In 2010, the United Nations estimated that, for the first time in the history of humanity, there were now more people living in cities than in towns or rural areas. It is estimated that this will rise to seven out of 10 people living in cities by 2050.
Why is that significant? It is significant because cities are, by nature, multicultural, because people migrate into them from different parts of the country and world to study or seek work.
As a result, the world is becoming increasingly multicultural and multilingual.
Recently, I asked a group in my east London church how many had been born in London and how many had moved into London from other parts of the United Kingdom or the world.
Out of 34 people, only four had been born in London. By contrast, if I had asked the question at my home church in northeast England, the overwhelming majority would have been born locally.
For Christians, the key to understanding the role and significance that multicultural churches play in the kingdom of God today is to understand how they reflect both the demographics of the growing cities where they emerge and how they anticipate the coming new heaven and new earth in which people of every language, tribe and nation worship God as one.
Within our cities there are many congregations developing along national, ethnic or regional lines.
Nevertheless, multicultural churches are becoming the churches of choice for many who have grown up in multicultural families, neighborhoods, schools and universities.
This all sounds very exciting, as many Baptist churches are delighting in the diversity that now shapes them. However, multicultural churches have their downsides, too.
So many people from so many different backgrounds inevitably give rise to conflict and differences of opinion.
Some thrive on the diversity; others come away frustrated and scarred by prejudice and racism rearing its ugly head. People seem to love it or hate it.
Challenged by this, I set out to research how people experienced being part of a multicultural church in south London to see what lessons could be learned.
These were my four main discoveries:
1. Sunday worship registered as the most obvious aspect of church life that changed as the church became increasingly multicultural.
In particular, those who came from parts of our world where there has been renewal and revival invariably lifted the faith of those in our congregation and encouraged them to open their hearts to the power of God.
One white British person responded, “I think African [and] West Indian people are more open … not charismatic, but more free to share … Yes, more open. I think that helps English people to open up themselves a bit more.”
2. The style and diversity of the leadership changed as members of ethnic minorities were empowered to participate. However, it was clear that empowerment only happens by intentional affirmative action.
When asked about the actions of the team that enabled him to take up this leadership role, an African leader of this church noted, “They have given space [and] a very encouraging atmosphere for the expression of multiculturalism.”
3. Prejudice is alive and well but was being challenged and overcome as people shared their lives together through a commitment to love one another within church life.
A white British person commented, “I lived in a predominantly Asian area, which was like a slum. I used to think that Asian people were dirty … so it’s been good to chat to people from an Asian background at church … and actually challenge those preconceived ideas.”
4. There was a “buzz” about being in a multicultural church. People were gripped by it, even if they found it frustrating.
For example, one person said, “It’s the first time that we’ve ever really been in a minority … I did feel, perhaps, a little bit pushed back maybe … There can sometimes be uncertainty on how to do things, what’s the way of doing things, not to offend anybody.”
Nevertheless, she went on to say, “There are so many amazing cultures out there and so many amazing peoples, and I still don’t know very much at all and I just find it really interesting to see people’s viewpoints and understand where people are coming from.”
In multicultural churches, true to their context in multicultural cities, there is no standing still.
These covenantal communities of people who follow Christ, drawn together from many different backgrounds, are building something together reflecting the glory of God.
As a doctor from East Africa described it to me, “Every Sunday is like a stone, every Sunday I go there, and you know you are building something, you are putting a stone over a stone. I think it’s a beautiful thing. All churches should follow that.”
Malcolm Patten is minister of Blackhorse Road Baptist Church in Walthamstow, within the London Borough of Waltham Forest. A version of this column first appeared in The Baptist Times of Great Britain, and is used with permission.