The Ethnicity of English Churchgoers

It is common knowledge that the black churches in the United Kingdom are exploding; this article looks at how the ethnic churches collectively have grown over the last few years.

An appropriate description has proved difficult to find; strictly speaking, “ethnic churches” should be “ethnic minority churches”; however, this has a negative connotation, so the word “minority” is usually omitted. In fact, white people are also part of the ethnic mix in the UK. Notwithstanding though, the phrase “ethnic churches” has come to describe the non-white churches, whether these are from Asia, India, Africa, the Caribbean, South America, or elsewhere. Some, like the Poles and Croatians, for example, are ethnically white, so that “ethnic churches” is more correctly a descriptive of the non-natural British or Irish churches, the large majority of which is concentrated in England as far as the UK is concerned, and in London as far as England is concerned.

Not all those who attend the ethnic churches are immigrants, although part of the explosive attendance figures has come from the huge surge in immigrants into the UK over the past decade, which partly explains why so many ethnic churches are in London, the hub of arrivals from overseas. The black people (which includes those from Africa, the Caribbean, and mixed) have been present in substantial numbers for the last fifty years, and started their own churches when they failed to receive a warm or enthusiastic welcome from some of the white churches. In addition, there was the pull of being able to worship in ways appropriate to their culture, with other members of their own culture and in the language of their own culture. Now, black church attendance is swelling not only through further immigration, but naturally through the inclusion of British-born children and grandchildren.

Today, one person in six (seventeen percent) who goes to church in England is non-white. This is up from twelve percent in 1998. Black church people make up ten percent of this and other ethnic groups the remaining seven percent. This also compares with twelve percent of the general population who are in these ethnic groups, which means that pro rata more ethnic churchgoers go to church than white people—nine percent compared with six percent, half as much again, giving an average overall percentage of 6.3%.

Congregational Ethnic Mix
The initial lack of enthusiasm of white people toward blacks in their churches has largely disappeared, so that while the talk may be about ethnic churches, the actual ethnic churches account for less than half of all ethnic churchgoers. The actual numbers in 2005 were:

Total attendance at ethnic churches  220,000 
Non-white churchgoers at other churches  310,000 
White churchgoers  2,640,000 
TOTAL churchgoers  3,170,000 

This means that there are many churches where the ethnicity of the congregation is mixed. The pie-chart illustrates the proportions.

The large majority of “white only” congregations are in the rural areas of typical English villages, where few non-white people live. The three percent which are totally non-white include Chinese and Korean churches, for example, which are wholly attended by those from these countries. However, increasingly in recent years, growth has come from other ethnic groups also, such as the increasing number of Indian Tamil churches, or the white European churches such as the Portuguese, Spanish, Polish, Hungarian, Ukrainian, German, Estonian, Lithuanian, Swedish, Swiss, and other nationalities, many of which have started because of the increasing number of immigrants from such countries.

If you were a Croatian having to struggle with speaking English from Monday to Saturday, you would welcome going to a Croatian-speaking church on Sunday, not only to speak your own language, but to meet with your own countrymen and women. In fact, seven Croatian churches have started in the last five years. Part of the ethnic church growth therefore has come from a natural expression of cultural identity among our immigrants, an opportunity for outreach among their own countrymen and women in perhaps more favourable circumstances than in their own countries.

Where Are These Churches Located?
Of the half million ethnic churchgoers, sixty-eight percent are located in London, which, while a high percentage, is much lower than it was. In 1998, eighty-six percent of the 440,000 ethnic churchgoers were in London. This illustrates the fact that ethnic churchgoers, and indeed the ethnic mix of our population generally, has spread outside of London over the last few years. Most nationalities are still concentrated in urban areas although the Chinese are much more widely spread than others.

Below are the counties where the proportion of ethnic churchgoers is high:

Greater London  31% 
Bedfordshire, where the Italians are especially strong  31% 
the West Midlands around Birmingham  24% 
Buckinghamshire  18% 
Nottinghamshire  18% 
Leicestershire  17% 
East Sussex  15% 
Greater Manchester  15% 

The Actual Ethnic Mix
The 2005 English Church Census used the same groups as the government used in the 1991 Population Census to allow for comparisons with the figures obtained in 1998. This meant a breakdown of the ethnic churchgoing figures as shown in the table below.

