As black majority churches in the UK buck the trend of growing irreligiosity, what can nonreligious communities learn?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

OnlySky recently reported on census data suggesting that religion is declining in the UK. But such trends are rarely uniform across different demographic categories—and in this case, as The Guardian has reported, the decline is less prevalent in Black populations, with churches that have African and Caribbean roots particularly thriving.

This news bucks the general trend of churches closing in huge numbers. Indeed, the more deprived an area, the quicker churches are closing. Although varying analyses produce different results, it seems that around 2,000 UK churches have closed in the last decade.

As The Guardian states:

In the midst of decline, however, a religious success story is changing the shape and enriching the texture of British Christianity. To a remarkable degree, black majority churches (BMCs) are a countercultural growth industry in a country which is perhaps less secular than it believes itself to be. Research suggests that the rise in non-white church attendance in recent decades may more or less match the drop-off in white churchgoers.

Black majority churches (BMCs) don’t fit into the traditional Church of England variety of building, congregation, or service. They are often Pentecostal, though also with historical or cultural ties to the Anglican, Baptist, or Methodist traditions.

These churches aren’t set up in antiquated or quaint buildings that one might associate with English churches; often, in “London and Britain’s other major cities, former bingo halls, warehouses and shops have been transformed into places of worship, channelling the evangelical intensity of African and Caribbean Christianity.”

To add a personal anecdote, one of my friends attends a church in a town near me on the South Coast of the UK. Unlike larger towns and cities further north, the town is known neither for its multiculturalism nor for widespread immigration. My friend described her church declining in adherents until a recent uptick in members of African and Caribbean heritage.

As a result, the dynamics of the services (which take place in a secondary school building), as much as the congregation, have changed. Services have become more upbeat, moving away from a traditionally-staid Church of England-type demeanor to more of a celebration. This has reinvigorated her own faith and desire to attend church.

Perhaps due to the history of such churches, these are often hubs of community. After waves of postwar immigration changed the demographics of many British cities, such churches were a way to congregate about a sense of identity and culture, pushing back against the hostility that so often met the church members. As well as the religious function that such churches provided, they “offered a safe haven, advice and economic assistance to communities forced to contend with pervasive racism.”

While BMCs might be bucking the trend, it does seem like the trend of religious decline will be a difficult one for religious organizations to buck. But there is something to be said for what these churches provide: the nurturing of a sense of identity and community. It is this that has arguably been lacking in secular circles, amid a growing irreligiosity. While Sunday Assembly saw notable PR around its inception, I wonder if there is still a lack of community activity in the secular world. There is surely a place for community hubs that allow for people to coalesce around humanist ideals.

Now, before the letter bag is filled with complaints from those who rightfully point out that there are many organizations that do succeed in providing for this need, just compare the number of churches, mosques, and synagogues in your town, city, or country to the number of humanist (or similar) meeting places.

Of course, groups and organizations like Skeptics in the Pub or Café Scientifique do a great job of fulfilling some of these needs. Part of the problem is arguably the growth of religious apathy, which appears to be more prevalent than growth in a more positive manifestation of a lack of religion: humanism.

These issues might be compounded, or even solved, by an obvious technological advancement that means we can tend to our social needs without leaving the house. It may be that community can be something to find online rather than in any particular building.

Yet it would be nigh on impossible (at least for now) to recreate online the powerful experience of singing and praising, of coming together in communion or community, with those around you in person.

It could be that a challenge for churches might come not just from a decline in religiosity but also from a trend toward living in more isolated environments, hastened by the pandemic. We are now working from home, shopping from home, protesting from home, video-calling friends from home, going to the library from home… Research is ongoing as to whether this is ultimately a good thing.

As we think about shaping our future, developing the sorts of communities we would like to exist in, it is worth observing the successes of other communities, even (and perhaps particularly) religious communities. A post-God world needs to understand the functions that God has traditionally provided, one of these being (indirectly) a sense of community. While I am not advocating recreating a Black Pentecostal church—singing the same songs but changing the lyrics or laying on the hand of nature—I am asking what we can learn from such experiences.

There will be some aspects of BMCs that will of course be pertinent to those communities, such as an ethnic dimension working in opposition to wider persecution (such as to a greater degree in the postwar period). That said, there is still a prevailing negative attitude in the US (though not in the UK) against the nonreligious.

We might see this project very much in light of Alain de Botton’s Atheism 2.0: They are in decline, we are in the ascendancy. What did they do well such that we can steal those ideas and reapply them in a more sustainable manner? How can we offer “a safe haven” that provides “advice and economic assistance” as well as promote a sense of joy in communal identity and worldview?

In an ever-more-crowded world, we find a greater distance stretching out between those otherwise close to us. Do we welcome that newfound, technologically nurtured isolation, or do we seek for more human contact, and a celebration of life found in some (but not all) churches and religious buildings around us?

[Ideas pertaining to the discussion of life in a post-God world can be found in Jonathan MS Pearce’s Not Seeing God: Atheism in the 21st Century.]

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...