Multi-Ethnic Ministry in London

by | Mar 26, 2024


What does multi-ethnic ministry look like in different contexts? Pastor Yannick Christos-Wahab joins us to talk about his church in London. We hear about similarities and differences between the UK and the US, and Yannick gives us a positive vision for being salt and light in a dark world.

Episode Captions

Austin (00:00.88) Grace and peace friends. Welcome back to United We Pray. Austin Suter joined today in studio by Yannick. Christos Wahab, how are you? I’m doing well. Happy to be here at United We Pray. Really excited to be here. Yannick is a friend of the ministry and he is someone who has ties to Birmingham, knows the pastors of our church, was a pastoral resident at our church. The first? The first, indeed. I was. And so he was here in town about a year ago and was able to come along on a United We Pray event. And so we got to spend some time with him, got to get to know him, conscripted him into service on a panel at our United We Pray event. So got to learn from his insights into ministry and he’s just a really good brother we are excited for you to get to know. So thank you for being here. No, thank you. Loved the time last year. Such a fun time and just really helpful as well. And so, yeah, again, just really, really excited to be here chatting with you. So I want to talk to you about life and ministry in different contexts and learn more just about you and your history and your biography, because you’re a very interesting guy who’s had an interesting life. And I think the details to those answers will inform the questions. So, or your answers to the questions rather. So where do you live and what do you do? I live in London, England. And I’m one of the pastors at a church called Stockwell Baptist Church, which is like south London, south central London. Which is an old church, right? Old church, 1866. So I always say a guy called Charles Spurgeon preached the first sermon there. So that tells you how old it is. And we have a picture from like the church near the beginning and there’s like a horse and carriage outside. So yeah, it’s been around for quite a bit. That’s really cool to have the Spurgeon connection. Yeah, I mean, it’s been downhill ever since. Now we’ve gotten to me, but like, yeah, it’s pretty cool to know that Spurgeon pizza. So you have a family? Yes, indeed. I’m blessed to have the most amazing wife, Kitton, and two children, two girls who are also such blessings. Karis, who’s three, and Johanna, who is one. Where’s your wife from? Austin (02:10.724) So similar to me some of the background originally from Nigeria, I guess apparently from Nigeria, but born and raised in London. How’d you all meet? So this is a bit of a weird story. So I’ll tell you the official version and then I’ll tell you my version. The official version is we met in a church that we were both attending while I was here in Birmingham. I’ll be back in London for the summer holidays and so the church I was attending I met her there. we got to speaking and then before you know we got into a relationship which was long distance pretty much until we got married but the unofficial side is that after we got into a relationship it turns out we found out that our mums actually grew up together in Nigeria so knew each other really well. Weirdly enough my mum’s brother apparently liked Ketone’s mum and that was how the relationship developed but They knew each other really well. So there’s pictures of like my mom at her mom’s bridal shower. Oh wow. And in Nigerian culture, one of things you do is on the eighth day, you have a naming ceremony. So, so this is probably more than you asked, but the eighth day you have a naming ceremony. So you don’t name your child. No one knows the name of the child until the eighth day. And then you have a naming ceremony. Well, my mom was at Kitton’s naming ceremony, pregnant with me. Wow. She’s two months older than me. So. I like to say the first time we met was that time when I… me leaping in the room at the sound of Ketan. But yeah, no, we didn’t grow up knowing each other. They kind of fell out of touch. But yeah, amazingly. Yeah. Somehow we got brought together. And so, yeah. That’s a really cool connection. If you don’t mind, could you just share where you’ve lived throughout your life and explain sort of what you were doing at different points? Yeah, sure. So… Born and raised in London, so London being a kid growing up, maybe I’ll say a bit later about culturally what that looked like, but parents were from Nigeria, so lived a lot in that kind of subculture. But primary school there, and then because my parents were from Nigeria, they wanted me to, yeah, like have lived in Nigeria, know Nigeria, understand the culture. So from the ages of 10 to 13, I went to Warden School in Nigeria. So my parents were in the UK. Austin (04:34.608) i was in a school living in nigeria for about three years. I came back to london and finished off what we would call secondary school, high school. And then i was in scotland, a place called St Andrews which was very different to london. Maybe you can chat a bit more about that. I was studying sign language there in that bubble, a very different world. I finished there and then came to Birmingham Alabama to do seminary. So I was at Beeson Divinity School. I was also part of Iron City, which is how I became part of the church. I was the first partial resident here. Had a bunch of different jobs, but one of them was working for the church, which was such a blessing. Learned so much in my time in Birmingham. Then left Birmingham to go back to London to be part of a church called Brixton Local Church, which was a small church plant, younger people. And then about… years ago now, almost five years ago, we merged Brixton Local Church, which was a young church, merged with Stockwell Baptist Church, which was this old established church full of more older people, more senior people. I don’t want to get in trouble with my church. Yeah, don’t do that. More senior