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One body, many members: encouraging a multicultural congregation

07 July 2023

Many churches struggle to reflect the ethnic make-up of their area. David Wise describes how his congregation changed over time


AMRITHWANI Teri, Amrithwani Teri” comes the sung call from the worship leader seated on the floor. “Amrithwani Teri, Amrithwani Teri” comes the reply from the congregation, many of whom are also sitting on the floor. In the background, the drone of a tanpura can be heard above the sound of the tabla drum.

We are at a Sunday-morning service, but all is not as you might picture it. We are not in India, or in an Asian congregation elsewhere, but in a West London Baptist church; the tanpura drone is coming from a mobile-phone app, and, although there are about 20 Asians in the congregation, most of the adult worshippers are of African or Caribbean descent.

I was pastor at Greenford Baptist Church (GBC), in west London, from October 1987 until August 2019. During this time, the church transitioned from being a white British congregation, which did not reflect the ethnic make-up of the surrounding community, to being a church regularly attended by local people from approximately 45 nationalities.

The Revd Dr David Wise

When I started ministry at GBC, it was my intention to foster the creation of a welcoming and vibrant church community. In the early years, I did not set out to create an inter-ethnic one, but that was soon to change.

In 1987, there were a few Caribbean teenagers in the congregation, having been converted through the Boys’ or Girls’ Brigade. In 1988, an Indian family who had not felt welcome in another church transferred to us, and a few Caribbean adults invited by the Caribbean teenagers started attending. In 1989, three Hong Kong Chinese adults joined us, two having been converted from Buddhism. The steady trickle of new Caribbean adults joining continued.

In mid-1989, I started a leadership training programme that ran for 25 years. The church leadership in 1989 was mostly over the age of 50 and female. With their support, I set out to train young men for church leadership; women and older people were part of subsequent leadership-training cohorts.

The first group consisted of five young men, four of whom were black. Two years later, three of the group were appointed to the church leadership, one became a main worship leader, and the fifth held a couple of informal positions. I did not realise at the time how adding three young black men into the church leadership, together with a newly appointed black female, would make such a significant impact on the inter-ethnic development of the church.

In 1991, the first African family settled with us, having recently moved to the UK. In the course of routine pastoral visits that year, I became aware that black church members were experiencing racism, both inside the church and in the wider community. (In church, a black church member, when attending her nearest home group, was told that she did not belong there, and the first time a black African led prayer in the Sunday-morning service, a church member phoned me in the afternoon to complain.)

This realisation led to a programme of education for me, which involved academic study, including an MA; engaging in deep listening and learning from members of the congregation; visiting overseas contexts; and giving and receiving hospitality. GBC leaders also set out to educate all church members, using material such as that produced for Racial Justice Sunday and preaching about how all people are equally made in the image of God, besides running workshops and seminars to help people understand different cultural values and approaches.

The horrific reality of racism as sin was brought home to GBC in December 1998. After a sustained campaign of racial harassment, an Asian family, who were church members, suffered a violent assault in their home in the middle of the night. Three of the family members were admitted to hospital with serious injuries.

The lack of protection for the family from the police and local authority, along with the failure of the police to investigate the assault, led to GBC’s becoming involved in a two-year campaign, not only for justice for the family, but to address systemic racism in societal structures.


INTENTIONALITY in the development of an inter-ethnic community began in the early 1990s, therefore. And, by the late 1990s, there was a generally accepted sense in the church that we were called by God to demonstrate ethnic unity in diversity.

In 2021, I completed a doctoral programme examining this transition; 47 church members participated in the research. Key components that they identified as being significant for their feeling fully welcome at GBC included: the way in which the use of their first language was welcome in congregational gatherings; the way in which they were encouraged to engage in congregational worship, using their whole body, not just their voice; and the sharing of food, dress, art, and other aspects of their culture of origin.

Research participants experienced GBC as a place where they were welcomed, and not just with a superficial initial greeting, but where they were treated as equals. It was a place where they flourished through being able to grow and use their talents, and a space where they received training and opportunities for ministry and leadership.

Many of those who arrived at GBC were migrants who had recently arrived in the UK and had no existing friends or relatives here. They arrived as “strangers”, but found welcome, acceptance, friendship, and support — which, in turn, they gave to others. How did we do that?


De-centring whiteness

WE ALL use metaphors to describe the Church. For obvious reasons, popular ones are “body” or “bride of Christ”. GBC used “tapestry” as a key metaphor for the congregation for more than 25 years. It originates from Colossians 2.2: “I want you to be woven into a tapestry of love” (The Message).

A piece of artwork from Greenwich Baptist Church features the name of God in the first language of each person who made a tile

White British people tend to make often unconscious judgements concerning others, based on an intrinsic belief in the superiority of white British values or ways of doing things. One of the most significant features of this metaphor is that, in a tapestry, the picture is revealed only by the distinctiveness of the threads. These distinctives arise from the different ethnicities and cultures represented in the congregation.

