This article for The Gospel Coalition reminds us that if we are serious about sharing the Gospel then we need to pay attention to the ongoing growth of cities around the World. We need to pay attention to those large urban areas because that’s where the people are. The article is I think primarily aimed at a US audience but also intended to highlight what is happening in the wider world, particularly in the two-thirds majority world. It’s good to be reminded that mission isn’t just about what is happening on our own patch.
But what about the UK? Are the messages in the article relevant here? Or does living in a post industrialisation context change things? Well, in terms of internal movement around the country, it seems that there some signs that we need to be putting our attention elsewhere with internal migration being away from the core cities like Birmingham, Manchester and London and towards smaller towns and villages.
This movement may well be increasing as people look to change their lifestyles in response to COVID and some of the work-life consequences that had. Why live close to the office in the city when you’re expected to work from home. Better to use the money to buy a slightly larger place with room for a home office and better views to enjoy.
However, the picture that this particular statistic paints may risk distorting the overall picture of what is happening in Britain. Yes, people who are able to will seek to move away from the city. Indeed, this is a known long-term trend. Wealthier people will seek to move out to the suburbs and beyond. Inner cities therefore tend to be dominated by the urban poor by different ethnic groups. Many people who work in London and the South East are unable to pay London prices and so seek to live a further out and commute in.
There is though another picture. Cities and large urban areas still tend to dominate overall. There’s a couple of reasons for this. First, even if in percentage terms we are seeing greater migration into villages, in pure numerical terms there’s still significant movement into cities because they are already starting from a larger base. Secondly, population growth in those urban centres comes from two sources, birth rates and external migration from abroad.
So, as this graphic here demonstrates, our urban centres continue to grow rapidly and not only that but the populations tend to be much younger.
As well as cities like Birmingham being younger than villages and towns, these are also as indicated above much more ethnically diverse. Cities are not only the places where we meet people, they are the places where we meet the nations.
Finally, we need to consider another factor. What we have seen over the past century is the absorption of villages and towns into the city. So, here in the West Midlands as well as the “core” or “major city” of Birmingham, you have towns and villages like Bearwood, Smethwick, Dudley, Tipton etc that have become part of the West Midlands conurbation. You see a similar story in Greater Manchester with places like Oldham and Rochdale. In fact, when you look at a map of the UK, you see several major population centres with over 1 million people living in them. Greater London, the West Midlands, Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, Tyne and Wear, Merseyside in England with major conurbations on the South Wales Coast and around Glasgow in Scotland.
This last point is important because at times, Gospel thinking and church planting energy has focused on the core cities with Birmingham and Manchester getting the headline attention along with London. The risk then is that by “city” and “urban” we tend to think in terms of those parts of conurbations seen as dynamic and prosperous. This means that we focus on areas of regentrification alongside university quarters. That means focusing on Manchester proper at the expense of the towns that form Greater Manchester. It means that you can observe high levels of church planting and revitalisation in South Birmingham but not so much in the north and east of the city, even less once you cross the border into The Black Country and on up into Wolverhampton. Similarly in my home county of West Yorkshire there is still far too little happening in places like Bradford, with a few church plants but nowhere near enough to reach the population in Halifax, Huddersfield and Wakefield. Millions of people continue to live without being able to hear the good news because there is no meaningful Gospel witness in their communities.
And alongside all of this, there still are many people living in rural communities with the risk that whilst local, long-standing congregations die out and traditional rural communities decline, these are replaced by commuter communities and dormer villages and towns where those who live there travel into or to large out of town complexes for work, shopping, entertainment and (if they are believers) church. So, we risk forgetting those people too.
The reality is that however, we cut up the cake, we are simply a long way off from seeing the Gospel consistently reaching people where they live and work. This unfinished task should motivate us to pray for workers in the harvest field and be ready to consider the call ourselves.
If you are being challenged about your place in the urban mission field, I would love to hear from you. Please use the contact form below to get in touch.