people. And so, been in Stockwell, yes. I didn’t know the part about the merger. Yeah, crazy story. So basically what happened was, Again, moved to London, part of this church. Younger church, mostly second generation African, Caribbean, mostly. So we were there, about 30 people. And then Stockholm Baptist Church was really close, really like less than five minutes in the car. But I had no idea this church existed. Okay. They had been without a pastor for about a few years. They were looking for a pastor. And so they had different people coming to preach. And so someone contacted me to say, Yannick, could you come and preach at the church? I was like, sure. Went to the church and fell in love with the church. And basically, God orchestrated just the most amazing thing. They were older, so they were really 40s and above with some kids, but 40s and above. But no one in their 20s and 30s. Brooks and local church was all 20s and 30s. No older people were screaming out for just older saints. Realized basically we believed the same things about the Bible. I realized we were so close. We… Austin (07:00.496) didn’t have a building we would meet in a school. They had a building. They were looking for some more leadership. So like basically, actually, I think we could do more for the gospel together than we could do apart. It was a really weird merge because I think lots of merges are just takeovers that one church takes over another because the church is dying. I think one of the amazing things about the merge was neither church was looking for a merge. The other church was. dying in that sense imminently. It was just a case of actually we could do more together. And so in God’s kindness, yeah, I preached there for the first time in January of 2019. And by September, both churches had voted to merge and merge at the beginning of September 2019. So that was a bit of a whirlwind because different church cultures, different age dynamics, all that kind of stuff. But yeah, it cost me. So. Going back to the theological study, what was the bigger culture shock, going to Scotland or going to Birmingham? Ooh, that is a great question. I might say Scotland. Really? Which is crazy. I might say Scotland because London is super diverse, lots of black people, lots of… Scotland, at least in Andridge, was not. Got it. And that really was… That hit me, which might seem weird to you, but that hit me. So I remember the first time we went, I didn’t visit the university. I should have. So anyways, I went there the first day, me and my mom, we went into the town, small town. We went back. And basically the whole day, I didn’t see a single other black person. And I think I had Facebook at the time. At the state, it was like, I think I’m the only black person in this town. which for me growing up, which is very different from my experience growing up. St. Andrews is a weird place, lots of like, what’s the white word for it? Aristocrats, that kind of stuff. If you’re really, anyone who’s listening who’s really into like royalty or the crown, this is where William and Kate met, right? It’s that kind of a town. So yeah, very different. Me, black boy growing up in London, Scotland was very different. I think coming to Birmingham, Austin (09:25.648) was different, it’s culturally different, but like I knew it would be different. I wasn’t really surprised by it or really particularly shocked. So yeah, I think Scotland might have been a bigger shot. Yeah, the diversity piece makes sense of why you would say that. Now, comparing London where you currently minister and Birmingham where you lived for a few years and got to know, I mean, you’re familiar with both places. Here in Birmingham, even in the building we’re sitting in, we’re not very far removed. from some pretty terrible racist history. Now, it’s different in London, but does that mean you don’t have your own hard history to contend with? Oh, lots of hard history in London. Different, different. I think the history of the US, especially, of the white is just, yeah, I mean, the civil rights movement and the, I guess the history of violence is not the same in the UK. The UK has a very different racial history, but. sad in its own ways. I mean the first thing to say is that like black people by and large have just been in the UK a lot less than in the US. So really, I mean there were a few people here and there, but really the 60s were the first time you had significant groups of black people in the UK at all. 1960s. Yeah, wow. You know so that’s in the wake of World War II. UK was kind of decimated by bombs, so they invited people from the Commonwealth to come to help, to live and work and to rebuild it. That was the first time really you saw black people. So it’s entirely different. So most black people in the UK are either second generation, at max third generation. And so are still very connected to whatever country they’re from, which is different from obviously the history of slavery and so on here. Racism wise, yeah, I mean sadly, you know, UK, though typically didn’t bring a lot of slaves to the UK were absolutely fundamental to the slave trade, which was based on racial hatred. And so there’s been all kinds of serious issues with racism in the UK. Some of that’s really come to the fore more with the conversation about Harry and Meghan and some of that stuff. Again, if you’re familiar following, if you’re into the royalty, you might know what I’m talking about. But I think part of the difficulty in London, Austin (11:49.208) is because it wasn’t as clear as the civil rights movement, it felt like things were very much brushed under the carpet. I think also you’re less, and have always been less likely to see lots of overt racism, but lots of discrimination that happens less overtly. The other thing in the UK that’s different from Birmingham is that it’s tied into British identity. So this relates to what I said about the history of immigration. It’s… I’ve had people say, and this is a common thing, people will say, oh, where are you