The last 80 years have seen a radical transformation of the U.K. Although the British Empire once ruled 23 percent of the world’s population, in 1951 only 0.1 percent of the nation’s population was nonwhite. Today, of the 65 million U.K. residents, 12.9 percent are from an ethnic minority.
In the last 20 years, many migrants have come from Europe. More than a sixth of the current population was born outside the U.K. Despite Brexit and public concern about asylum seekers, migration continues apace. In 2022, net migration was 504,000 people.
As would be expected, mass migration has changed the life of the nation. The U.K. is now a multiracial and multifaith country. This has generated tensions over the years as the reality of racism has been revealed and the understanding of national identity has had to evolve. Some, especially those of an older generation, have found this difficult. Today, many Christians fear the growth of other religions, especially Islam.
However, despite the many social challenges, mass migration has benefited the evangelical church in at least four ways.
1. Migration has greatly strengthened the evangelical church.
For several decades, the U.K. has been in a period of dramatic church decline, as cultural Christianity has given way to secular liberal progressivism. In 2021, only 46 percent of British citizens described themselves as “Christian.” It’s estimated that no more than 2 or 3 percent of the population are evangelical believers. Many of the historic mainline denominations are experiencing catastrophic, potentially terminal, decline.
Evangelicalism would have declined similarly if it weren’t for the migration of many born-again believers to the U.K. There has been an explosion in the number of black and ethnic minority churches, which are among the largest and most vibrant congregations in the country. A recent Evangelical Alliance survey found 25 percent of practicing Christians in the U.K. are people of color.
While white Christianity is declining in the U.K., migration has meant true gospel Christianity is not.
While white Christianity is declining in the U.K., migration has meant true gospel Christianity is not. In the last year, some 123,000 people migrated to the U.K. from Hong Kong, including many Christians. Over 600 churches have welcomed them. This influx of committed believers is greatly strengthening the British church.
2. Migration is undermining the assumptions of secular liberal progressivism.
Ethnic minorities in the U.K. tend to be more religious than their majority-culture neighbors. In 2021, 46 percent of the London population was nonwhite. A Theos report from 2020, “Religious London: Faith in a Global City” revealed the effects of mass migration on our capital city. Among Londoners, 62 percent identified as “religious,” compared to 53 percent nationally. Meanwhile, 38 percent of Christians in London said they attended a religious service at least monthly, compared to a mere 17 percent elsewhere. Londoners’ values were also more conservative. Same-sex marriage is regarded as at least sometimes wrong by 29 percent of Londoners, compared to 23 percent nationally, and 24 percent regarded sex outside of marriage as at least sometimes wrong, compared to 13 percent nationally.
The effect of mass migration is that London is home to populations that are highly progressive and populations that are highly conservative. This challenges the dominant intersectional narrative, which presupposes that allegedly oppressed minority groups will stand together to support the extension of the liberal progressive agenda. The values of ethnic minority groups cannot be written off as white prejudice that needs to be overcome. This suggests white Christians will be able to make common cause with ethnic minority communities on many issues.
3. Migration has forced the British church to confront its racism.
Growing ethnic diversity has exposed underlying assumptions of racial and cultural superiority. The failure of the church to welcome the first immigrants from the Caribbean in the 1940s and ’50s showed attitudes that were essentially segregationist. The church has had to recognize and repent of its sin. Increasingly, the church has purged racist views and rendered them unacceptable.
Imperialist models of world mission have had to give way to a humbler attitude, which recognizes the U.K. needs reverse-mission, that is, missionary work from the Majority World to the West. The presence of a large ethnic minority Christian community has opened our eyes to the reality that Christianity isn’t a white or Western religion and the U.K. is no longer a major leader of world Christianity. We’ve seen that many of our church practices and traditions weren’t as biblical as we might have thought; they were merely cultural.
4. Migration has enabled the church to manifest the reconciling power of the gospel.
The glory of the gospel is that it reconciles the divisions among humanity resulting from the fall. The church community is meant to display to the world of the power of the gospel and the saving plan of God. Of course, reconciliation can be demonstrated within a monoethnic community, for example, between those of different classes, ages, or genders. However ethnic reconciliation between those who were historically hostile to each other is even more obvious.
The effect of mass migration is that London is home to populations that are highly progressive and populations that are highly conservative.
In the early church, Jews and Gentiles united in Christ. The Roman Empire was immensely multiethnic and multicultural in a way that wasn’t true of the U.K. until recent decades. The diverse context of the contemporary U.K., brought about by mass migration, has opened an unprecedented opportunity to showcase Christ. By contrast, conflation of the gospel with any form of race-based nationalism tragically prevents the church from modeling the gospel as it should.
Future of the Nation
There are still immense challenges to face. Individual U.K. churches remain overwhelmingly monoethnic, and we need to overcome this functional segregation and foster genuinely multiethnic congregations. Slow progress is being made on this front. We need to overcome prejudices, misunderstandings, and sensitivities, recognize our past injustices and failings, and share power with our minority brothers and sisters. Mass migration makes this both necessary and possible.
Migration has irrevocably changed the nature of the U.K. Some still hanker for a past era of greater homogeneity. However, in my view, mass migration has been a providential blessing of God, both for the nation and the church. The U.K. church is richer as a result, and my prayer is that God will use our growing ethnic diversity both to conform it more closely to the likeness of Christ and to bring gospel growth, even revival, to the nation.