelists to strengthen the staff of existing churches, and linking all its other ministries, including chaplaincies and work with homeless people, with local churches.
The Mission’s 175th anniversary was commemorated at a special service on September 30, 2010, hosted by All Souls Church, Langham Place - the church of which Dr John Stott was the Rector for many years. Its theme of thanksgiving and re-dedication is summed up in a message of greeting from Tim Keller (of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York City):
“Few Christian organisations have remained so faithful to their original mission as LCM. Cities have never been more important for the world mission of the church, and London is one of the chief among them. Your ministry is therefore crucial. Thank you for doing you work of friendship, evangelism, and service to the urban population for so many generations. May God’s blessing continue to dwell with you.”