The Growth of Ethnic Churches in the UK

It may appear all doom and gloom on the church horizon as we look at declining United Kingdom church attendance; however, there is one area in which this is absolutely not the case—the churches which are attended by those in “ethnic minority” groups. In whatever race or culture these growing churches occur, we, as the global body of Christ, need to come alongside the leaders and learn as much as we can from them.

Demographics of the Ethnic Churches
Non-white churches are growing and are starting new congregations in many places. And these churches are made up of peoples as diverse as can be imagined. The largest and most well known are the many so-called “Black churches” which are primarily of West Indian or West African (especially Nigeria and Ghana) origin. These are invariably charismatic churches and generally fall under the Pentecostal denomination. 

However, there are also other churches which serve particular nationalities. The Chinese and Korean churches are well established, having been in the UK for several decades. There are also others from Asia, sometimes grouped together in the Asian Christian Fellowship, which bring together those from Japan, the Philippines, Cambodia, Malaysia and other countries in Southeast Asia. These are mostly non-charismatic and are usually included in the “Protestant Overseas Nationals” churches in the “Smaller Denominations” grouping.

A number of churches serve those of Indian descent, of which the Tamil and Swahili are the largest, but including some whose nationality is predominantly Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Kenyan or Tanzanian. These too are included with the “Protestant Overseas Nationals” churches group.

In the UK there are a number of Lutheran churches serving those who come here, usually from other European countries. Here, the Scandinavian countries are especially strong. Lutheran churches are also part of the “Smaller Denominations” category.

Orthodox churches are also well represented in the UK; the Greek Orthodox Church is by far the largest. It is six times the size of all the others combined. The smaller Orthodox churches include the Antiochan, Armenian, Assyrian, Bulgarian, Byelorussian, Coptic, Eritrean, Ethiopian, Latvian, Romanian, Russian Orthodox (in two groups, inside and outside Russia), the Serbian, Syrian and Ukrainian, as well as the British Orthodox. The majority of these clearly serve nationalities other than British, even though many British people attend the “foreign” Orthodox services and enjoy doing so.

Catholic churches serve their overseas nationals living in the UK. The Croatian, German, Hungarian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Slovenian and Ukrainian Catholic churches exist in the UK, and are growing. For example, seven new Croatian Catholic churches have started in England in the last five years.

Other groups, where non-white people are in the majority, are not easily separated. The Seventh-Day Adventists, for example, have a significant proportion of their attenders who are black. Whereas this group is growing, their white congregations are declining.

The common feature of all these groups (with the exception of the Lutherans) is that their Sunday attendance is growing. Another feature is that many of their services will be in their mother tongue, which is not English.


Ethnic Mix in Congregations
In 1998 roughly fifty-nine percent of all churches were entirely composed of white people (some of whom nevertheless would be of non-British nationality, such as the Polish or Irish) and three percent of churches were entirely composed of black people. Of the remaining thirty-eight percent, thirty-one percent of the congregations had an ethnic mix of between one percent and twenty percent (in practice mostly between one percent and five percent), while seven percent had an ethnic mix between twenty-one percent and ninety-nine percent. In practice, as the pie chart shows, the majority of churches are either all white or are less than twenty percent mixed. The number of congregations with a good mix of nationalities is actually very small.

Ethnic Growth
Collectively between 1998 and 2005 the various non-white ethnic churches listed above saw their congregations grow by forty percent in their numbers coming each Sunday, a huge increase against the general decline of many white-only churches. If these congregations are growing, how much have they grown and why? The bar chart below indicates their growth insofar as separate groups or denominations can be isolated and their Sunday attendance figures known. The chart indicates that most have been growing for years, so this growth is not something new. It also shows the huge dominance of the “Other African” or “West Indian” churches.


This growth can be traced to a variety of factors. Below are five.

1. Since the mid-1990s especially, many immigrants have come to the UK, some as refugees or asylum seekers. They have added one million to the English population in seven years. Some of these come from Christian countries and wish to attend church. Many form a church related to their homeland.

2. Many of these groups had a culture of Sunday church attendance at home and naturally expected to do the same in their new land. In 1998, for example, twenty-seven percent of the black population of inner London went to church every Sunday. Their numbers are higher partly because their consistency in attendance is greater than those who are native to England.

3. Most of these denominations are evangelical and are actively seeking to evangelise both their own people (especially the Chinese and Koreans) as well as those of other nationalities. There is an atmosphere of enthusiasm and commitment in many of these congregations.

4. Some have grown because other members of their families have joined them from their home country.  However, especially among those who have been in the UK for many years, these are the groups which tend to have more children than the average white British household – and they expect their children to go to church with them.

5. The preaching of many of their pastors is urgent, powerful and relevant. The largest of these churches, such as that headed up by the Nigerian Matthew Ashimolowo at the Kingsway International Christian Centre, attracts up to ten thousand people every Sunday. Those attending find Ashimolowo explains the Bible “so that I know how to live my Christian life.”

All of these reasons are important, and some could well be imitated by the white congregations who find growth so difficult. There is, however, another factor which is partly behind the burgeoning numbers of these churches. These numbers are difficult to break down into individual denominations because many of these churches are denominations of just one or a small handful of churches. Some have been established in England as missionary outposts of large denominations in Nigeria or Ghana where the expectation is for several congregations to form, even though at the present time they are just the one group.

May this enthusiasm to evangelise not only the UK, but other countries as well, spread throughout all churches, regardless of their ethnicity.

Dr. Peter Brierley, a church consultant, is the Senior Lausanne Associate for Church Research. He attended Lausanne I in 1974 and has been involved with the Lausanne movement since 1984. He is former executive director of Christian Research, a UK charity which produces resource volumes like Religious Trends and the UK Christian Handbook. Brierley can be reached at [email protected].