Migrant churches as a potent social force
Dr Richard Burgess is currently engaged in a three-year research project (2007-2010), organized by the European Research Network on Global Pentecostalism (GloPent).
It is a collaborative venture between the University of Birmingham, the University of Heidelberg and the VU University of Amsterdam, and part of the NORFACE-funded research programme ‘Re-emergence of Religion as a Social Force in Europe?’
It explores the growing phenomenon of African-initiated migrant churches, an increasingly important addition to the European religious landscape. Specifically, it considers how transnational Pentecostal churches from Nigeria operate in Britain, Germany and the Netherlands and to what extent they represent a new social force.
There have been two major waves of African and Caribbean immigration to Britain which have generated black majority churches. Most research has focused on those (mainly Pentecostal) churches linked to the first wave of immigration of Africans and Afro-Caribbeans from the 1950s.
In these studies, Pentecostalism is regarded as a means for assisting migrant Christians to cope with ethnic and status deprivation caused by racial discrimination, and with unfamiliar and unsatisfactory cultural and religious expressions. What is unique about the churches generated by the second wave, beginning in the 1980s, is that they not only catered for the needs of migrant populations, but were planted by denominations or individuals from West Africa with a conscious missionary agenda.
Whereas in the past, mission has been understood as a movement from the North to the South, now it is happening in the opposite direction, a form of ‘reverse mission’. For many West African Pentecostals, Britain is regarded as a potential mission field, in need of re-conversion, and migration as an opportunity to bring the gospel back to those who originally provided it.
African Pentecostal churches are especially important in Britain because they are growing rapidly at a time when mainstream Christianity and some of the older Afro-Caribbean initiated black majority churches are declining. Some are part of transnational networks; others are independent churches with no formal links outside Britain.
Of Britain’s ten largest mega-churches, four are led by Nigerians. The largest single congregation in Western Europe is the London-based Kingsway International Christian Centre (KICC), founded by the Nigerian Pentecostal, Matthew Ashimolowo, and one of the fastest growing Pentecostal denominations in Britain is the Nigerian-initiated Redeemed Christian Church of God, with over 390 congregations.
In keeping with the sub-projects in Germany and The Netherlands, the main focus of the Birmingham project is the Redeemed Christian Church of God.
Firstly, it explores the spirituality of migrant Pentecostal churches. What use is made of Pentecostal experiences, beliefs and rituals to motivate action and provide ingredients for identity construction? Which of these are transported and reinforced by the transnational networks, and which ones are not, and why?
Secondly, it seeks to locate the churches within the wider British church landscape and explores the way their links with various networks have helped them position themselves with respect to British society.
It also situates them within the larger context of Nigerian immigration to Britain since the 1970s and its related socio-economic problems. How do the Nigerian Pentecostal churches contribute to the sustenance and empowerment of African migrants and their integration into British society?
Thirdly, it explores the churches’ transnational networks and the way these reinforce ethnic and religious identities, increase global consciousness, and provide material and human resources for expansion and social influence.
Finally, special attention is given to the way these churches understand their mission and operate in public space. To what extent do they represent a critique of modern British cultural and moral values? To what extent do they adapt their message, worship and preaching styles, and recruitment strategies to satisfy consumer demands quite different from those they are used to in Africa? Are they attracting significant followings from white indigenous communities or simply directing their missionary activities to their fellow Africans instead?
An important research goal will be to establish the extent to which their socio-political agenda has moved beyond discourse to influence local communities by addressing such issues as justice, poverty, racism, immigration and asylum, child abuse and crime.