Britain's inner-city churches attract new, hip worshipers (2023)

Numbers of church-going Christians are plummeting across the UK, but inner-city congregations are boomingwith an influx of cool young professionals. Here, they explain to Ruth Tierney the appeal of the Sunday service

A new generation of Christians (from left): Lucy Grimble, Ruth Yimika Awogbade, Josh Felstead and Sidhara Udalagama

The Hoxton hipster

Josh Felstead, 26, an associate youth pastor

Josh Felstead, 26, an associate youth pastor from London, doesn’t see why clubbing and church shouldn’t mix.

People are often baffled that someone canbe into hip-hop and clubbing and God. But you only have to go to a big new churchsuch as KXC in King’s Cross, with its congregation of 500, mostly in their 20s and 30s, to realise that Christianity is appealing to a younger, cooler crowd than ever.

I was brought up a Christian; I wentto church every Sunday and attended Bible study twice a week. At Manchester University, I joined the Christian union, but not all my friends believed in God. I liked discussing religion with them – it’s good to be challenged. Lots of my friends would say, ‘If you don’t get drunk, how can you have fun?’ But I’m an extrovert so I always enjoyed parties as much as they did. I do have the odd pint now, but I don’t use it to alter my mood. I like who I am.

My non-Christian friends struggle to understand why I only date Christians and why I’m waiting until my wedding night before I sleep with anyone. I once dated a girl who wasn’t Christian, but we found it hard to connect because my relationship with God informs every decision I make.

CHAPTER & VERSE

My faith helps me most when… I need a confidence boost. Knowing God has my back gives me a real feeling of security.

The most fun thing about church is…The friendships. I have met the coolest people who are so creative and talented.

A typical service… Can be a traditionalone on a Sunday morning with organmusic and liturgy, or the contemporaryone I attend in the evening.

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I go to the contemporary service atSt Stephen’s, an Anglican church in Twickenham, Southwest London, onSunday evenings. It’s more informal than a traditional service; the congregation is full of under-30s, worship is led by a band and we usually go to the pub afterwards.

I studied mechanical engineering at university, but after graduating I realisedI wanted a career with meaning. I did an internship for a year at a church in theUS before working as a pastor in London.

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I think a desire for purpose is behind the rise in young people coming to church. Drinking and working hard might resonate for a while, but you need to feel there’s something else.

The glossy editor

Ruth Yimika Awogbade, 28, editor of Magnify magazine

Ruth Yimika Awogbade, 28, from London,is such a strong believer in faith and fashion,she has launched a magazine about them.

I was brought up a Christian, but I lost my faith as a teenager when my grandma, aunt and uncle died within three years of each other. I went to university feeling angry with God. I didn’t act like a Christian in my first year: I got drunk every night and I only went to church once – and even then I fell asleep during the service.

But after a few months,I felt empty. I realised that questioning your faith doesn’t mean you’re not a Christian. I started to explore my relationship with God.I wanted to share my faith and its questions with friends, so, in 2008, I set up Magnify, a Christian events company. I host parties where women can hear what faith means to successful figures, such as Simon Ward, former COO of the British Fashion Council – the last was at the Ace Hotel in Shoreditch.

CHAPTER & VERSE

My faith helps me most when… I’m feeling the pressure to succeed. I remind myself that God gave me the privilege to lead Magnify.

The most fun thing about church is… Chatting to friends I haven’t seen all week.

A typical service is… Brunch and talks with the young women’s group. People are encouraged to bring non-Christian friends.

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In 2014 I started a bi-annual glossy magazine off the back of the events. Magnify runs fashion shoots alongside articles about faith. Christians can do any kind of job. They don’t have to work in a ‘noble’ profession such as teaching or nursing; they can work in law or fashion. I don’t separate my life into Christian and secular pursuits.

Most Magnify readers and people at our events are in their 20s and 30s. Not all ofthem are Christian. Half my friends arenon-Christians; you don’t learn anything by hanging out with people who are just like you.

About 20 per cent of my friendship group goes to my church, Jesus House in Brent Cross, London, on a Sunday. I help run its young women’s group, which meets for abi-annual brunch at the Pullman hotel inSt Pancras and has just launched monthlymeet-ups. The Sunday services, attended by 3,000 people, are streamed live on the website to allow people to explore their faith at home. Churches are more accessible than ever.

hellomagnify.com

The worship leader

Lucy Grimble, 30, a PR and singer-songwriter

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Lucy Grimble, 30, from London, juggles herjob in property PR with her spiritual callingas a singer-songwriter.

