British evangelical churches find new mission in gentrified neighborhoods

Urban and spiritual renewal are being joined by churches seeking to minister in gentrified areas of cities in the U.K., reports The Guardian (March 7). While urban planners and theorists have assumed that gentrification accompanies and even helps generate secularization, recent studies have suggested otherwise. The article notes that the growth that has taken place in evangelical, charismatic, and Pentecostal churches is often occurring in urban centers, and not only among immigrants. The city of Bristol has become a case study of such “spiritual gentrification.” Joel Duddell writes that in Bristol, the “proliferation of local micro-breweries, vinyl revival record stores and pop-up greengrocers is mirrored in the rise of a new breed of grassroots congregation, attracting younger, trendier demographics with considerable success.” The urban spiritual renewal in Bristol has unlikely origins. Last year, a South Carolina woman prophesied that Bristol was going to experience an “outpouring of healing”—despite the fact that she had never heard of the city, let alone visited it. The prophecy convinced a group of evangelicals in Bristol that their city was going to become a healing center, and they went about organizing a conference that included the prominent American charismatic healer and teacher Randy Clark.

From that event, the interest in faith healing led to the conviction that God was moving “not just within the church, but also in the business sectors, social justice and the arts,” according to the website of Release 2016, the conference organizer. One of these participants’ first acts after the conference was to revamp the Elemental grocery in the gentrified neighborhood of Stokes Croft. The same group started the now 1,800-member strong community Woodlands and the spin-off congregation LoveBristol, which in turn runs a range of startups and social enterprises in the neighborhood, including a second-hand furniture shop and a vintage clothes store. Another growing charismatic church, E5 (the E stands for Elim, one of England’s largest Pentecostal denominations), hosts a wide range of social groups and functions. “They are openly pursuing their social community—modern urban dwellers—in the same way the socialist-Methodist miners of Wales had their rugby teams and choirs,” Duddell writes. Critics charge that all this church activity caters to the hipsters and yuppies that have sent property prices skyrocketing. But church members and leaders argue that they are reaching a wider demographic that includes the poor and homeless and immigrants, while the profits from their start-ups are channeled into charities. LoveBristol also sees its community houses as offering a viable solution to the rising cost of rent.