A Tale of Two Cities

by Debra Conley

Every city has its own stories to tell. Among them is the story of contrast between the old and new. To western cities, that contrast is also one of the religious and the secular, from the bygone days of fearing God to the present days of tolerating God. I don’t think it can be doubted that cities (and civilizations) move almost “naturally” in that direction and almost never in the reverse. Since true religion cannot be inherited, at least not in the inward conviction, modern descendents are usually glad for the change, and the faith of the fathers soon becomes a matter of museum nostalgia.

We just returned from our first extended visit to London and the UK. Truly, Great Britain is a land of contrasts. Among this world leader of economics, military might and cultural trend-setting rise ancient steeples and gothic spires, reminders of more civilized and mannerly times that overcame the less civilized and darker times. Indeed, the whole tourist industry itself survives on the attraction of ancient churches, war memorials, college spires and chapels, palaces and royal ceremonies, and the magnetizing effect of knowing that one is standing on hundreds or thousands of years of history in almost any given spot.

The contrast between the old and the new seemed obvious in a number of ways. The religious contrast from old to new was stark. Huge and lavish cathedrals, solemn reminders of a more faithful day, now stand cold, dark and lifeless. Where once there was a need to build multiple religious structures, now whole congregations could gather in a large house. The memory of the royalty and manners of a golden Victorian age are now observed by a populace of slovenly dressed and rude picture-takers reluctantly acknowledging their heritage. From the war memorials to Churchill’s war room, the city of London remembers when it was truly the best of times and the worst of times. Destroyed by German bombs merely a generation ago, the city stood tall with blood, sweat and tears. Now an American visitor must be careful not to mention current military politics for fear of immediate reprisals upon Bush, Blair and all western military endeavors.

Yet one cannot help but enjoy and appreciate the beauty, the history, the culture and the shear magnitude of such a place. We were looking for our own Baptist history and we found a lot. Usually we had to look diligently and were offered little help from the locals, but it is there just the same. With the reader’s patience, I will include this great Christian history within a few thoughts of contrast.

The City Encroaches

I have often repeated the saying, “the wilderness encroaches.” By that is meant that we live in a fallen world where we must keep cutting back the undergrowth or it will take over and engulf us. If we don’t fight the “natural” tendency of the wilderness, we will be overtaken by the wilderness. This is true in manners and morals as well. As fallen creatures, we too easily become like the world around us and rather than fighting to cut if back, it eventually overtakes us. If it doesn’t get the first generation, it will keep encroaching until it can overtake the second or third or fourth.

In the cities of Great Britain, with their rich religious heritage, it is obvious that the wilderness has encroached and taken over many churches and their influence. But ironically, the wilderness is the city. After all, the Adamic fall was primarily in the moral nature of Man himself, while the natural world was secondarily affected by Man’s action. From the time of Babel, man’s fallen moral nature is nowhere seen more than in the cities which he builds. God made His natural world for the humans He created. The Bible is full of descriptions of nature and its pictorial analogies of God’s handiwork. Though the natural world is truly affected by the fall in its death and decay, a person left alone in that setting still beholds God’s majesty and Godhead.

One can stand in a city such as London and look in every direction, listen to the sounds, smell the smells and (unless he looks directly up) never see anything of God’s natural world. He experiences only what fallen man has made. One can even spend most of the day in the subway (the “tube”) which is an underground world in itself. Now it may be beautiful, in the way that art is beautiful, or it may be fantastic in the sense of an engineering feat, but it has taken over people’s lives. The natural world is gone, and with it a major avenue for discovering God. If nature can be a help in preaching, the cities have reduced the gospel’s effect to the spoken word alone.

The city has also encroached on the testimonies of our faith. John Wesley’s church and grave marker have a steel and glass walkway that spans the space directly overhead. The jail where John Bunyan was imprisoned and where he wrote his great classics is marked by a bronze plaque that people walk on without even noticing what it says. In “The Dissenter’s Graveyard” lie the tombs of Susanna Wesley, John Rippon, John Owen and John Gill but they are crowded into a small space between new city buildings and are closed off by steel fences and gates and are not open to the public. Nottingham boasts of Robin Hood, a fictional character, but no one in town had even heard of William Carey or the Friar Lane Baptist Chapel. The cities of long ago are lost under the wilderness of steel and concrete.

The Church Must Engage

The City Besides the encroaching steel and concrete, the moral thistles are even more daunting. As in any metropolis, the language is coarse, the dress is anywhere from weird to lewd, the sounds are overbearing and animalistic, the billboards and ads are almost R-rated, and manners are something that disappeared before Dickens. Sadly, the churches are being forced to acquiesce or die. It is not surprising to see St. Paul’s vesper service with about twenty people or Westminster Abbey occupied mostly with tourists, because the gospel has never found life in such mausoleums of religion. But it is sad to see true gospel preaching churches of old either closed or overgrown by the world. What you see in the city is what you eventually get in the churches!

