Searching Out: Establishing Points of Contact

At this stage we have a generalised understanding of the types of people we are likely to encounter in Urban Britain today. However, searching out requires us to drill down a further level. One of our aims is to establish points of contact with people. This is where we being to talk more about hopes and fears, dreams and desires.

Contact is possible because of a number of reasons. First, there is the sense that people everywhere fall back on the same big questions “Who am I, what is my purpose in life?” “Where did I come from? What are the origins of the world around me?” “Is there more than this? Does God exist and who is he?” and “What happens when I die?”[1]

Secondly, we saw early on that people are religious. This means as we saw previously that they are conflicted at heart, they are both looking to run away from God and to seek after him.[2]  Dan Strange believes that this religiosity is a factor of being human and made in God’s image. He writes:

“All human beings are created in the imago Dei and ‘sons of God’ are created as ‘religious’ beings, revealing God, representing him and built for relationship with each other and the rest of creation.”[3]

Not only that but our inherent religious nature is not merely generic but specific and focused on our relationship to the true and living God.

“This religious nature…is not merely the capacity we have for relating to, worshipping, obeying or disobeying something or someone we consider ultimate, what we might call a  generic religiosity, but is rather a particular religiosity: our relationship, worship and obedience or disobedience to the self contained ontological Trinity, the living God of the Bible.”[4]

This is perhaps best articulated by two Bible texts. Ecclesiates 3:11 says

He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.”

Whilst in Acts 14:16-17 Paul says

In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.”

Together these texts offer both encouragement and challenge. There is the encouragement that God has not left us alone and that there is an awareness of “something more” in each one of us. On the other hand the challenge remains that this longing and the provision of “General Revelation” are not enough to enable us to discover God. We need God to speak to us and reveal himself to us.

This brings us to a third point, that we have not been left devoid of Special Revelation even prior to the receipt of Scripture.  Dan Strange, following Jonathan Edwards, argues strongly in “For their Rock is not as our Rock” for something called “Priscae Theologia” or “Original Revelation.”[5] By this, he means:

“a remnantal revelation of God disseminated and preserved universally in humanity but distorted and degenerated over time.”[6]

This argument relies on the understanding that our common ancestors, Adam and Noah would have passed on revelation even if oral tradition meant that those who did not have access to either written Scripture or the illumination of the Holy Spirit will have received a distorted and fragmented story. Christians, Muslims and Jews are one stage further down the line in sharing common spiritual heritage from Abraham. Furthermore there are shared written Scriptures with both Jews and Christians recognising the Torah, Prophets and Writings (Old Testament) as God’s Word. Muslims may recognise theoretically the Christian scriptures but argue that what we have are distorted or false copies. However, even still it is possible to trace a relationship between the Koran and Judaeo-Christian teachings.[7]

It is worth noting that for many white British people, there is a similar relationship to Revelation with that experienced by those of other faiths. Many of the people we have contact with will not have had direct access to Bible study, however they have inherited fragments of revelation in a number of ways. First of all, there will be those who attended Sunday School and religious assemblies at schools. Secondly some will have picked up snatches of Scripture at weddings, funerals and Christmas carol services. Thirdly many will have been exposed to Biblical stories retold for cinema. In recent years, films have portrayed the life of Moses, the account of Noah’s Flood and the crucifixion of Jesus. Thirdly, Scripture has influenced our culture through stories reflecting on or allegorising the Gospel such as The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of Rings. At another level, words and phrases prominent in our language owe much to both William Shakespeare and The King James Bible. This means that often without realising it, people have bene exposed to these fragments of revealed truth. Often revelation is mixed up with and distorted by other cultural norms.

All of this means that there will be plenty of points of contact with the people we desire to share the Gospel with. In the rest of this chapter, I will look at three examples:

  • People from a Muslim background -offering a perspective on engagement with those from a different faith.
  • Immigrants and Asylum seekers
  • Council Estate residents.

People from a Muslim Background

Islam immediately appears to offer a number of contact points with Christianity. First of all, Islam answers the question “Is there more than this” similarly by affirming that there is one creator God who reveals himself in written Scripture brought to us by his chosen prophets. Muslims believe that they are made by this God to worship him. Islam expects a future judgement day when we will appear before him to give an account for our lives. At first appearance, Muslims and Christians appear to be offering similar answers to questions such as “Who am I?” “Where do I come from?” and “What happens when we die?” This seems to provide a basis for Christian and Muslim dialogue.

