Multicultural London: Faith in Flux Erich Bridges The following stories about London are the second part of a series from the Southern Baptists of America called "A Tale of Five Cities" examining the challenges of reaching the exploding urban world. LONDON (BP) --
On a crisp October day in London's Trafalgar Square, the solemn marble monuments of Great Britain's former empire gaze upon a curious scene: It's "Simcha on the Square," a celebration of 350 years of Jewish life in London. Thousands gather -- and not just English Jews and gentiles eager to enjoy some kosher food and traditional music.
The crowd includes people of nearly every conceivable appearance and background: turban-wearing Sikhs, Indians, Chinese, Africans, Rastafarians, hipsters, bikers. They dance or tap their toes to the beat of performances by "the Jewish Elvis" and "K-Groove," a Klezmer-reggae-jazz band. Multicultural bliss, at least for an afternoon. Welcome to the new London. Bowler-hat London no longer exists. Nor does the London of Shakespeare, of Charles Dickens or even the 20th-century London of the Beatles. Sure, millions of tourists still visit the great sites of the old city.
They still ride the double-decker red buses and flock to watch the queen and the changing of the guard. But London is no longer really an English city; it is a world city. Set to host the 2012 Summer Olympics, it now proclaims itself the "capital of the world." 'A WORLD IN ONE CITY' With a population of some 8.5 million people (estimates range as high as 14 million for the greater metro region), London vies with Paris as the largest city in Western Europe.
Much of the world's high-powered finance flows through its gleaming office towers and great investment houses. Population numbers and dollars, however, don't tell the true tale of London's global reach. As a coverage by The Guardian newspaper confirmed in 2005, London has become "a world in one city." From Algerians in Finsbury Park to West Africans in Woolwich, the newspaper ranged through the alphabet, finding major and minor ethnic/language communities throughout the city: Bangladeshis, Chinese, Indians, Iranians, Jamaicans, Nigerians, Pakistanis, Poles, Russians, Somalis, Sri Lankans, Turks, Vietnamese -- to name only a few groups (see the stories and maps at www.guardian.co.uk/britain/london/0,,1394802,00.html).
London "is uncharted territory," Guardian reporter Leo Benedictus wrote. "Never have so many different kinds of people tried living together in the same place before. What some people see as the great experiment of multiculturalism will triumph or fail here.... "Altogether, more than 300 languages are spoken by the people of London, and the city has at least 50 non-indigenous communities with populations of 10,000 or more. Virtually every race, nation, culture and religion in the world can claim at least a handful of Londoners."
Since its earliest beginnings as Londinium, a Roman garrison town built in 43 A.D., this great metropolis of merchants and empire builders has attracted pilgrims, missionaries, immigrants, traders, colonial subjects and invaders. But the human waves that have washed over London in the last generation or two have brought the greatest cultural change since the Normans invaded in 1066. A few glimpses: -- Emerge from the London Underground train station in Southall and you'll think you're in New Delhi. Temples, mosques, south Asian restaurants and markets dominate the area. On some streets there isn't a white face in sight.
Parts of Hackney feel like Ho Chi Minh City; parts of Wembley feel like Mogadishu. Other areas look and sound like Moscow (at least 250,000 Russians live in Britain) or Istanbul (more than 150,000 Turks and Kurds). -- The largest Sikh and Hindu temples outside India are in London. Hundreds of mosques, large and small, serve as many as 1.3 million Muslim Londoners. -- An estimated 600,000 Poles have flooded London over the last several years, the largest of successive waves of Russians, Albanians, Bulgarians and other Eastern Europeans streaming into the city.
Some of London's ethnic communities are insulated, even isolated. Others freely mix and mingle with white Britons and other immigrants. Their children mingle even more, creating new cultural variations. "When we first arrived in London, you'd see teens from many different nations walking home from school and hanging out -- all calling themselves 'Brits' -- not English, but 'Brits,'" says missionary Patrick Sims*, the Southern Baptist International Mission Board's city strategist and team leader for London. "Now there's been a move to forming gangs.
Drugs and crime are on the rise. We can't tackle that issue on a large scale, but we can come alongside teenagers and share the hope of Christ." According to the International Mission Board's 2008 Annual Statistical Report, London is one of 172 urban centers around the world where missionaries such as Sims are working to start churches. Much of the work involves strategic partnerships between Southern Baptist missionaries, local Baptists and other Great Commission Christians. In 2007 alone, such collaboration allowed missionaries to begin church-planting strategies in nine previously unengaged cities.
The urban emphasis is critical, because more than 80 percent of the 172 urban centers engaged by Southern Baptists and their partners are considered to be unreached (less than 2 percent evangelical). "We want to create forms of church that are relevant, reproducible and multiplying for every people segment of London -- and beyond," Sims explains. "We say 'and beyond' because I'm trying to start a rumor that London is the final frontier. The whole world is here, and we can openly share the Gospel. London has five airports, one of which is the largest in the world, sending and bringing people to and from every corner of the globe."
