There has been much discussion in recent times about whether the UK is a Christian country. Politicians talk wistfully of a time in the past when inhabitants of our shores grew up knowing right from wrong, and they talk of fundamental British Christian values of fair play, self-reliance, and hard work.
I’m not sure such a time ever existed. The Victorians did a good job of holding up role-models of Christian family life and good behaviour, but their society was wracked with problems of crime, exploitation, poverty, and injustice. What is clear though is that there is a growing religious illiteracy among our youth, and increasing numbers of people who have never heard an explanation of the life and death of Jesus.
A mission field on our doorsteps
The Talking Jesus research published just over a year ago showed 57% of Brits consider themselves to be Christians, but only 9% attend church as much as once a month. That figure shrinks to only 3% for people without a university degree, and for many groups including council estate dwellers, South Asians, marginalised people, the homeless, and the housebound elderly, church attendance is almost never heard of.
Not only are the majority of British citizens non-Christian, but our cities in particular are full of unreached people groups. One in six graduates in the UK will go to church, which means that most graduates have several groups of friends who can invite them to church or tell them about their faith. This makes graduates a reached people group, even though British graduates remain much in need of the gospel.
Why friendship evangelism doesn't always work
The average Bangladeshi-origin teenager in Tower Hamlets or white working class male resident of Harlsden however will have no family or friends who ever attend church. Friendship evangelism will never reach these people. They remain members of unreached people groups.
The stratified nature of British society tends to add to the problem. We have a habit of socialising and even going to church with groups of people who are just like us. We might work in a diverse multicultural office during the week but too often the friends we socialise with at the weekend and the churches we attend on a Sunday are made up of people just like us.
In London we live in the most diverse city in the world with 1.3 million Muslims, 0.5 million Hindus, and only 45% of us claiming to be white British, but we remain divided by class, colour, and language. Without a concerted effort to reach out beyond the walls of our churches and outside our own comfort zone of friendship evangelism, it is likely that we will miss out on the chance to effectively reach this most amazingly diverse of mission fields.
Moving beyond mercy ministry
Many churches organise mercy ministries for the homeless, and the needy, and provide foodbanks for the poor. Practical demonstrations of the love of God are a good start, but to genuinely proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to people, we need to be able to share the hope that we know in Jesus, and we need to be able to welcome people into our church families.
It is one thing to provide a vagrant with a sandwich, another to make him welcome at our Sunday service. It is commendable to organise a football club for the Bangladeshi-origin lads on a Thursday night, but another thing to change our youth club around to be able to disciple kids from a Muslim background.
Matt Barlow from Christians Against Poverty has always been very clear that the amazing achievements of CAP up and down the country are not just about seeing people come to financial stability, but seeing people who would never walk into a church become members of the body of Christ.
Modern day Samaritans
In the Great Commission Jesus sent his church out to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Too often we have skipped over from the people just like us in Judea, to the people we send missionaries out to at the ends of the earth. We have modern day Samaritans, these unreached people groups, all around us.
The first disciples didn’t feel up to the job of reaching them but when the Holy Spirit came upon them language barriers and cultural divides began to fall. The same Spirit is at work in us today, and if we go out with genuine love and confidence in the gospel, we will be able to cross barriers just as the disciples did.
Graham Miller is the chief executive officer at London City Mission