Alert readers will realise that behind these apparent similarities are sharp differences that lead to sharp dispute. The obvious examples are:

  • That Christians believe that the one God is a Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit whereas Muslims sees this as tritheism and idolatrous.
  • That Christians believe that Scripture is God breathed but give a greater role to the inspired human authors whereas Islam treats the Quran as dictated to Mohammed by Allah. Strictly speaking, the Quran cannot be translated from Arabic and Muslims believe that the Judaeo-Christian Scriptures have been altered by wilful corruption and the accident of copying and translation errors.
  • That strictly speaking, Islam is about submission to Allah so that worship is a form of slavery to a divine master rather than a loving relationship with Father God.
  • That Christians believe that they can face judgement day with assurance because salvation is based on God’s grace to us in Christ whereas Muslims are dependent upon Allah’s arbitrary mercy.

Later we will see how these discrepancies rather than an obstacle to Gospel witness in fact form the very basis for a Gospel conversation as they provide the examples of distortions and irritations which show that Islam cannot fulfil the Muslim’s dreams and desires. Furthermore, we can see that Islam’s attempts to interact with and challenge Christianity demonstrate a further awareness of Christian revelation whilst failing to fully understand it. For example, whilst Islam rejects the true deity of Jesus, it recognises that we must somehow account for the Virgin birth. To do so, it takes us to Adam as the first human who had neither father nor mother. Unwittingly, the Muslim who quotes this text is stumbling upon important revelation provided for us in Romans 5 that Christ is the second Adam. Islam compares Jesus to Adam but fails to understand the necessity of the Virgin Birth because it doesn’t recognise Jesus as the second, last and greater Adam.

So, our first and obvious “points of contact” are overtly theological. However, there are other ways in which we can spot these opportunities for dialogue which draw more on social and culture desires. I would argue that because God is Lord over every aspect of life that these contact points are also theological and will require Gospel answers. To explain what I mean by this I want to refer you to a book written by Peter G Riddell in the fall out from 911. “Christians and Muslims” is a look at how we can engage with Muslims in the shadow of international terrorism as well as the intense debate about immigration and integration.[8]

Riddell argues that British Muslims are seeking to answer the important question “What does it mean to live in modern Britain?” First of all he observes a typology that mirrors the Christian typology of liberalism, traditionalism and evangelicalism. [9] He identifies Muslim Modernizers, Muslim Traditionalists and Islamists. [10]

“Muslim modernizers are concerned with defining faith within a contemporary world context. They follow a method of interpreting the Islamic texts to fit the modern context.”[11] Includes secularized and cultural Muslims.[12]

Riddell compares this with liberal Christianity’s attempts to reconcile faith with modernism.

“Muslim traditionalists emphasize the primacy of the scholarly elite, with congregations trained to acknowledge the wisdom of accumulated traditional authority  rather than to engage dynamically with the primary sources themselves. In Muslim minority communities in western countries. Muslim traditionalists tend to be the immigrant generation.”[13]

This may on one level be compared with Christian Traditionalism which looks to the passed on teaching of The Church.

“Islamists use Islamic Scripture as the filter through which all discussion passes. They dream of a past ‘golden age’ when Prophet Muhammed was establishing his community om Medina and when God’s law the shari’a, held sway. Many Muslim young people born in the West of immigrant parents  opt for the Islamist paradigm, because of a sense of alienation from the majority culture.”[14]

Tentatively Riddell compares this with Evangelicalism in terms of Scriptural interpretation although he recognises that “one must be wary of drawing facile comparisons.” [15] Indeed, some may observe that Islamism is if anything, closer to Christian Fundamentalism especially to Theonomism. Furthermore, the model is complicated by the need to overlay the different streams of Islamic thought onto it including Shi’as, Sunnis, and Sufis -as well as further subsets and offshoots. However, what the model does show is that a point of contact between Muslims and Christians is the desire to answer the question “How do we live in the now and the not yet?” Christians and Muslims recognise that the world we  live in is not as it should be and Muslims may share with Christians a sense of being people in exile.

This means that Muslims have attempted to answer the question “How do we engage with modern Britain” in categories we may recognise: participation or separation. Riddell argues that “The majority of Muslims in Britain are committed to participating in British society as an integral element in in. They see Britain as their home and their future.” [16]

This majority includes those who  want to “blend in and assimilate” with British Culture.[17]  There are risks with this approach. Riddell observes that: “This is the group whose Muslim identity may weaken with succeeding generations through intermarriage, secularist influences and conversion to another religion or no religion.”[18]

Participations also include those who want to “participate and influence society.”[19] This group recognises that the creation of a fully Islamic society is unrealistic but “is based on the notion that Muslims in Britain should participate fully in the majority society but should strengthen their Muslim identity and try to impart Muslim values and views in the process.” [20]

On the other hand, the alternative option is separation. This category includes those who are “separating within Britain” and  those “preparing to leave Britain to live in Muslim majority countries.” [21] The former includes those who are campaigning for the right to follow shari’a law in the UK.[22]

Both approaches are not without their problems. Separatists who remain n the UK must still acknowledge the existence of a dominant and powerful secular society which demands submission and competes with Allah whilst those seeking to leave the UK will be faced with the imperfections and inconsistencies found in many supposedly Islamic countries. Meanwhile those who participate will be faced with the challenge of compromise with a culture and worldview which is in opposition to its beliefs.