MIXING BOWL OF NATIONS How did London become a mixing bowl of nations? Large groups of south Asians and West Indians arrived from England's former colonies after World War II to rebuild the city and provide labor for its new industries. Friendly immigration policies and generous social services have attracted many more groups from far-flung places. Countless "asylum seekers" have come seeking safety, sanctuary or economic opportunities.
More recently, the European Union's open-border policies have encouraged hordes of job-seeking citizens from EU member states. "Over the years there's been a fairly relaxed view of immigration," a British Baptist pastor says. "When people are in trouble, England has been ready to receive them, so there has been a large refugee population. We have stood very much by human rights." Some Anglo Londoners love the exploding cultural diversity and see it as an exciting rebirth for the ancient city.
Some are indifferent. Others worry about the increases in crime and poverty that have come with massive immigration. They resent the pressure on England's social services -- and fear losing jobs to foreigners. Many Londoners express deep concern about homegrown Islamic terrorism, which showed itself most violently in the 2005 Underground train bombings that killed hundreds of innocents. Despite increased security measures, British authorities estimate several thousand radicals in England remain ready to carry out terror attacks and that the threat of another major attack is rising.
Others see London quickly losing whatever is left of its heritage to enforced political correctness and unchecked multiculturalism. They fear London is becoming "Londonistan" -- a shiny, Disneyesque collection of tourist attractions surrounded by separate, increasingly radicalized ethnic "no go" zones. REACHING THE CITY OF THE FUTURE The truth is more complicated and falls somewhere between the rosy and alarmist views. "This city has truth, but it has a lot of lies, too," observes Serena Bailey*, an IMB missionary on Sims' London mission team. "People are really, really confused. There's no unity."
The siege mentality even seeps into London's churches, where Christians already contend with one of the most secularized societies in Europe. While 58 percent of Londoners claimed to be "Christian" in the 2001 census, here's a more realistic estimate: 80 percent have had no personal encounter with Jesus Christ, and only a small minority follow Him as Lord. The reality is that London has changed forever. In a globalized world, former Mayor Ken Livingstone observed, "This city is the future" -- for better or worse. You can embrace it, deny it, fear it or fight it.
Sims, the IMB city strategist, embraces it. London's new reality is why God called him there. Passing through the city one day on the way home from an overseas trip, he visited a friend who lived there. "As we walked the streets of London, I bet I heard 65 languages," he recalls. "When I got back home, I was waking up at night hearing those voices and seeing those faces from all over the world. It was as if God said, 'You don't have to go to the world; the world has come to you. The world is in London and that is where I want you to be.'" Sims and his wife Sarah* followed the divine voice back to London.
Today they lead a team of missionaries dedicated to reaching the lost people of the city -- particularly members of the least-evangelized people groups with populations above 100,000. Sims believes London Christians "can once again see the great revivals and spiritual awakenings happen" -- the very awakenings that made old London a great Christian mission center and sender. "But this time the color of [the new missionaries'] skin is going to be a little darker. That is what we are discipling and training and planning for."
Their strategy: first and foremost, fervent and ongoing prayer to topple the old and new spiritual strongholds of the city -- secularism, exhausted state religious institutions, competing faiths, paganism, Satanism, New Age mysticism. Next, they're reaching into communities by making friends and meeting needs through teaching English and other services. They're working with local Christian partners such as Boyd Williams, a visionary Baptist pastor in Southall, and Mark Melluish, the evangelistic Anglican vicar of St. Paul's Church in Ealing, west London.
Melluish, in his mid-40s, belies the stereotype of the doddering vicar left behind by changing times. He grew up a typically unchurched modern Brit, but when he gave his life to Jesus as a young man, he wanted to make a difference. Arriving at St. Paul's 15 years ago, he found a dying parish of 60 people -- all over age 60. Today the church attracts more than 1,000 regulars, including hundreds of children, by proclaiming and demonstrating the saving love of Christ. How did they do it in a jumbled-up community of middle-class Anglo workers, jobless poor people, Poles, Hindus and Muslims? "We meet people of all different backgrounds and faiths,"
Melluish says. "Not only do we minister to people in poverty, we're able to reach them with a language school. We do job fairs. We help put people in jobs. We go into the schools. We even bought the coffee shop down on the high street so we've got a 'front door' to ensure people have got a way in. And it works. "[London] is a diverse community. The church has to see that and adapt to it, not be fearful of it. We've got to be all things to all people so that we might share Christ. How can we reach them? By being absolutely outrageous with the love of God, we can cross all boundaries. Get out on the street and do stuff." That's the attitude that will reach the new London and -- as new disciples of all creeds and colors there are won to Christ -- the world.
One missionary even likens the city to heaven, where, as the Book of Revelation says, members of all tribes and tongues will one day worship before the throne of God. "They're gonna be there," she says. "So living in London is a chance to practice heaven on earth." -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- *Names changed. Erich Bridges is global correspondent for the Internatinoal Mission Board. View a multimedia presentation about London here. Interested in serving in London or mobilizing your church to partner with the IMB mission team and London Baptists? Contact Brittany Conner at firstname.lastname@example.org.