My Sunday best is skinny jeans and a biker jacket, my favourite shop is AllSaints and Ihang out with just as many non-Christians as Christians. My best friend Natalie, who I’ve known since we were 16, is Jewish. She may not believe in Jesus, but she still understands me.

I think I am the only practising Christianat work. Some colleagues go to church at Christmas or for weddings, but when I say I go every Sunday, they are astounded.

I go to the Commonwealth Church in Marylebone. The music is a fusion of gospel and jazz. Mike Brown, a guitarist who has toured with Prince and George Michael, is part of the worship team. There is a mix of people in the congregation, from hipsters to grannies, but everyone is like family. Cities can feel very lonely, but at church you are seen, heard and valued.

CHAPTER & VERSE

My faith helps me most when…I have to make life decisions, such as where to live or who to date.

The most fun thing about church is… The way people go for it during worship, for example the Polish lady who does high kicks. I laugh so much.

A typical service… Starts with coffee and a catch-up, followed by singing with the gospel group and a talk, then lunch together.

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In my free time, I write songs about my experiences of faith. My first EP Come and Breathe came out two years ago and my YouTube music channel has more than 25,000 views. I sing at Christian festivals, such as David’s Tent, a 72-hour nonstop worship event.

I would only go out with a Christian, but faith is not enough in itself and I rarely meet anyoneI want to date. When that gets me down, I turn to the book of Proverbs, which is full of wise advice. I trust God has my future mapped out.

lucygrimble.com

The dance-off queen

Sidhara Udalagama, 30, a young adults' pastor

Sidhara Udalagama, 30, a young adults’ pastor from Nottingham, hosts dance battles and pub quizzes for her church.

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The first time I went to a Sunday service at Heart Church in Nottingham seven years ago, I was shocked. There were electric guitars and hundreds of people being very expressive. The church has 1,400 members. As a child, I had been draggedalong to sombre Catholic services by my parents – this Pentecostal church couldn’t have been more different. The congregation was so welcoming andI felt an extraordinary peace that I could only put down to being in the presence of God. I began to go every week – and now I work there.

After university, I signed up for the church internship, a year of volunteering and theology classes, and have been running a group at church for 18- to 30-year-olds for two years. Every Tuesday evening, 200 of us meet at a bar in the city to chat and pray. After the service, we have dance-offs or pub quizzes. Not everyone who comes to the Sunday service – which is a bit more traditional – shares our beliefs. We’re not into Bible bashing.

CHAPTER & VERSE

My faith helps me most when… Life is getting on top of me. I’m planning two weddings, one in the UK, one in Sri Lanka, so taking time out with God helps.

The most fun thing about church is… Never knowing who is going tocome through the door.

A typical service… Takes place in a bar with a glass of G&T. There’s an hour of worship led by an acoustic band, a video diary of news and then a party.

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A lot of the congregation are under 30 because there’s an acute sense of alienation among young people today. Going to church gives you a senseof belonging. The church is a big family, sometimes quite literally. My parents live in Sri Lanka, so I often spend Christmas with the church leaders.

I fell for my fiancé Dev at a friend’s wedding and we’re getting married in December. He is a new Christian, and although I am still a virgin, he slept with people before becoming a Christian. I’m finewith that. He understands why I don’t want tosleep with just anyone. Non-Christians, however, can find that hard to understand.

Friends at my gym have said, ‘I wouldn’t peg you as religious. You’re into fashion!’ There’s a running joke in our church that you can only get into the worship team if you wear ripped jeans.

A-list disciples

Martha Collison

Martha Collison, Great British Bake Off contestant, 20

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‘Being a Christianis one of the main things that defines me as a person. The church is a lovely place to growup in as it’s so supportive and full of friends and family. Having God to rely on when things are a bit crazy and manic and stressful is the most amazing thing.’

Daniel Sturridge

Daniel Sturridge, Liverpooland England footballer, 27

‘[Reading the Bible] was important for me growing up. It’s part of my routine and I do it every day.’

Jessie J

Jessie J,singer, 28

‘Whenever I canI go to church andI feel that when you’re right with your religion,your church travels with you.’

Chris Pratt

Chris Pratt, actor, 37

On prayingwhen his sonJack was bornnine weeks premature: ‘We were scared for a long time. We prayed a lot. It restored my faith inGod – not that it needed tobe restored, but it reallyredefined it.’

Justin Bieber

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Justin Bieber, singer, 22

‘I have a relationship with God because I need it. It gives me hope and something to grasp on to, and a feeling of security, of being wanted. We can only get so much of that from a human.’

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