Church attendance by ethnicity, 1998 and 2005

Ethnic group  1998  Change  2005 

Percentage of total 

1998        2005
%             %

National percentage

1998         2005 
%              %

White 3,274,600  -19% 2,640,600  88.1         83.4  93.8          88.3 
Black  268,000  +23%  331,400  7.2           10.4  1.9            3.8
Indian 54,300  +9%  59,400  1.5             1.9  3.0            6.0 
Chinese   54,700  +3%  56,400 1.5             1.8  0.3            0.8 
Other Asian  36,300  +24%  45,000  1.0             1.4  0.4            1.3 
Other Non-white  26,200  +27%  33,400  0.7             1.1  0.6            1.0 
Total  3,714,700  -15%  3,166,200  100.0        100.0  47 mil.       50 mil. 
Total Non-white  440,100  +19%  525,600  11.9          16.6  6.2            11.7

In this table, “Black” includes African and Caribbean and mixed, “Indian” includes those from Pakistan and Bangladesh, “Chinese” includes Japanese and Korean, “Other Asian” includes Filipinos and Singaporeans, and “Other Non-white” includes those from South American countries.

The comparison with the national percentages shows that the proportion of Indian churchgoers is much less than the numbers in the country, reflecting the fact that many who come from Pakistan and Bangladesh will be Muslims, not Christians.

Black Churchgoers
One very striking statistic in the table is the percentage of black churchgoers (10.4% of all churchgoers); however, black people are only 3.8% of the population. That means that seventeen percent of black people attend church, three times the percentage of white people.

The largest church in the UK is the Nigerian-based Kingsway International Christian Centre at Hackney, led by Pastor Matthew Ashimolowo, with some twelve thousand people attending every Sunday. Three other especially large black congregations in London in 2005 were Ruach Ministries in Brixton (four thousand attendees), House of Praise in Woolwich (2,500 attendees), and Jesus House for All Nations in Brent (2,200 attendees). The wife of the Pastor Agu Irukwu of Jesus House died in May 2007. She was only in her early forties. Twelve thousand people came to her memorial service—such is the strength of the black Christian community.

It may also be seen in the table that while all the ethnic churches have seen growth, the black churches has been particularly strong, even if in percentage terms it has been surpassed by the Other Asians and Other Non-whites. That growth has been seen especially in Inner London where sixty-five percent of all Pentecostal churches (which include the black charismatic churches) are located. Such is their strength that over half (fifty-three percent) of all Pentecostal churchgoers attend a London church! It is therefore especially appropriate that Easter People’s move to become “Pentecost” should be launched in London on Pentecost Sunday 2008.

Why Do the Black Churches Grow?
Many have asked the reasons for this growth. Jonathan Oloyede, one of the senior pastors of Glory House, a multi-cultural church in East London, gave these reasons why Black Majority Churches (BMCs) grow in an article in the October 2005 issue of Christianity:

  • The church is the hub for community life.

  • Many black churches have a cosmopolitan outlook, not a parish mentality.

  • Black communities are very communal with a culture of visiting, socialising, and regular personal interaction.

  • Black churches are very evangelistic and outreach driven.

  • The principle of tithe-giving helps financial buoyancy and independence.

  • Bible-based sermons are relevant to the congregation.

  • Services are vibrant, musical, and worshipful.

  • Many black believers testify to experiencing healings and miracles.

  • Many BMCs have a home cell network, which facilitates strong pastoral care.

  • Sunday schools are usually a norm and part of weekly worship.

  • The dynamics of many BMCs facilitate lay leaders’ training.

  • Various departments and programmes allow large volunteer participation.

  • Prayer is the key focus in many BMCs.

  • BMCs lay good emphasis on business and career prospects.

  • BMCs have a culture of great respect and reverence for the clergy.

  • Many BMCs have youth clubs/activities that retain young people within the church community.

Perhaps if these factors were part of the essence of white churches, similar growth would be experienced.

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].