LONDON (BP) — On a crisp October day the crowd in London’s Trafalgar Square 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, a British capital that 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.”
With a population of about 14 million in 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. Guardian newspaper reporter Leo Benedictus writes that “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,” he said.
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.
— 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.”
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 and his wife Sarah* embraces it. They are 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.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — * denotes names that have been changed. You can view a multimedia presentation about London at this web site.)