Many religions call London home

Baptist Press
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Posted: Jul 27, 2012 4:52 PM
Many religions call London home
EDITOR'S NOTE: Baptist Press' London bureau, in tandem with Tim Ellsworth, editor of BP Sports and director of news and media relations at Union University, will be providing coverage of London Olympics. Baptist Press will publish features about Christian athletes in the Olympics, recap results of their competition and cover Baptist initiatives to share the Gospel during the Summer Games and among Londoners' rich cultural milieu.

LONDON (BP) -- In the church-like quiet of the great hall, worshipers meditate, heads bowed and listening to scripture.

Men and women sit cross-legged on the carpet, their feet carefully pointed away from the front where worship is being led.

The hall isn't one of the traditional Church of England buildings made of sturdy stone or brick. One of those -- St. John's Church built in 1839 -- is just across the road.

This hall is a gurdwara, a Sikh temple. Sri Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara is the largest in Europe, located near a busy intersection in London's Southall area. Half a dozen more gurdwaras are in Southall alone. The area's concentration of South Asians has given it the nickname Little India, one of many nationalities here. Whether recent immigrants or second- and third-generation British, they live in a city with a fading imprint of its rich Christian heritage.

Once the city of such heroes of the faith as John Wesley, John Newton and Charles Spurgeon, London, like the rest of Western Europe, is a postmodern mission field.

Churches in London, some of them architectural gems, are often appreciated more for historical significance than current relevance.

The many Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims here won't necessarily see evangelical Christians in their daily walks to the tube station or bus stop.

Just 10 percent of people in the U.K. attend church on a weekly basis, though 53 percent identify themselves as Christian, according to 2007 research by the Christian charity Tearfund.

The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity puts church attendance lower, at about 6.3 percent. Church attendance is steadily declining each decade, both reports indicate.

A full 39 percent "have no religion," and two thirds of adults have no connections with church or religion, reports Tearfund, identifying one third of the adult population as having no church background.

"They have never attended church apart from baptisms, weddings and funerals. This proportion is higher among younger people and is rising steadily over time," wrote Steven Croft in the report's introduction.

But the Tearfund report also noted that "one in every 17 adults open to churchgoing, if only churches reach out to them."

Croft, now Bishop of Sheffield for the Church of England, was at that time leader of the Fresh Expressions initiative, an Anglican and Methodist project to explore new ways of attracting people to church. Graham Cray now leads the initiative, which "encourages new forms of church for a fast-changing world" and works with Christians from a variety of traditions.

A Church of England report details 30 years of dramatic culture changes within British society and the need for churches to relate to the new environment.

"This movement assumes that the church is shaped by both the Gospel and the culture it is trying to reach. It is not meant to be conformed to the culture, but it is meant to be appropriate for reaching and transforming a culture," writes Cray on the Fresh Expressions website, freshexpressions.org.UK. The intent is to plant new churches within communities where various ethnicities live.

In the 2001 census, the Office for National Statistics included for the first time a question on religion. Responses revealed that minority religions were concentrated in London more than in any other part of the country. and that Muslims were the largest of the non-Christian religious groups here.

Muslims also have the youngest age profile of all the religious groups in the U.K., and 39 percent of London's Muslims were born in the country. Jewish and Christian populations have the oldest age profiles with one in five aged 65 or over.

It's this convergence of cultures, peoples and religions that make London a prime mission field and representative of the bigger reality that more than 50 percent of the world's population live in such urban centers.

To reach the unreached in the city, Croft said we must do "as Jesus did."

It's about "going to where people are, listening to their culture, offering loving service, forming new communities, making disciples and beginning church in a different way," he explained. "There is much encouragement in these new beginnings but also much to learn and a great challenge before us."

Elaine Gaston is a writer for the Woman's Missionary Union and a former Londoner. To download a copy of the WMU International Mission Study on London in which this article appears, visit http://www.newsfromeurasia.com/?p=629. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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