What’s your ministry context like in Oldham?

This is a question I get asked periodically. I was specifically asked recently to give a breakdown of the area we are working in. What’s it like? What are you doing? What are the demographics? What are the challenges you face? Below is what I sent back:

Oldham Bethel Church – Context & Mission

Oldham is both a town and borough on the North East of the Greater Manchester city region. The borough contains c.220,000 people and Oldham is officially the most deprived town in England (see here). Historically, the town was the biggest producer of cotton in Europe and large, but now rundown and abandoned, Victorian mills are ubiquitous. Over decades of decline, the last mill closed in 1998 leaving mass unemployment and a largely unskilled workforce behind. For a similar US comparator, Detroit would come close.

Oldham is home to high numbers of Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims and has the third largest group of Bangladeshis in the country, behind London and Birmingham (cities 40 and 5 times bigger than Oldham borough). The borough is highly segregated with large ‘Asian areas’ totally separated from overwhelmingly white council estates. In 2001, Oldham had the worst race riots in the UK since 1985. The epicentre of the 2001 race riots was the area of Glodwick.

Oldham Bethel Church is sited on Waterloo Street in Glodwick. The area is almost exclusively Asian and contains Oldham’s largest mosque, a few hundred yards behind the church building. The church is multicultural in makeup with people from the UK, Middle East, Caribbean and Africa in the congregation. The church has a number of Iranian and Afghan asylum seekers attending and in membership. Most of what happens on a Sunday morning takes place bi-lingually in English and Farsi.

The church is doctrinally reformed and baptistic in practice. The current minister – Stephen Kneale – comes from a Grace Baptist (Strict and Particular Baptist) background. In the last three years, the church has conducted 10 baptisms and seen a number of others come to faith. Although, especially those seeking asylum, are not always able to remain in the church long-term, almost all continue to go on with the Lord where they have relocated.

The church is making in-roads into the local community. We hold weekly English Classes that see people from variety of different nations coming into Bethel Church. Our current classes have c.30 regular students, many of whom are from Muslim backgrounds. We hold a monthly ‘cultural evening’ at which an imam presents on a topic from a Muslim perspective, we present the gospel based on the same topic with time for Q&A after each presentation. We then share a meal and continue the conversation. We rotate the venue between our church building and a local mosque and regularly have between 25-40 Muslims coming under the sound of the gospel at these meetings. We are also engaged in gospel meetings at local care homes and regularly hold open airs, which consist of gospel presentations, testimonies and Q&A on the street in the town centre to engage local people.

Given the segregated nature of the town, people from local white council estates will not readily come into Glodwick. The area has traditionally been a “no go” area for white people. We, therefore, see the need to plant gospel churches in those area. We have long-term plans to plant in several of the unchurched areas of the town; areas with no gospel witness and whose people are unlikely to come to Glodwick due to historic tensions.

At present, Bethel Church has c. 25 members and a regular congregation of c. 40-50 people. Given the area in which we minister, although we are seeing people come to faith and being baptised, these are typically not those able to support the work financially (eg asylum seekers and benefit class urban poor). Our most recent quarter saw the church function with a c. £5000 deficit and our usual monthly working deficit stands at around £1500. Our minister is our sole paid member of staff. The deficit is largely a combination of the minister’s salary, the general costs of ministry as well as the ongoing need to grant welfare support to members drawn from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds in the UK.

The work at Bethel is seeing real gospel fruit and there are great opportunities to further the work that we simply cannot take because of our limited number of workers and our minimal funds. We are looking for churches to partner with us in the following ways:

  1. Regular prayer support for the ongoing work
  2. Financing the ongoing work of mission, including support of a full-time minister and (potentially) further staff members
  3. Sending long-term workers to join us in the mission (and periodic short-term mission teams)
  4. Raising up planters, and planting teams, to help us plant churches in unreached areas of Oldham