LONDON (BP)–When British Baptist missionary Boyd Williams arrived home from Brazil 30 years ago to lead London’s Southall Baptist Church, he got a rude awakening.
The Southall area was changing, with many south Asians moving in — Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims. Later, the largest Sikh temple outside India was built just down the street.
The dwindling church, however, was not changing. And had no intention of doing so.
“When I came here, this was a white church with a reputation for racism,” admits Williams, sitting behind the desk in his study. The sound of multiple languages floats in from the hallway. “I remember a missionary who brought someone from India. A lady in the church said to this person, ‘What have you come for? We don’t have your sort here.'”
Williams recalls the incident with a pained expression. Now nearing retirement age, he retains a youthful energy behind clear eyes. He returned from Brazil not to leave the international mission field but to work on the international field London was becoming.
“I told the people, ‘Look, you need to understand that this church is going to change dramatically and radically,'” he recounts. “‘You can have your little service. I’ll love you and I’ll be your pastor. But things will be going on around you that are different. I need your patience to understand that we’re trying an experiment here.'”
He vowed to board the next plane back to Brazil if the church refused his plea. Some painful days followed. A few people left, but attitudes began changing. Most members stayed and eventually became solid supporters of a new approach. Williams started with a small program to teach Sikh women to sew clothes for the disabled. Later he began a church-based school to train internationals to start churches in London and beyond.
“Over the years we’ve probably had 1,500 Brazilians come through. Now they’re all over the world and also in the U.K. planting churches,” Williams reports. “Then Koreans came on board, and Africans, and Sri Lankans and people from other countries.”
They’ve planted about 20 congregations in London, some of which have planted others. It continues to flourish. One of Williams’ key partners in the unfolding outreach is International Mission Board city strategist Patrick Sims*.
At Williams’ own church — now known as “Southall Baptist Church, Christian International Community” — you can hear five or 10 languages spoken on any given day in multiple services and ministries. The church hustles to keep up with new waves of people who have followed south Asians into Southall — Somalis, Russians, Arabs, Afghans.
It’s hard work reaching into the homes, hearts and minds of newcomers who are fearful or suspicious of Christians. But sometimes God’s Spirit moves with no warning, bringing new excitement and energy. One Christmas Day, a young Sikh walked into the church and declared, “I want to become a Christian.” He now leads his own church. Another time, Williams was approached in an Arab food shop by a Muslim who told him, “I have become your brother. I accepted Christ two weeks ago.”
Many of Williams’ co-workers find all the spiritual lostness they can handle — and more — in London. A Nigerian, one of the pastors he has trained, leads a church in the city that has started another congregation. But in a meeting with Williams one morning, he broke down in tears.
“The last two days I’ve hardly slept,” the Nigerian told Williams. “I’ve been weeping all this time. As I walk around Southall, I keep thinking of how many, many people of different races are here that we’re just not reaching for Christ. What do we do?”
Williams’ prayer: That more British pastors and churches will abandon a “maintenance” ministry that desperately seeks to hold on to what they have — and dare to risk reaching out to a lost London.
“What’s more important — my church or the Kingdom of God?” he asks. “There’s a battle going on for the soul of this city, and we trust that God is going to win. Because He’s won already.”
*Name changed. Erich Bridges is global correspondent for the International Mission Board. View a multimedia presentation about London here. Interested in serving in London or mobilizing your church to partner with the IMB mission team and London Baptists? Contact Brittany Conner at [email protected]