from? Now, I would always say Nigeria. I was born and raised in London, but I would always say Nigeria. But part of the reason for that is if I said, and you say, oh, I’m from London, they’ll be like, but where are you really from? Because you aren’t British. I can look at you and say you’re not British. Because to be British is to be white. Now, the US is a country of immigrants, essentially, from all kinds of different… There isn’t… It isn’t as tied to American identity, but in the UK, some of racism is tied to what it means to be British. And what it means to be British is therefore necessarily not black or Asian or any of those things. Maybe the other thing I would say is it’s also tied into the class system, the class system, partly because you have a royalty, it’s a big thing in the UK. So sometimes you’re dealing with classism mixed with racism. But again, more subtle but slightly harder to actually root out and deal with. Whereas in the US, again, you’re just so close to just really extreme acts of racism, which obviously is still the case today, but the kind of things you see in civil rights are just not, you don’t have that same history. Yeah. Now, in the States, if you’re someone who talks much about justice issues or… racial reconciliation there’s sort of a segment of the church that will view you with some suspicion. Do you have a similar dynamic in the UK? Yes, but I think it’s I mean I think it’s from America. Oh wow, we exported that? Yeah, I think it’s American. So I think it’s American, you know, so the whole woke this is that and woke and so on. I think it’s increasingly becoming a factor in the UK churches, but I think the source of it is American. I think the UK, Austin (14:15.312) historically hasn’t had the same struggles with dialogue. I mean, had different struggles in dialogue. Maybe put it this way, when I came to the US, one of the things that was striking to me was that like, if I said what I thought about abortion, people would also think they knew what I thought about gun control. Now this is because of politics. Politics has tied together a whole bunch of issues that actually, have nothing to do with one another. Or healthcare. These are discrete issues. I think because the UK has been historically less politicized, people just care less about politics. People are less engaged. The parties are very close to each other. And there’s a lot more of them, right? Yes, there’s more parties. There’s really two that can win. But those two parties… like if you were to bring out a different policy thing, the difference between them is really not much. And so people don’t care that much about it. So I think the good thing about that is it feels like you can talk about discrete issues without it feeling like it’s a broader thing. I do think that’s changing. Things are becoming more politicized. I blamed America, but probably the other big factor, maybe the biggest factor is social media and the impact of social media in just polarizing society. So we’re seeing that more and more in the UK and I think that is affecting the church. And I think some of the ways in which the Trump presidency, I think I was here when that happened, changed the dynamic of the conversations and seemed to widen divisions. I think some of that has also been happening more and more in the UK as well. What other barriers do you see to ethnic unity and harmony in the church in the UK? Yeah, I mean, there’s all the kind of classic things that would be true in the US. Like, actually, do people have relationships with people, you know, from different races and ethnicities? There’s all of that. I think in addition to that, the UK, I mean, actually, this is not different. This is also true in the US, but like just church traditions that have proceeded along very different tracks. So the black church and the white church in the UK is just different. Yeah. You know, Austin (16:38.032) Martin Luther King said 11 a .m. on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America and the same issue in the UK. I grew up in the black church in the UK. We had our own churches, we had our own conferences, we had our own networks. I had no idea about what white Christians were doing. I thought, this is gonna sound crazy, I just thought white Christians were just liberals and they believed the Bible. I think because all the news I got was Church of England stuff. It was always about how the Church of England is voting to do something against the Bible. So I just thought, until I got to university, I didn’t really have much engagement with white Christians. And so there’s the division between those two things. I think probably the other additional kind of thing is, like, I think in the UK, the evangelical church is just very middle class. And so I think that’s probably the class barriers, probably an additional barrier is like, okay, what does it look like to work, not just across race, but then also across class is probably an additional barrier. So I think those are some of the things that are particularly challenging. When I talk to folks who live in the UK, class comes up without me asking about it because I’m an American. I don’t think about class, but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect me. It probably affects me a lot more than I realize. You think that’s true? I think that’s true. I think the UK side of it is the difference is heritage is such a big thing. So like in the US like the American dream like you can be nobody and become someone and like be really could sit at any table what the UK is different. You can make all the money in the world but if you’re if you’re not from certain stock there are certain places that they don’t you’ll never get into. I know that happens a bit in the US but I think it seems to me that success really is a great leveler in the US. In the UK, yeah no there’s places where I mean I would say Andrews there’s a particular club where to be part of the club your dad had to be a baron or something like that. Well you could have all