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Black Majority Churches Redefine UK’s Religious Landscape

Black majority churches are redefining the United Kingdom’s religious landscape.

Nationally, there is a decline in church attendance and growth across most denominations, but black majority churches are growing significantly.

Once a year, I am invited to Spurgeon’s Bible College to deliver a lecture on mission in a black majority church context.

There is always a sense of expectation as students wait in anticipation, as a majority are open and curious.

Inevitably, a few students are less certain and not fully at ease with the subject. However, they are sufficiently cognizant of the fact that there must be explainable reasons for the exponential growth of churches that are disproportionately populated with Christians of African and Caribbean heritage (my preferred description).

I begin often with an analogy that I believe captures the current need for cooperation between white British Christians and sisters and brothers from an African and Caribbean heritage.

African and Caribbean heritage churches and Christians can be likened to a state-of-the-art boiler that has the inherent capacity to generate and distribute significant amounts of heat without much effort.

The problem with the boiler is that it is disconnected from the radiation system that has the capacity to carry the energy from the boiler throughout the house and consequently raise the overall temperature.

African and Caribbean heritage Christians come with and offer a tremendous capacity for spirituality, prayerfulness and a strategic focus on mission.

However, the challenge they face is that the energy they generate through these God-given disciplines and gifts is often not able to be translated into meaningful connections with indigenous communities.

As a result, in the majority of cases, they are not seeing individuals from white communities come to faith. If they do, they tend not to remain in their churches.

The goal of ecumenical and other inter-church initiatives, I suggest to students, is to connect the efficiency of the boiler to generate heat with the effectiveness of the radiation system to distribute it.

At this point, usually the students are able to perceive the missional imperative of ecumenical relations and proceed with a dialogical disposition.

Yet, there is often an unconscious – but nevertheless very real – sense of dis-ease that colors the lenses through which the subject matter is viewed.

This is not unique and particular to students.

I was invited to the home of a leading figure in the British Christian church scene. During the visit, our conversation explored leadership, mission, African and Caribbean Christians reaching white communities and why white people do not seem able to serve under black leadership.

It was a cordial discussion with each person respectfully offering their unique perspectives on the range of dynamics at play.

However, at one point a white leader assumed a culturally superior disposition and proceeded to prescribe what steps needed to be taken for African and Caribbean heritage churches and their leaders to exercise leadership over – and be relevant missionally and otherwise to – white Christian communities.

His comments were valid, but the spirit in which he spoke was less welcomed. There was an awkward silence as most present thought to themselves, “Let him speak because he thinks that we have no insights of our own to offer.”

This experience highlights the need for genuine, multi-voice dialogue around this issue.

I have reflected extensively and asked the opinions of many fellow African and Caribbean leaders on why white individuals find it difficult to either join African and Caribbean heritage churches or sit under their leadership.

I have concluded that three assumptions – superiority, inadequacy and incompetency – make this problematic and will need to be challenged and addressed if there is to be a change.

In 2009, I undertook some research as part of my sabbatical study in which I sought to identify and understand what steps African and Caribbean heritage churches were taking to reach white indigenous communities with the gospel. Three themes emerged.

First, the church leaders I spoke with had made significant attempts to modify their styles of worship to be more appealing to white individuals.

Second, they had taken on board comments about their style or styles of preaching and its incompatibility to the indigenous population.

Third, they had explored different forms of prayer that might more easily resonate with white communities.

In some cases, there were severe setbacks resulting from these modifications.

The most significant setback was that in making the required adjustments in an attempt to be open to white British communities, African and Caribbean heritage churches and leaders inadvertently compromised the integrity and efficacy of their own religious traditions.

In some cases, they no longer adequately met the felt needs of their own members.

This, in a very real sense, is the critical tipping point between African and Caribbean heritage churches self-identifying as a “reverse mission movement.”

They grasp the very real implications of the need to genuinely and sacrificially incarnate in a manner that is contextually relevant to white communities.

Despite the very real uphill challenges that African and Caribbean heritage churches face, they are experiencing significant growth.

David Shosanya is the London Baptist Association’s regional minister responsible for mission. A longer version of this article first appeared in The Baptist Times of Great Britain – the online newspaper of the Baptist Union of Great Britain. It will appear also in the Summer 2015 edition of Baptists Together Magazine. It is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @Shosanyaspeaks.