Black worshippers keep the faith

London, England - Visit certain areas of London on a Sunday morning and chances are you'll see a stream of well-dressed families en route to church. It's likely more than half will be from ethnic minorities.

People of African and Caribbean origin make up 2% of the UK's population but account for more than two-thirds of Sunday church-goers in London and 7% of worshippers nationwide, research has shown.

Many go to black-led churches such as Glory House in east London which regularly attracts 600 people to its Sunday service with half that number also attending the mid-week evening service.

Set up by Nigerian immigrants in 1992 with just 45 members, Glory House now has a membership of 3,000 and is one of a new breed of churches principally serving the UK's African and Caribbean communities.

One of Glory House's founders, pastor Jonathan Oloyede, says the UK's rapidly-growing African communities are contributing to the growth of black-led churches.

Like the Caribbean immigrants of the 1950s and 1960s, the more recent African arrivals also bring with them a deep-rooted church culture, the pastor says.

"Christianity in Africa is big in terms of lots of people going to church. Another factor is we have a strong, very vibrant ministry that is an outreach to the family and young families, so church is not just something you attend, it's part of your life."


New figures from the Christian Research Association show that over the last five years black church membership has grown by around 18% compared with a 5% drop for churches nationally.

The editor of the research Peter Brierley says along with black-led churches, Pentecostalism - where more than a third of worshippers in the UK are black - is one of the few Christian growth groups.

"Across the UK more churches are closing more than they're opening. The growth rate we are seeing in the UK largely comes from the ethnic minority groups," Mr Brierley said.

Black majority churches are not only successful at attracting worshippers, many are hugely financially successful too, in stark comparison to many of the UK's traditional churches.

Glory House church had a turnover of nearly £1.5m last year much of it in the form of tithes - donations by members of around 10% of their income.

But the success of black-led churches is not an even picture, according to Bishop Joe Aldred, black church spokesman for Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.

Newer churches are prospering, he says, but some of those started by Caribbean immigrants in the 1950s and 1960s face decline.

And he points out most black people in the UK attend mainstream churches with many in urban areas having a majority of ethnic minority parishioners.

"The church where I am pastor in Birmingham, if you go back 25 years was overwhelmingly a white Baptist church. Fast forward to today and 98% of its members are black.

"There is some evidence of racism in all denominations, the Americans call it 'white flight' - as the blacks move in, the whites move out," Dr Aldred says.

'Significant contribution'

But in spite of their successes black-led churches often find themselves the subject of a disproportionate number of negative stories in the media, says Dr Robert Beckford who lectures on diasporan religions and cultures at the University of Birmingham.

"It's rare that you find an unbiased analysis of black life in general and black church life in particular.

"Scandals within the Catholic church or within Anglicanism never get the same kind of negative reaction that a black case will, even if it's an isolated one," Dr Beckford says.

That's a view shared by Katei Kirby of the African Caribbean Evangelical Alliance, which speaks on behalf of many of the UK's black churches. She points to a spate of stories which she says wrongly linked black churches with high-profile child abuse and witchcraft cases.

"The phone calls we had from some journalists were making unexplainable links between Christianity, witchcraft and black culture.

"What we've been desperately trying to do is make people understand that Africans in Britain, Caribbeans in Britain whether they go to a black-led church or not are making a significant contribution to society.

"Those things don't make the headlines because they don't sell papers or increase viewing," Ms Kirby says.

However, Jonathan Oloyede of Glory House thinks the black churches will eventually find mainstream acceptance.

"I think we're still budding, still blossoming, still maturing. In the coming years many of the black churches are going to start integrating with mainstream society but for now there is still misunderstanding and misinformation about black-led churches," he says.