the money in the world if that’s not the case you’re just not in that group and I think class and the certain way of Austin (18:58.288) education it’s almost a different world within the world that means it can be quite difficult to enter into that and I think part of this is again there’s a system where there’s a war between that kind of stuff there’s do there’s Lords that kind of thing where you could I could never be a dude right like I can never be like I can know like doesn’t matter what happens and I think that probably then does impacts the way Well, let me ask you this, because we’ve been talking about the problems, but as you consider the state of unity in church in the UK, what encourages you? I think by and large things are better than the US, at least in terms of not necessarily in terms of active, like I don’t think we have as many churches that have a lot of diversity as the US and stuff like that. But I think the conversation is less toxic. I’m glad to hear that. think it’s increasingly becoming, but it’s less toxic than… the US. I think that’s good. I think there’s ways to have conversations that are helpful. I think that’s really encouraging. I think more and more people have in their heart to see it. You see that more in the UK. I think that’s really, really, really, that’s something that’s really encouraging. I think the internet, as much as social media has been unhelpful, the internet has had a massive impact on broadening things. So whereas before, if you were growing into a black church context, you really didn’t know what was going on. Now there’s people, more and more you’re hearing people, you know about stuff, and so there’s more mixing than there was before. And I think that’s really a positive. I think that’s really, really helpful. What are the unique opportunities you see, either as a pastor of your specific church or just thinking about Christians in the UK, that… opportunities to show the reconciling power of the gospel in this current cultural moment? Yeah, I mean, I think in our particular church, I think one of the benefits is, I mean, I grew up in a black church, that’s my, like, you know, predominant black church. And our church is still predominantly black, but we’re part of networks that are predominantly white. And I think one of the unique things, one of the things I’m passionate about is basically, I think, Austin (21:21.904) the different cultures or different church cultures, the easy thing to say is that these were just all doing the same thing and it looks different culturally. But I think in reality, what ends up happening is different church cultures have different strengths. Certainly. And they have different things that they’re doing, they’re actually theologically significant. So one of the things I’m excited about is trying to see what does it look like to combine the best of the different church strengths. Yeah. so that we might better glorify God. So I guess, like growing up, there’s a particular way we used to sing, that Black churches sing. But it’s not the case that in predominantly white churches, they’re doing the same thing. It just looks like differently. No, actually, there was a particular emphasis on praise, for example, and exuberant praise that actually isn’t really reflected in predominantly white churches. Well, that’s a strength, but there’s also a kind of contemplative worship that happens. and white church, that’s actually a strength as well. Same as super preaching, right? Growing up preaching in African context, right? The main thing was about like encountering God. So the preaching one was when you encounter God. I think that’s great. That’s a great strength. In more white church settings, it’s more, the primary thing about preaching was you go away with something to do, a way to apply it. Well, that’s a different strength. So like, I think, One thing I’m excited about is, partly just because of my own experience, is trying to say, how can we work together, not for the optics, right? Not just so we look more diverse. Although I think that’s important for our witness. It’s important that we look. I think that’s important. I don’t think that’s nothing. But how can we combine in a way that’s not just about optics, but actually realizing that we actually bring different things to the table. And if we learn from one another, we can grow in that. So I think I’m excited about. Networking and those kind of things in ways that can actually I think just help us do church better, be Christians better, be enriched because I do think one of the benefits of different church traditions going along different tracks is they actually do bring great strength to the table and also we can be more aware of the weaknesses of our own traditions the more we’re able to come together. So that excites me. I mean it’s it’s analogous to the different parts of the body. Austin (23:47.258) Yes, yes, right. Yeah. We’re different. Yes. And that’s good. That’s actually a good thing. It’s not something God has to react to and fix. Why? That’s part of his design. Right. Right. Exactly. And I think the body imagery is so helpful because the diversity of the body isn’t just about optics. No, the reason why the tongue is different from the eyes is that the tongue does stuff that I cannot do and I just cannot do. And I think one of the ways Christians can be distinctive in this is in the world, diversity is just about optics. Yeah, it is just about things looking okay, so we don’t need to make sure you’ve got a black man and Asian woman and a white or like and Okay, all that matters is the look right you go on the website and it looks a particular way I diversity brochure exactly and I think in the church we can get sucked into that and just thinking it’s just about that no, I think the different church cultures means that as part of different parts of the body we actually bring different things to the table and we can be intentional about how we can learn from one another and benefit from one another. I think that’s really