In the midst of this world-wide epidemic of worldly encroachment upon and within the churches, there can always be Smyrnas among the Laodiceas. On Sunday morning, in a pouring rain, we found the Metropolitan Tabernacle where Charles Spurgeon preached to thousands. It is still there and still preaching the gospel. Peter Masters preached on the condition of the world in the end times and our obligation to remain faithful even when the Devil seems to be winning the war. He sounded like a religious Winston Churchill encouraging the citizens to never surrender. Services are still being held in John Bunyan’s church in Bedford, and the elderly pastor who met us there spoke of his small flock and the blessing it is to uphold such a rich heritage. A new Baptist church, currently meeting in an apartment, was handing out tracts at Hyde Park, a place notorious for its public airings. Two Baptist pastors were street-preaching outside the Tower of London, the spot where many “dissenters” were beheaded for their faith in the days of Bloody Mary and King James I. That ministry had been going on for years and was begun by Spurgeon’s Tabernacle. I am reminded of the Lord’s words to the church at Smyrna, I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty (but thou art rich).

Encroachment Is A Universal Plot

Even traveling in London, one is reminded of being in a “foreign” country. The language is English, but not my father’s English! You are constantly aware that you are the one with an accent and you had better be careful what you say out loud! “Mind the gap” means to watch out for the gap at your feet, and “mind your head” means to watch out so you don’t bump your head. I think that “mind your manners” though, is archaic in both countries! In fact, the same thistles of sin that encroach upon America are plainly evident in England. And why not? Sin comes from a common root.

Loud and obtrusive music sounds the same in any country. Nakedness and indecency are the same in any country. Swearing and cursing are recognizable in any language. There are only so many ways to pierce one’s nose or ear or tongue (I think). Cigarette smoke and alcohol smell the same no matter where you smell them. And if I see another belly button of any nationality I think I’ll write a complaint to the “navel” reserve! In any city in the world you immediately recognize: those places you should avoid; the advertisements of a night life that is corrupting a world of young people; or a film industry that is willing to sacrifice a whole generation for a fast buck!

England is an example of the influence Christianity can have on a nation, and also an example of how quickly that influence can be lost. Part of the official title of the King or Queen is to be a “protector of the faith.” There is still much Christian language left in the official speaking and writing, but few seem to take notice of its meaning any longer. The Victorian Age was a golden age for preaching and spreading the gospel around the world, and its effects are still seen everywhere in the country. But those effects have become mere relics in the form of words, steeples, crosses and cemeteries. The average Brit on the street is as amoral and nonreligious as anyone anywhere else in the world.

If there is one thing that is obvious, it is that Satan is the god of this world, and he has blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them (2 Cor 4:4). No generation or nationality or culture is exempt when it comes to the expression of this common ancestry. Satan is the Pied Piper of lost souls, and around this world they all march to the same old tunes without question and without complaint. How sad it is to see this “death march” culture repeated in every country (and too often danced to while Satan pipes within the churches). The remedy for it is the gospel, and we should praise God for the faithful voices that are still holding forth a light in the darkness.

God Uses Godly People To Stem The Tide

In a time of national crisis it took a Winston Churchill to stand tall and lead a whole nation (if not most of the free world) against the encroachment of evil. Visiting the War Rooms where his operation took place and plans were made to defeat the enemy is a moving experience. How thankful we are that those dedicated men and women made such a sacrifice to keep the world free. But our enemy, the devil, is constantly working to overthrow nations, churches, families and lives. Resistance in this arena calls for diligence as well.

Whether it was a John Bunyan or a John Gill, a Charles Spurgeon or a William Carey, a Joseph Parker or an Alexander Maclaren, God has raised up men and women to stem the world’s encroachment in every age. Sometimes I begin to doubt that there is a John Bunyan today who could spend nineteen years in a one-room jail cell and still affect the world to the extent that he did; or a William Carey who will give his life to “mine for souls” in a dark continent while only a few hold the ropes; or a Charles Spurgeon who will be willing to lose his standing among his brethren for the truth of the gospel. But, of course, there are such ones even today though you or I will not hear of them until we get to heaven, or perhaps our grandchildren will know of them generations down the road. They are not the movers and shakers of this world, but they are the movers and shakers of heaven and heaven’s blessing. They have changed cities and countries with their preaching and their prayers, and they asked no one for applause, a silent cloud of witnesses being acknowledgement enough.

It doesn’t mean that because cities and countries finally are given over to the encroachment of sin that such people failed. God’s purposes continue to move toward the day of reckoning. But when the crowns are handed out, I think that I will have found why what appeared to be first will be last, and what the world thought was last will triumphantly be first.