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A No-Go Area?

What does reaching out to Muslims look like in a town in Greater Manchester with a huge Asian population? Steve Kneale explains how Oldham Bethel Church is sharing Christ with Iranian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrants.

A No-Go Area? primary image

This is the second of two articles featured on this week on reaching out to Muslims. Read the first: Lessons from Little Mogadishu

You may be aware that Oldham is now officially “the most deprived town in England.”1 This means whenever the media want to talk about poverty, they film Oldham by standing outside a derelict mill interviewing an unemployed man with an aggressive dog. But, of course, that’s all you see on the news.

In reality, Oldham is a town of contrasts. It is 27% Asian (predominantly Pakistani) and is home to the third largest Bangladeshi community in the UK (after London and Birmingham). It is also one of the top 10 local authorities with the highest concentration of asylum seekers.2

The town is highly segregated with what have become known as “Asian areas” almost entirely distinct from “white estates”. It doesn’t take much to see how groups like Britain First and the BNP have cynically exploited the fears of some in the town.

Reaching Asian Muslims

Oldham Bethel Church is situated in the Glodwick area. Glodwick is on the edge of the town centre and is overwhelmingly populated by Asian Muslims. It was also the epicentre of the 2001 Oldham race riots. For many years, Glodwick was considered a “no-go area” for white Brits.

I say all of this to emphasise just what a culture shock it was, even for us, to actively determine we would intentionally take the gospel to the local Muslim population.

speaking to people in the town centre

Our outreach to Muslims has two tracks:

  1. we have a significant work among Iranian asylum seekers;
  2. we engage in outreach to the local Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities.

Our work among Iranians began during the tenure of my predecessor, when one single Iranian man entered the church. From this, a work grew such that many Iranian asylum seekers have since come to know the Lord. Whilst many have moved on elsewhere, we have a number in church membership and a regular group of around 20 meeting with us. We now translate significant portions of our service, including the sermon, into Farsi.

I would love to say this was the fruit of some amazing strategy or vision, but the truth is that the Lord simply brought them in. Many have wandered into the church asking “what do I do to become a Christian?” Iranians really are an evangelist’s dream!

Our efforts to reach Pakistanis and Bangladeshis have been less obviously fruitful. Nonetheless, through things like English classes we have begun to make inroads.

Dialogue Evenings

Particularly exciting are our regular dialogue evenings. Having sat through some dreadfully liberal interfaith groups, forbearance paid off and led to an excellent relationship being built with a local Imam. He now brings around 50 Muslims to our church each month to hear a gospel presentation; we listen to a talk from a Muslim perspective and we have time for questions after each followed by a meal together where conversations can continue.

a dialogue meal

This has been so successful we had to ask a like-minded Anglican church down the road to come and help as we simply did not have enough people in the room to hold gospel conversations.

The reality is that Muslims are people. So they are no harder to reach and no more difficult to engage than anyone else. In many ways, they can be far easier. Muslims find nothing odd in Christians discussing matters of faith, for example. They presume, like them, it’s what we would do if we really believe the Bible as Christians!

Similarly, many of the theological issues that tend to turn off middle class Brits are givens that require almost no defence. Also, the Asian communities have obvious needs, such as language, that we can easily meet by simply offering to speak with them. These things make Muslim outreach surprisingly straightforward.

A Great Opportunity

It seems to me that it is not Muslim people who are hard to reach but Christians who are hard to move. Our church is not large and generates only 50% of our running costs. We have no outside patrons and a small number of people upon whom the work relies. We are seeing growth and conversions, but these tend to be amongst needy people.

open air evangelism

So the issue we face is not a struggle to engage Muslims, it is an unwillingness of Christians to see the gospel need. Despite its reputation, we have found Oldham to be a friendly, warm-hearted place. The people – whether Asian or British, Muslim or secular – are no harder to reach than any others.

Oldham is a town where a little goes a long way. There is nothing particularly difficult about reaching our Muslim friends, the main issue we face is that there are not enough Christians willing to come and reach them.


Aerial photo of Oldham by Parrot of Doom (CC BY-SA 3.0)
1. Cf. BBC News
2. Cf. Oldham Chronicle

Steve Kneale photo
Steve Kneale

Steve studied a Theology MA before he and his wife Rachel joined Grace Church Manchester. After serving there for four years in various capacities they were sent by Grace Church to serve at Oldham Bethel Church in 2014. Steve and Rachel have two children. Steve's blog.

Follow Steve Kneale on Twitter – @steve_kneale