exciting. As someone who came to Birmingham specifically as kind of an outsider but who got to know the city a little bit and even just America generally, do you have any advice for American Christians for our moment? I think it’s tricky to say I’m in a position to give advice. I mean, I will say again, I am someone who grew up loving learning about civil rights. I came to Birmingham with knowledge of the history. I think being here, I think my advice is, I mean it’s classic things. I the churches cannot afford to be dragged into the political polarization that’s happening. I don’t think that means everything’s neutral and both parties are equally right and wrong. I don’t think that’s helpful. I think we should be able to speak clearly. things but I think the church needs to be careful that we’re understanding things biblically and then applying that to the world of politics and things like that. We’re not first understanding things politically and going to the Bible to look for those things. Where we start from will shape the kind of conversation we have and the way we have that I think it’s helpful. I think the other things I’d say is yeah the fruit of the spirit like we need to be growing in love. Austin (26:13.456) and whatever we know or whatever our convictions are, we just need to be careful. The world is toxic and the world is producing hatred and bitterness towards people that have differing views. I think as Christians, we need to be people who model strong convictions and love for others. I think sometimes either you have strong convictions and we don’t love others, or you have in the church people saying, no, we need to just get along. And we think the only way to do that is to say, well, it doesn’t really matter what we think about these things. It’s not that big of a deal. I don’t think that’s helpful. I think we can have really strong convictions about things, and we ought to. And yet at the same time, have a real love for those who disagree with those convictions. And I think, yeah, I think increasingly that would just be more and important. I love that answer. I am so grateful for this time. Thank you for coming. Thank you for blessing us with your insight. My next order of business is to get this man some Alabama barbecue before he leaves. Yes. But before we do that, would you join me in praying? I can pray for saints in the UK and you can pray for saints in the US. Great. Sounds great. Heavenly Father, thank you so much for this time, for the gift of friendship, for the ways you sustain friendship over time and distance. Thank you for Yannick, for the mind you’ve given him, for the insight he has, for the… ministry you’ve given him and the opportunity he has to do this kind of work in the UK. We pray for saints in the UK and around the world that they would be salt and light, that they would stand out from the culture, that they would not get sucked into the unhealthy patterns around them, that they would model fruit of the spirit, that they would do the normal Christian things that saints have been doing for thousands of years, and that it would be a blessing that the community of grace that you establish in churches around the world would stand out as just oases in a dried up and dying world. We pray that you would do this and that you would equip saints for that kind of work to love each other well in Jesus name, amen. Amen and heavenly father, yeah we thank you. We thank you, your son Jesus Christ promised that he would build this church and that the gates of hell would not be well and we thank you for how you’ve built this church here in the U .S. We thank you Lord because Austin (28:39.728) of the good, not just that the church in America does here, but the much good it does all around the world. We thank you for the influence that the church has here. And we pray, Lord, that that influence will continue to be good. We pray, Lord, that for Christians here to have tender hearts, to be people of the book, people of your word. I pray, Lord, for church leaders that you find them wisdom to know how to engage in particular things. Lord, I pray in a world where it’s so easy for us to fear people, particularly to fear our congregation, to fear what people might say, that Lord, we would all be those who fear you and seek to honor you above all else and love others. I pray, Lord, especially in an election year, Lord, that you would keep your church, that whatever divisions would not be widened, but rather there would be love across those divisions. We pray, Lord, that the gospel, would be not just something we proclaim, but something we believe and would impact the way we interact with one another here, the way church leaders interact here. I thank you for your unity, we pray. I thank you for the ministry that you’ve given to those involved and I pray Lord that it would continue to speak truthfully and in love and that you would use it as a means to, yeah, to your glory. We ask Lord that we all might be found faithful. on the final day. We ask this in Jesus name, amen. Amen. Yeah, thank you so much for being here, friends. Thank you so much for listening. Grace and peace. Thanks.

LINKS & SHOW NOTES:

  • This UWP Podcast Episode was produced by Josh Deng with editing by Roshane Ricketts.
  • You can learn more about Yannick and his church here.

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  • United? We Pray

    United? We Pray is a ministry to help Christians pray and think about racial strife. We want to encourage Christians amid the strife to rely upon God in prayer. So our prayers can be informed, we strive to learn and write about race, racism and its effects, and theology. We aim to be biblical, beneficial, and clear in all our efforts. While we’re burdened for all racial strife, we focus on racial strife between Christians because of the unique privilege and stewardship God has given his people: to bear witness to Him and to love all people, especially one another (Gal. 6:10).

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