Editor’s note: In April we’re running a series called “Waymakers” to highlight stories about contemporary Christians engaged in unique partnerships and and justice work. Look for a new one each Monday this month.
Stepping out of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Ben Virgo pointed his tour group toward the British Museum.
Ben had used the majestic backdrop of London’s most famous cathedral to tell the story of William Wilberforce, the 19th-century politician whose Christian convictions led him to fight for decades to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire. In the British Museum, Ben pointed out exhibits associated with biblical icons such as Abraham, Hezekiah, Daniel, Esther, Nehemiah and Paul.
Over the next few hours, Ben led his group through the streets of London as he related dozens of stories about Wycliffe, Wesley, Tyndale, Whitefield, and other heroes of the Christian faith who had walked these same streets. Ben’s lively narration brought their stories to life. A director of Christian Heritage London, Ben is passionate about enlightening visitors to London about the city’s rich Christian heritage. He accomplishes this by giving them glimpses of some of the men and women whose faith led them to do great works and leave a deep legacy.
Ben has been leading these Christian-focused tours since 2014. He spent days, weeks, and ultimately years researching prominent Christians, learning how to tell their stories while walking the streets where these men and women lived and preached and served.
“My goal is for people to say, ‘I can be like that!’ Those guys were no superheroes; they were ordinary men who did and believed extraordinary things,” Ben explains. “I mean, George Whitefield preached to millions of people. He didn’t have magic powers. He had Jesus Christ.”
Ben builds his tours around personal stories because “everyone is interested in stories. The Bible is a collection of stories. When it comes to these faith leaders, collectively, they trusted the Lord while everyone else said no. They said yes, and God did the work.”
Sometimes Ben tears up while telling visitors about these Christian heroes. “As I learned more about them, I got to know them, and after a while they became like brothers to me. I feel very emotional telling their stories. Even those who died 500 years ago!”
In a city that boasts multiple themed tours highlighting specific neighborhoods, periods of history, and literary or historical characters such as Sherlock Holmes, Jack the Ripper, or Charles Dickens, it’s surprising to learn that Christian Heritage London has no competition for its Christian-themed tours. “It’s a great outrage that there hasn’t been another outfit offering this type of tour. If more people could hear these stories, they would understand what a legacy Christians have.”
Ben’s life has been shaped by his own bit of Christian legacy. His father, Terry Virgo, started the Newfrontiers network, which includes over 2,000 churches in multiple countries. The oldest of five siblings, Ben grew up in a devout Christian household but went through a “rebellious season” as a teenager. He was invited to accompany a tour of North America with a Christian rock band, and the aspiring rock star jumped at the opportunity. Night after night, the band’s lead singer would talk about Jesus during the concert, and his words penetrated young Ben, who gave his life to Christ during the tour.
Ben eventually returned to England, where he met and married his wife, Rachel, and got a degree in Classics (a British degree which encompasses languages such as Greek and Latin, and subjects such as literature and history of the ancient world) at University College London. From there he embarked on a series of jobs, including working with individuals who struggled with drug addiction and homelessness and working for a well-known financial company. He says these were his “tent-making” jobs that helped support his growing family, which would eventually include six children. And they also gave him the skills and experience to both run a business and serve as a church planter, Ben’s true dream job. Eventually, Ben joined forces with his dad to learn about church planting efforts in an urban environment like London.
Today, Ben is active in church planting in East London, where he works extensively with the Bangladeshi community, while also conducting tours through Christian Heritage London. He says his work as a tour guide informs and influences his work as a pastor and church planter.
“One of the things I learned about our Christian heroes is that they were faithful in small things,” he explains. “I want to be a faithful pastor. And a good church planter. Discipling, encouraging, having personal integrity, and building others up is something you see in many faith heroes, and these attributes are something I work constantly towards myself.”
Ben says that during a hurricane, the safest place to be is in the eye of the hurricane. “Our little church plant strives to be that eye in the midst of a storm.”
Although the storm of the COVID pandemic interrupted his tours for a time, Ben is grateful to again be guiding small groups, families, church groups, and others on customized walks through London. Christian Heritage London also arranges group tours to Cambridge, Oxford, Ireland, Scotland, and Israel, and elsewhere. It even helps deliver a multi-day C. S. Lewis tour that includes visits to multiple sites important in the famous writer’s life.
Whether Ben is behind the pulpit or leading a tour, he believes he’s always preaching. “If you’re telling the good news of Jesus, you’re preaching,” he says simply.
When asked what inspired him to give Christian-themed tours, he answers, “First, the gospel itself is a message; it’s not instructions. It’s news; it’s not a theory. It’s fact; it’s not a technique. The people I talk about on my tours all believed that as well, and after their conversion, they wanted to be of service to others.
“And as it turns out, many of them lived in London. You only have to walk down a few streets to realize, ‘Oh, that guy changed the world’ and another street where you can say, ‘Oh that guy changed the world.’ It’s an honor and privilege to be able to share their stories and enlighten those who may not be familiar with them.”
Too many visitors to London do not recognize how many Christians who changed the world once walked these very streets. They may never even have heard of William Wilberforce or George Whitefield, and Ben thinks that’s a shame. So he’s out to change that, one tour at a time.