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Thought Piece – The Blessed Reflex

It’s strange that even fairly well-educated thinkers, journalists, commentators, broadcasters, and Christian leaders are often completely unaware of the dynamic growth the of the Christian church around the world. The success of the church in places as far afield as South America, Africa and many parts of Asia is astonishing, all the more so because such growth was certainly not predicted as recently as the 1960’s. Indeed, commentators of that time were extremely pessimistic about the continued survival, particularly of the Protestant churches, in those lands. The reasons for that pessimism and for the dramatic change that has occurred will be explored in a future “thought piece”.

In this article I want to draw attention to the extraordinary impact of Christians from other continents on the growth of the church in the UK.

Harvey Kwiyani, in a wonderful book on this subject drew attention to the hope expressed by William Carey, more than 200 years ago, that one day, one of the fruits of overseas missions would be the return of missionaries from these lands to help the church in the UK. Today we call that “reverse mission”. Carey used the phrase “the blessed reflex”!

Harvey Kwiyani recently drew my attention to a remarkable article called Rivers in the desert: the story of African Christianity in Britain by Sheila Akomiah-Conteh published in ANVIL vol 37 issue 3. It’s along article and it’s worth searching on Google for the full version. I have selected a few highlights below to offer you a taste of the full piece.

“The prospects for the church in Britain have been defined by an enduring narrative of decline for many decades but something new is happening. The presence and influence of old and established institutions is undoubtedly waning, but many new and innovative groups are emerging. New forms of Christian growth are occurring all over the country amid the general climate of decline. These pockets of growth are like ways in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. One of the most significant contributors to these pockets of church growth in contemporary Britain is immigration, with a consequent rise of new churches, especially those from ethnic minority backgrounds.

One of the most recent regional investigations into the phenomenon of new churches was undertaken in Scotland in 2019. Here, it was discovered that 65 per cent of all new churches planted in the city of Glasgow in the years 2000–16 were ethnic minority or BME churches.

BMCs are currently some of the fastest growing churches in Britain. They also have some of the biggest congregations in many urban centres in the UK. For instance, the 2012 London church census reported a 16 per cent increase in church attendance in the city since the last count in 2005. This growth was mainly attributed to the proliferation of new BMCs in the capital. BMCs were responsible for 28 per cent of overall church attendance in London, and nearly half (48 per cent) of all church attendance in inner London. Overall, it is estimated that one in five (19 per cent) Black Londoners go to church every week.

Another detailed study in the London borough of Southwark found that at least 240 new BMC congregations had been founded in the borough. In her report in The Guardian in 2016, Harriet Sherwood highlighted that the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), a West African-originated denomination, is now thought to be the fastest growing church in Britain, with over 700 branches nationwide. In the same report, British church statistician Dr Peter Brierley also observed that RCCG has now overtaken longer-established Pentecostal churches in the UK such as the Assemblies of God and Elim.

In the Scottish region, new research shows that 79 per cent of the new ethnic minority churches founded in the city of Glasgow in 2000–16 were African Churches. Modern-day discussions of mission and Christianity in the UK will therefore be incomplete, unbalanced and even misleading without the mention, inclusion and acknowledgement of the growing presence, prominence and contribution of new churches, and Black Majority Churches in particular, to the contemporary historiography of British Christianity.

Re-sacralising sacred places

The physicality of churches and chapels play a powerful role in popular perceptions of religion in Britain. As such, empty churches are frequently cited by critics and the media as evidence of large-scale religious decline in the United Kingdom. The conversion of places of worship into places of secular use such as houses, offices and entertainment venues is now a common occurrence in Britain, but some new churches are reversing this trend. One of the most significant but rarely known contributions of Black Majority Churches to Britain’s Christian heritage is the acquisition of historic and closed or out-of-use church buildings. Because they are newcomers, one of the challenges frequently faced by new churches in Britain is obtaining suitable places for worship. Many resort to renting public spaces or sharing church buildings with other existing congregations. Increasingly, however, many BMCs in particular are procuring spaces for themselves on the Christian landscape by buying church buildings from dwindling, historic congregations. Although creating their own worship space is the foremost motivation, another key reason for this is to prevent historic church buildings from being lost or sold for secular uses.”

The growth of what we call BMC churches is both remarkable and challenging. The leaders of many BMC churches express a desire to reach out to the white British community and in some cases friends and contacts from the white majority do come to faith as a result of the witness of Christians from other continents. But white converts often do not stay in BMC contexts. That can be hurtful and puzzling. The issue is wider than just the experience of white British converts. Often the children and grandchildren do not remain in the churches of their parents and grandparents.

There is a need to create inter-cultural churches that will be able to retain the affection and commitment of both white British converts and the children of immigrants to the UK. The cities of the UK, and particularly the huge conurbation we call the West Midlands, are increasingly growing as inter-cultural neighbourhoods. Part of the call and mission of Engage West Midlands (EWM) is to attempt to foster the planting of new inter-cultural congregations that will help to re-write the history of our cities as communities that have rediscovered the Christian story.

Martin Robinson

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