I was recently in my hometown of Luton, England. When I moved away in the 1980s the population was around 170,000 and there were by my count 70 churches in the town. Today the population is close to 210,000 and according to a pastor who has served in Luton for more than thirty years, there are over 120 congregations.
The ethnic mix of Luton has continued to expand. I grew up in close proximity to an area where many immigrants from the Caribbean and South Asia had settled. Today those communities have been augmented by migrants of African, Middle Eastern, Chinese, Latin and Eastern European origins. Accordingly the church has taken on an ethnic diversity. Local congregations catering to Nigerian, Brazilian and Chinese can easily be identified and the Caribbean Church of God in Christ has its national headquarters in the town, located in a converted cinema, where I remember seeing the Sound of Music as a child.
During my visit I experienced three distinctly different congregations. My observations prompted thoughts about what the local church as a community is really supposed to be.
The first church experience was the congregation in which I grew up. A suburban Methodist church, which at one time was the largest congregation of its denomination in town, has sadly become a shadow of its earlier life. The congregation is mostly elderly and because of financial and building maintenance considerations is considering merging with the local Baptists. A changing demographic in a neighborhood now inhabited by many of Muslim and Hindu traditions, and an inertia of worshipping tradition have combined to inhibit growth. The service included the participation of the local Baptists for the week of prayer for Christian Unity and was what I grew up calling a hymn sandwich. Individual hymns, accompanied by piano because the organ had broken that morning, wrapped themselves around prayers, readings and a sermon.
The second experience was of a Ghanaian Pentecostal congregation who use the sanctuary of the Methodist church for an afternoon worship service. Lively, upbeat music and a strident preaching style engaged a congregation that was larger than the morning’s Methodist gathering. Although the singing was in English, it was noticeable that some of the members spoke to each other in an African language. A large bus with the church’s name was parked outside and the vehicles in the parking lot suggested a certain affluence among the worshippers.
The last experience was a gathering of thirty-somethings, exclusively Caucasian and clearly experimenting with what Church could look like in an endeavor to engage a post-Christian younger generation. City Life was founded eight years ago by a group of Cambridge graduates who moved to Luton with the express intent of starting a ministry to the young adult community. While manifesting the main ingredients of the church experience the form would have been fairly unrecognizable to the member of the traditional Methodist Church, and probably to the Ghanaian worshippers as well. The meeting took place in a Jazz club, with attendees gathered at tables to share a brunch together. A group activity and some announcements opened the proceedings, after which a member of the team gave an exposition on a passage from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. An opportunity for written prayers to then be collected and read out was followed by worship songs to a solitary guitar accompaniment. The breaking of bread together at each table concluded the meeting. Worship, the Word, Witness and Fellowship were all in evidence.
Throughout this latter experience I felt there was a conscious endeavor to make the experience understandable to any visitors who might have no prior experience of church. An unbeliever could find understandable reason for the activities.
This community has also put their expression of faith into action in the wider community as they participate in practical ministry to people of the street, and engage the political scene.
Each of these experiences was extremely different and yet they are all expressions of the same community of faith. For me it was not the worshipping tradition that differentiated so much as the demographic. Denominational and theological affiliations were far less noticeable than age and ethnicity. It has been said in America that the Sunday hour is the most segregated of the week as black and white, and now, with recent migration, Hispanic, gather separately to worship. In Luton’s case it was a defined experience of age groups and of ethnic communities.
Yet we are all called to one body in Christ. In the words of the revised Nicene creed of the year 381: We believe in one, holy, catholic (universal), and apostolic Church. So, how do we express worshipping community in a way that perpetuates and makes itself meaningful to a changing society? How does a congregation become consistently renewed in being salt and light to the dying world around itself? Is the Methodist congregation, now seventy-eight years old, destined to die with those in their eighties who were members of the first Sunday School classes? How does the vibrant life of the African congregation make room for the uninitiate of another culture? And how will a meeting of former college students and now thirty-somethings adapt to accommodate the children already being born into their midst?
May God continue to bless and grow his people in a multitude of creative ways across the town of Luton.