Sabbatical Week 2 – An urban conversation: meeting Stephen Kneale in Oldham

Friday 6th June meant a train and tram trip up to Oldham which, headlines as the most deprived town in the England, where Stephen Kneale is pastor of Oldham Bethel.

The area (Glodwick ward) was originally white working lass but has seen first of all afro-Caribbean immigration and then in the 1970s Bangladeshis and Pakistanis meaning that there is primarily a Muslim area. It’s typical of a lot of inner city areas, terrace houses and Mosques -are church buildings are also there but how full they are on Sunday and how much the reflect the local population is open to question.

The church was originally planted by one of the Jeffrey brothers as a Pentecostal Church resulting from a tent mission. It’s now part of the FIEC and theologically reformed. Over the past few years they’ve had an encouraging mission to Iranian background believers and despite their small size have been fruitful with numerous baptisms each year. However, because people have to move on quickly and because of the social/economic context (they can count on one hand the wage earners in the church) this is not reflected in a large membership or bank balance.

Here are some of the things we talked about

  1. Gospel engagement in their context has included…

 –          English Classes

–          Community events including dialogue with muslims. Steve originally made contact with local imams through an inter-faith event but this was dominated on the Christian side by liberal thinking. He was able to agree to focus with one local mosque on a 1-1 basis leading to meaningful conversations about what they believe

–          Light Parties – initially these were primarily attended by white families/church families and serving other churches but have seen increased engagement with Asian families.


  1. Urban Church life

 –          Often messy. We shared some of our encouragements and discouragements.  Often, we see apparent professions and signs of growth but there are lapses and falling away that can be discouraging.

–          Importance of getting membership and church discipline right.

–          Learning to love but not in a “rescuer” way that patronises and can be naïve to what is going on.


  1. Immigration

–          Immigration and asylum matters play a significant part in time given.  For us in Smethwick most of the cases are not to do with religious persecution but people fleeing political persecution, gang violence, abuse, corruption. Steve has mainly seen Christians facing persecution if they return home

–          Oldham Bethel only go to court with someone to speak for them if they are a church member. This is because it matters that they can give objective evidence that the person s a believer.

–          We talked about how our priority is not to help people sort out their asylum this is a by-product of gospel witness and pastoral care in both our contexts. Our primary aim is to help people know Christ and to live holy lives in their circumstances. For some this may mean that their case is refused and this will be costly. It challenges us that we are potentially asking people to return to their deaths – to do something we have not been asked to do ourselves.

  1. Types of urban context

–          Traditional working class – those who are still engaged in manual or lower paid service sector work.  Risk that these become the forgotten mission field

–          Left behind, estates, benefit culture

–          Multi-ethnic

–          We need to recognise that there isn’t one single urban context but rather “urban contexts”

  1. The Challenge of racism

–          Can be expressed in different ways – subtle and more overt

–          Can be different towards different groups and communities so one ethnic group -e.g. afro Caribbean may appear to be more accepted and established now whilst other groups are treated with suspicion. A major factor in church life is the amount of perceived disruption -will the ‘newcomers’ cause significant change and disruption to how we do thins?

–          It’s as much about protecting and putting forward our own people. The classic in church life is where people claim that members of the church are not  eing looked after/encouraged to come forward but what we really mean is “the indigenous community”

  1. The helpfulness of talking about church planters in our contexts

–          I’m more positive towards the term “church planters than Stephen however some big issues/questions raised.[1]

–          Are we really seeing Gospel progress and fruit -or are we simply moving people around

–          If you have been church planting for 10 years and you have a congregation you are not a church planter anymore unless you start something new.

–          This boils down to Steve’s comment that there are two types of church worker. There are pastors and there are people who are not yet pastors but may be. The second category includes those who are training and those who don’t have a congregation yet.

–          Incidentally, my view is that I don’t have a problem with churches planting out to solve space issues or to enable better discipleship/pastoral care. We just need more honesty about that.

–          Also, some church plants are really church splits.

I commented to Steve that we have been saying for a few years now “we need missionaries/planters in Sandwell and the Black Country” whilst people happily read blog articles, we have had minimal response even in terms of people saying “I’m hypothetically interested” (2 people).  Steve’s response was “Well you aren’t offering them anything -you can’t give them a salary, you can’t even give them a congregation. They aren’t going to get fame and recognition in church circles, you can’t connect them to important people.”  He is of course right. However, it begs the question -what is meant to motivate people to Gospel work?  Stephen’s comment to me via email was “Like you, I want to encourage people to come for gospel reasons rather than the reasons I listed that commonly attract.”

–          However, if we are serious about the re-evangelisation of Britain then we need to be intentionally sending people as missionaries to needy areas where there is no or minimal Gospel witness. When we see people being sent and supported we’ll know the UK church is serious about mission.

–          Steve also helpfully commented that there is a trust issue -name recognition and connection still counts for a lot.


So, those were some of the highlights. My one disappointment was that Stephen forgetting about Ramadan meant the promised curry didn’t happen. This was made up for by a good solid burger and chips though. I’ll have to go back another time for an Oldham curry!

Please continue to pray for the work of Oldham Bethel and seriously consider sending people to train/work with them.


[1] Stephen is not against planting, e.g. for space reasons but believes we need more honesty about what is actually happening.


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