In a tapestry, the colour that there is most of (usually the background colour) is also the least significant. Colours that stand out, because they occur only occasionally, often indicate the most significant detail. This means that cultures or ethnicities that there are least of in the congregation can be the most significant.

An implication of this was that we tried to ensure that the cultural uniqueness of each ethnicity was expressed, so that all could be enriched. We had to learn to allow ourselves to be changed by perspectives from different ethnicities.

Always guiding us was Revelation 7.9-12: an image of heaven, our destiny. It seems from this image that distinctiveness of ethnicity — both in physical appearance and language — is something that lasts into heaven. There is something about our joining together as one, but with our differing ethnicities, that is reflective of the nature of God.

In 2003, we appointed a part-time prayer co-ordinator and worship facilitator. This was a key development in the process of facilitating changes to worship (sung, spoken, dance, and visual arts). Among the responsibilities was “to integrate and develop multicultural prayer and worship”. This ministry was the main driver for prayer, sung worship, and artwork displayed in the GBC building which intentionally drew on, and engaged with, creative material and practices from other cultures.


Hospitality and vulnerability

FROM Genesis to Revelation, it is clear that prioritising giving and receiving hospitality and welcome, and allowing yourself to be welcomed by others, especially strangers, is a Christian calling. Research participants reported that having their own food eaten and enjoyed by others, and eating and enjoying unfamiliar food prepared by others, was a significant component in the building of relationships.

Being vulnerable to the challenges and insights coming from people from other ethnicities is vital. The practice of not privileging our own views, but being open to the views of others, was a key component in the development of the genuinely inter-ethnic life of GBC, and is crucial to enabling any congregation to embrace one another.

The intentional setting aside of a Euro-centric approach to biblical interpretation was also a key part of expressing our willingness to be vulnerable in relation to one another, by enabling the congregation to hear and positively engage with theological, ethical, and cultural perspectives arising from outside Europe and North America (my MA in Biblical Interpretation gave tools for changing my own approach to preaching; we facilitated preaching from church members from non-European cultures, and also invited occasional outside speakers from non-European traditions to preach).


Structures and leadership that serve

THERE were many ways in which Sunday gatherings changed to incorporate practices that were important to people who had been born outside Europe.

Some of the ingredients included the incorporation of songs and prayer in languages other than English; dance within worship; and creating space for people to pass on their testimonies.

The Sunday-morning service was also extended to provide time in the middle, after our initial worship, for “connection time”, when people had refreshments and were encouraged to talk to one another. Time spent in age-specific groups for interactive Bible teaching followed.

That connection time was an intentional part of our service, instead of an optional extra at the end. In addition, regular social events, times to eat together after the meeting, and church weekends created opportunities for friendships to develop outside people’s own ethnic groups.

Creating training structures to enable people to discover and use their gifts in the church (as mentioned above) was another crucial component.

It is important to note that leadership at GBC was always by a team, which brought together people with different perspectives and different gifts. GBC’s leadership-team vision, however, also acknowledged that we are all on a journey of learning in our faith: “The aim of the leadership is to serve GBC by seeing her discipled for the work of Christian service, to be built up until we all come together to unity in our faith . . .” (Ephesians 4.12-13).

As part of building each other up in unity, it was important that all the leadership-team members should engage in their own learning. This included reading, attending conferences and courses, visiting overseas contexts, and giving and receiving hospitality.


BEING the senior pastor at GBC meant that I was the focus for the inevitable tensions that arose as the congregation continually changed. At times, this was very unpleasant. There were quite a few over the years — black, brown, and white — who simply could not accept or cope with the embracing of difference. It also became a part of my ministry to try to help these people to leave well.

On the other hand, being the senior pastor meant that I often had insight into the wonderful positive outcomes in people’s lives from their engagement with the church. In addition to the obvious enrichment of people’s lives from their experience of other cultures, from their development of intercultural friendships and experience of amazing food, there were unexpected outcomes: for example, quite a few adults talked to me about how their experience at GBC had helped them with promotion in their work, because of the ability that they had developed to navigate and thrive in intercultural spaces.

Third-culture young people (those growing up in the UK with parents born in other countries) were effusive about how, in their view, they had advantages over their peers because of their experience of growing up in a safe intercultural space, with all the experiences that that had given them — in particular, the consistent experience of being fully accepted and welcomed with their cultural difference. GBC was, for some, the only context where they experienced this.

In changing our church culture, there were times when we experienced opposition and disappointment, and there were initiatives that did not work out. There were also many times, however, when we felt that we were experiencing a taste of heaven. Inter-ethnic church is our destiny. I encourage you to embrace it here on earth, as you will live it in heaven.


The Revd Dr David Wise is an accredited Baptist minister who served for 37 years in local church ministry. Today, he is a professional mentor and coach for Christian leaders and a speaker in local-church and conference contexts. davidmentor2023@outlook.com

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