LONDON — In the church-like quiet of the great hall, worshippers gather to meditate, some with heads bowed as they listen to the recitation of scriptures.
Men and women sit cross-legged on the carpet, their feet carefully pointing away from the front where worship is being led.
The hall isn’t one of the traditional Church of England buildings that rise in sturdy stone or brick structures throughout London. One of those — St. John’s Church, built in 1839 — is just across the road.
This 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. There are half a dozen more gurdwaras in the Southall area alone. This area is known as Little India with its concentration of South Asians.
And South Asians are only one of many nationalities on the streets here. And whether they are recent immigrants or second- and third-generation British, they live in a city with a fading imprint of its rich Christian heritage.
Never mind that it once was the city of such heroes of the faith as John Wesley, John Newton, Charles Spurgeon and many, many more. Like the rest of Western Europe, London is a postmodern missions field.
Across London, churches — some architectural gems — are often appreciated more for their historical significance than their current day relevance.And Sikhs — as well as Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims that make up significant portions of the city’s population — won’t necessarily find evangelical Christians in their daily walk to the tube station or bus stop.
Christian charity Tearfund published research in 2007 that found only one in 10 people in the UK attends church on a weekly basis, though 53 percent of the British population identify themselves as Christian.
The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity puts that number lower, reporting church attendance at about 6.3 percent attending monthly. The consensus between both reports is that church attendance is steadily declining from decade to decade.
The Tearfund report said that 39 percent “have no religion,” and two thirds of adults have no connections with church or religion. The report identifies 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 are 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 become involved in church. Graham Cray now leads the initiative, which “encourages new forms of church for a fast-changing world.” It works with Christians from a variety of traditions.
A Church of England report details the issues that British society faces, with the dramatic cultural changes of the past 30 years. It emphasizes that there is need for churches that relate to this changing context.
“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. At the core is the vision to plant new churches.
“Some fresh expressions are very different from church as we are used to it in the UK,” Cray says. “The aim is to plant church into the communities to which people actually belong.”
In the most recent census in 2001, the Office for National Statistics included a question on religion for the first time and pinpointed its findings by geographic areas. It showed that minority religions were concentrated in London more than in any other part of the UK 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 UK, and 39 percent of London’s Muslims were born in the UK. 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 the missions field that it is. It is representative of the bigger reality that more than 50 percent of the world’s population now lives in urban centers like London.
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, who lived in London with her family in the mid-90s, is a writer for Woman’s Missionary Union. To download a copy of the WMU International Mission Study on London in which this article appears, visit http://www.newsfromeurasia.com/?p=629.