We seem to be on a run with schools visits lately. Last week, we had two classes visit the church. Yesterday, we had another two classes come morning and evening. In a few weeks time, we have another class coming from another bit of Oldham. All of these are predominantly Muslim and largely South Asian classes from state primary schools that serve the local community. The children have all been early years.
The visits have been very straightforward. Our building is not very exciting and there isn’t a lot to point out of much interest. In one sense, that is good because it allows us to focus more on the Word and the gospel. But the sessions have all been a case of open Q&A – with the children able to ask any questions they want – and then a bit of a colouring exercise so they can take home a bit of scripture. Nothing earth-shattering is said or done, but it is all further engagement with the community. It is a good welcome to Muslims who ordinarily wouldn’t darken the door of a church with some evident kindness shown to them by Christians at the local church and a learning point for them that – despite what many Muslims genuinely believe – they won’t explode if they cross our lintel. There is, albeit small and not especially significant, some gospel input along the way.
But this isn’t really about the visits per se. Rather, I suspect the visits are the product of some local cultural and demographic shifts that have happened in our area over recent years. I am minded to think that these visits represent some interesting things. In no particular order, it is at least some of these.
Churches are non-existent in our area
Time was, in Glodwick – our little corner of Oldham – there were at least 5 or 6 churches knocking around. now, I don’t pretend they were all excellent. But nevertheless, churches. But if you were to look around the area today, you will discover that Oldham Bethel Church is the only church of any stripe in the area.
The biggest reason for that isn’t hard to discern. What dominates our areas these days are local mosques, which merely reflect the demographic shift in our area. Not only is the biggest mosque in the borough a few hundred yards behind our building, but halfway up our street a mosque now meets in what was once a Methodist church hall. New mosques pop up all the time. The only other church in the area since I started at Bethel – a High Church Anglican at the top of the street – was disbanded a few years ago and has since been the subject of arson. The demographic shift in the area mean we are the only church left standing in a sea of mosques.
But the secondary reason for this deficiency is that – even if our area hadn’t become little Pakistan – fewer and fewer people are going to church. I suspect a good number of the churches that are no more would still have gone the way of the dodo even had the area not shifted demographically over the last 40-50 years. The decline in church attendance is not fundamentally ethnic and I suspect the mosques now resident in former Methodist chapels were able to move in because such places had died long before they changed theological hands.
These things significantly lie behind our schools visits. The children who would have visited the local Anglican church, and perhaps attended a local dissenting chapel with more interesting features, now must settle for visiting our 1970s, quite ordinary and uninteresting church – one that even the puritans think we might want sprucing up a bit – because we are the only show in town (or, rather, in our corner of it).
Another reason for the visits is that we are a known quantity in the area. It has been heartening to have children coming to the church for the first time and saying, ‘my mum has been here’ or ‘my sister goes to this sometimes’. We’ve even had one or two say they knew some of our people because they have met with them at other things we are engaged in or their family has been part of at our church.
Time was, quite a lot of people had no idea we were there. Early on in my ministry we had a visit from a local paper. The photographer said, ‘I thought I’d been to all the churches in Oldham, and I’ve been up and down this street, and had no idea you were even here!’ Even Christians with whom we were in formal affiliate groups had no idea we were there. These days, you are much less likely to hear that sort of comment. People know we’re here. People know we exist. People are even engaging with us because we are already engaging with them in other ways.
We have regular engagement with the community through our weekly English Classes, our weekly homelessness outreach, our bi-weekly Lego Club, our monthly Food Club, our monthly Dialogue Event. But we also have people involved in a local Muslim High School, other people working locally at other schools, members involved in local community groups of various sorts, and a variety of other things. These schools visits are, to some degree, a product of this increased activity in our local community. We are a known and trusted quantity to the schools.
Demographic shifts internally
Not only has our community around us changed over the years, but the demographics of our own church have shifted too. We don’t, as yet, particularly reflect the community. In a sense, that isn’t as bad as it sounds. If we reflected our community exactly, we would be swapping one monoculture (white British) for another (South Asian). But we are not that, we are a church that has white Brits, Nigerians, Cameroonians, Iranians, Eastern Europeans, Americans and the occasional Indian. It would be nice to get a South American and an Oceanic person to complete the full-set of liveable continents (perhaps we need an Eskimo too). But these demographic shifts in our church mean that almost nobody comes to our church and feels, ethnically, out of place. Even if there is nobody who looks exactly like you, it is obvious enough to most people that such a wide range of very different looking people from a host of different cultures all feel welcome and so it is not a leap to think they may be welcome too.
But along with those demographic shifts, and the community engagement, we have just grown more generally. Our church membership is currently around twice the size it was when I started. That’s 100 percent growth in 10 years. But with that growth has come extra hands, with new ideas, who engage in new things. We have seen ministries stop and new ministries start. We have seen people engage with what we are doing in different ways. None of these school visits would have been able to happen were it not for the extra hands we have available. Admittedly, some of this comes through particular extra hands who pick up a lot of the extra things. And, yes, I end up being involved in some of the extra things even though I am the same pair of hands as when I started. But these things have come about as much through demographic shifts in our own church as they have due to demographic shifts in the community.
Those are just some of the wider reasons why this door has opened up. And, in the end, a few schools visits are hardly big news. Frankly, if you were in with us as we did them, you’d see they really weren’t spectacular and (unsurprisingly) nobody fell to their knee midway through asking, ‘what must I do to be saved?’ All of which is to say, so what?
And the answer is simply that we are being faithful and seeking – as my American friend loves to put it – to plant little gospel seeds. In the end, the Lord is opening up doors for the gospel. Some of them barely ajar, but opportunities that we felt could be taken. As we took those opportunities, and built more relationships, and continued to share the gospel in whatever ways we were able, the Lord seems to be opening up further opportunities for us, including through schools asking if they can come, hear about what we do and believe. Which sounds like nothing much, especially when nobody converted or seemed to move any closer to trust in Christ, but how often do any churches get people actively seeking out what they believe and chasing you because they want to hear about what it is you believe and why? I’d venture not very often these days.
So, who knows what the Lord will do with what was said. But even apart from that, who knows how those children will remember how they were treated. Who knows what small connections that were made on those days won’t lead to other things down the track. Who knows what other church might come to benefit from the faith some come to find later in life, in another town, moved to even think about any of these things because of something they heard. Major events of history have turned on far less and who are we to say our God is unable to do it if he wills? In the end, the results are above our paygrade, but when scripture tells us to be ready to give an answer for the hope that is in us, when someone comes asking, faithfulness demands we tell them.
Whilst the actual visits themselves are not earth shattering – nice though as they are to do – I thought it might be interesting to see the anatomy of what lies behind a school visit. Sometimes it is what the visit represents and points towards that is, really, the cause of rejoicing. At least, I think so anyway.