Christians will find opportunities to talk about how the Bible offers better answers to such dilemas.

Immigrants and Asylum Seekers

In this section, I want to focus specifically on people who are new to country or are waiting for an immigration decision. During my time at Bearwood Chapel I’ve had significant contact with people seeking leave to remain in the UK. This includes people who specifically came here to seek work and a better way of life, economic migrants if you like. For several years we’ve had a lot of contact with South Americans who came to the UK from Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, usually via Spain. It is worth pointing out two things here. First of all, that “a better life” is broader and deeper than simple economic benefit, indeed I have spoken to people who explain that the work they take on pays less well than what they could get in other countries but they believe that life will be better here for their families through a better standard of education, better living conditions, distance from gang cultures etc.

Then there are those seeking leave to remain for humanitarian reasons. We tend to put these under the umbrella category of asylum seekers but actually there are a range of reasons why people might flee one country to seek refuge here, not just due to persecution from the State.

Some asylum seekers are here because of religious persecution. They have become Christians and this will mean prison, torture and potential death back home. Others are here because they belonged to banned political movements. Then there are those who are on the run from gang violence or abuse from within the family or clan.  When they sought justice back home, they found that they could not obtain it because the police and judiciary were either corrupt or powerless.

When someone is seeking asylum, the Home Office encourages them to apply as soon as possible, They are then invited for a screening interview with an immigration officer followed by a detailed interview with a case worker. [23]   The Home Office aims to make a decision within 6 months.[24]  However,  many asylum claims are classified as “non-straightforward” and excluded from the 6 month target meaning they can take 12 months and even longer.[25] An asylum seeker is not normally allowed to take paid work whilst they are waiting for a decision meaning that they are dependent on a small living allowance plus accommodation provided by the Home Office. It is possible to appeal a decision and to submit fresh claims with new evidence meaning that people can find themselves in the process for several years, life effectively on hold.  During that time, they have to report regularly to the Home Office.

It is often hard for someone to tell their story. They have learnt that they will not be believed, they are sometimes encouraged to alter their story to meet perceived expectations and “short-cuts” around the system. I’ve heard people share how they’ve been encouraged to “just go and get pregnant” and that way they will be able to stay. Often they come from shame cultures and their stories carry not just hurt but because of abuse they feel unclean and dehumanised. They expect to be shamed again. Very often, you get the sense that they are still running, still hiding.

So, what is it that people are looking for? What are their hopes, dreams and desires. I would suggest that they are looking for

  • A home, a place to belong, welcome and acceptance
  • Safety, free from fear, the sense that they no longer have to run and hide.
  • Freedom to get on with their lives
  • Hope for the Future

Quickly they learn that the UK immigration system does not offer those things. They experience detention, interrogation, bureaucracy. They find themselves in a culture where they are viewed with suspicion, the tabloid media screams out headlines about “bogus asylum seekers” and “scroungers.” They face racial abuse from their neighbours.

Here again is an opportunity to find points of contact with people and to share with them what it means to be welcome, to find a home and to discover true freedom and real hope.

Council Estate Residents

In Unreached, Tim Chester lists nine factors common to working class people generally and estate people specifically. These are:

  1. “Anti-authoritarianism”[26] “Their experience of the State is likely to be either that of threat or an unwieldy bureaucracy.” [27]
  2. “Entitlement mentality.” [28] “The benefit system has created many people who are used to others providing for them.” [29]
  3. “Reputation” -where do you sit in the social hierarchy? [30]
  4. “The struggle” [31] “It’s not just that life is hard, but the fact of struggling forms part of their identity.” [32]
  5. “Victim mentality” [33] People often see themselves as victims, with little power over their lives. Because they feel powerless, they may resist the system by being passive-aggressive rather than aggressive in a combative way.” [34]
  6. “Limited aspirations” [35]
  7. “Relational assets” community and friendship matter [36]
  8. “Non-abstract, concrete thinking” [37]
  9. “Non-diarized relational lifestyles” [38] “Your allegiance is to the people you are with, not to the clock says Mez McConnell. ‘If you meet someone go with the flow. Being missional cannot be fitted into a diary slot.’” [39]

We have already begun to see the challenges involved with an experience of life where you are regarded as at the bottom of the pile, treated as passive recipients, mocked and reviled by society around you.

Duncan Forbes, a pastor who planted a church on an estate in South-west London takes our understanding of estate life deeper still by offering us an outline council-estate understanding of God.

“Here is a council-estate view of God, albeit a generalization:

God does exist, but he’s not in control of everything. God has dealt me a set of cards, and now it’s my job to do the best I can with them. I’m going to take care of number one and my family, because no-one else is going to care for me. Life is a big struggle. We’re trying to take care of ourselves but this is tough. We commit sins along the way. We need to protect ourselves, so we have a vicious dog or carry a knife. We feel like victims. We spend our lives being aggressive towards injustice.  ‘Are you going to take that?’ We ask each other. It sometimes leads to vigilante attacks, because no-one else is going to establish justice. So we set ourselves up as God We want to be the person in control. We want to be the provider, the judge, the avenger, the enforcer.”[40]

You will notice that a theology, a belief system is being offered here. It includes a picture of what God is like, who we are and where we are from, what salvation is and a version of future hope. Later on, we will return to this in order to see how that theology presents a distortion of the truth and encourages us to believe lies about God, Creation, Humanity and New Creation. However, at this stage I want to pick up again on the points of contact that exist.

First of all, Duncan argues that people on estates to often believe that God exists. They may have an inaccurate view of who God is but they are people who were created to worship. Secondly they desire safety and security, often in the face of violence and crime. Thirdly, they long for justice. This justice includes both the response to those who carry out criminal attacks such as muggings and assaults but also justice in the face of a system that often seems stacked against them. Justice for the council-estate resident is likely to include justice in response to those who hold wealth and power for themselves. Justice includes a heart cry against the people who though it was okay to take short cuts when building and maintaining high rise flats leading to the Grenfell tragedy. Justice includes a sense that you belong to a class who are expected to wait in line whilst others can jump the queue, a society where you are given what you are given whilst others have the luxury of choice is unfair.  Fourthly they are looking to be provided for and to provide.

Conclusion

At this point, we realise that there are distinctions between the contexts, experiences and hopes of the different people we meet in our inner cities and on our estates. However, we have also begun to discover some common themes. These include: a desire for home, acceptance, belonging, a search for identity, a yearning to find future hope and a belief that there is more to life than the here and now.

We also begin to see some common threads because the reason why people in urban Britain have failed to find fulfilment to their longings is because they have been looking in the wrong places.

“For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.”[41]

They have been looking in the wrong places because they have chosen to believe lies about God, his creation, us and the promised new creation.  We will find out more about this in Part 3: Showing Up.


[1] Reference needed

[2] Bavinck, The Science of Missions, 123.

[3] Strange, For their Rock is not as our Rock, 71.

[4] Strange, For their Rock is not as our Rock, 71.

[5] Joseph Blenkinsopp, The Pentateuch: An Introduction to the First Five Books of the Bible (London: SCM, 1992), 108-114.

[6] Strange, ‘For their rock is not as our rock’, 108.

[7] We may pick up in some examples later.

[8] Peter G Riddell, Christians and Muslims: Pressures and Potential in a post- 9/11 world (Leicester: IVP, 2004).

[9] Riddell, Christians and Muslims, 18.

[10] Riddell, Christians and Muslims, 19.

[11] Riddell, Christians and Muslims, 19.

[12] Riddell, Christians and Muslims, 19.

[13] Riddell, Christians and Muslims, 19.

[14] Riddell, Christians and Muslims, 19.

[15] Riddell, Christians and Muslims, 19.

[16] Riddell, Christians and Muslims, 61.

[17] Riddell, Christians and Muslims, 61.

[18] Riddell, Christians and Muslims, 62.

[19] Riddell, Christians and Muslims, 62.

[20] Riddell, Christians and Muslims, 62.

[21] Riddell, Christians and Muslims, 62.

[22] Riddell, Christians and Muslims, 62.

[23] https://www.gov.uk/claim-asylum accessed 29/08/2018.

[24] https://www.gov.uk/claim-asylum accessed 29/08/2018.

[25] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/nov/28/half-of-asylum-claims-classed-as-non-straightforward-face-long-delays accessed 29/08/2019

[26] Chester, Unreached, 46.

[27] Chester, Unreached, 46. –

[28] Chester, Unreached, 47.

[29] Chester, Unreached, 47.

[30] Chester, Unreached, 47.

[31] Chester, Unreached, 47.

[32] Chester, Unreached, 47.

[33] Chester, Unreached, 48.

[34] Chester, Unreached, 48.

[35] Chester, Unreached, 48.

[36] Chester, Unreached, 49.

[37] Chester, Unreached, 50.

[38] Chester, Unreached, 50.

[39] Chester, Unreached, 51.

[40] Chester, Unreached, 90.

[41] Jeremiah 2:13.