The State of Religion in London: Interview with an American Missionary

Shawn McEvoy & Timothy Miller

The State of Religion in London: Interview with an American Missionary

Islamicization. "No-go zones." Moral vacuum. Empty churches. Anglican schizm.

These are just a few of the phrases regarding the state of religion in England that have made their way across our desks here at Crosswalk in the past year. How much is really true?

Every American student is taught that our land was colonized by Christian Brits seeking a new life and freedom from a state-imposed Church, so it's interesting to consider our common roots, whether we're headed in the same direction just several years behind, and whether the roles have reversed several centuries later.

A couple months ago, thanks to Facebook, I regained contact with a college roomate, Tim Miller, who has lived in London for several years, doing ministry with his wife Jamie. I forwarded Tim many of the articles and columns about England & Religion (view the ones I sent him at the end of this interview) we'd run from various sources in the past several months, and asked him to read them and see how they jived with his experiences and encounters. He was happy to give Crosswalk readers the straight scoop as he's seen it first-hand...


Tim Miller: A disclaimer or two before I begin:

First, my experience is almost exclusively London-based. It would be an understatement to suggest that Scotts, Northern Irish, Welsh, and even English people living outside of London would have different points of view on a number of the questions you’ve given me to answer. That said, the one thing most of these groups have in common is their cynicism towards religion.

Second, I’ll approach your questions from two strands. One strand will be observations of the Muslim people we work with, the other will concern itself with our observations of the Brits we know, worship with, and live around. What is your role with the Salvation Army, and what ministry are you doing in the UK?

Miller: I actually have two roles with the Salvation Army in the UK. My actual title is Divisional Youth Officer which requires me to help with the oversight of the Army’s youth work around the city of London. This includes meeting with youth workers, helping to equip them through resources and training, holding them accountable in some cases, assessing their work in other cases, and also meeting with local Salvation Army ministries who are interested in getting started in youth work.

My second role is that of church planter. Shortly after moving to the UK, a Salvation Army-owned building became available in our neighbourhood and my wife and I were approached about starting a ministry there. Jamie is actually the director of our local ministry, and I officially serve as a volunteer but, as anybody who has ever church-planted knows, it is a full-time job that really should be attended by a small team of workers.

We actually started our ministry in the community by leading after-school educational activities that dealt with learning the English language. We were (still are) living and working in a community that had over 350 different languages represented which created a real barrier for young people who were trying to work their way through school. Not only was listening to English speaking teachers a barrier but, with no English speaking parents at home, homework was a real struggle.

Since that time we have also begun working with adults, offering English classes and a community support group that helps immigrants get their children enrolled in school, helps families get signed up for a local doctor, and also helps to translate English documents into different languages.

I think one of the things I’ve learned through this style of ministry is that once people know how much you care, they care how much you know. It pains me to say it because it’s a real cliché. The funny thing is, while I’ve heard it said a million times, I’ve rarely ever seen it put into practice, even by those making that statement from the pulpits.

When we moved to this neighbourhood, which at the time was a strictly Muslim neighbourhood, we knew that we had two immediate strikes against us that would need to be overcome: first, we were Christians, and second, we were Americans. Those were tough odds and, as for the American part, there was no way of hiding it. Neither of us can fake a British accent to save our lives. So with that in mind, we set out to dispel the myths (and sometimes realities) that often go hand-in-hand with American Christians. 

First, we made it clear that we are here to serve. And when anybody asked us why we did what we did, we took it as an opportunity to explain that the Christian faith compelled us to do it.

In the past few years we’ve come to believe that many versions of the American Christian faith are quite condemning, even though Jesus specifically said that He did not come to condemn. We’ve also been reminded that Jesus’ message was always described as “Good News,” and that it furthermore seemed to be especially “Good News” to the poor (Isaiah 61, Matthew 11:5, Luke 4:18, Luke 7:22). With that in mind, and if the “Good News” only referred to the afterlife, why does the message go hand-in-hand with the poor so often? That says to me that there must be something more to “The Good News” than simply answering the question of the afterlife. We’ve come to believe that Jesus’ gospel message addressed the issues of here and now, as well as the issues of the afterlife. It’s a much broader sweeping redemption than we were originally taught to believe. 

With this theology firmly in place, we set out to serve the community and to build relationships in the community. And it worked. Don’t get me wrong, there were hiccups along the way. And I can’t pretend that there weren’t those who weren’t suspicious of us (this was made clear the day two of our Bengali-Muslim boys suggested that we vote for Osama Bin Laden in the 2004 Presidential elections), but we continued to serve people and, when asked, took the opportunity to inform people that Jesus’ message compelled us to love and serve our neighbours. 

It’s been four years since we moved into the neighbourhood and, though resources have been very hard to come by, our relationships with people continue to grow. It is now a fairly common occurrence to be invited into Muslim homes for a meal or even to celebrate religious holidays. What’s more, we started a group for young people in January and 60 percent of those attending are Muslim. Most of them are young men. One of our Muslim mothers even cooks the meal for this Bible study despite the fact that it is plainly advertised as a discussion about God, the Bible, and the Christian religion. Apparently, now that they know how much we care, they’re willing to listen to how much we know. I only pray that what we say will represent Christ’s message of “loving God and loving our neighbour” well. 

CW: We read a lot about issues within the Anglican Church. What's the local perspective? 

Miller: As for the Anglican Church, there is certainly a large percentage of them that are dying, but there’s also a movement within the Anglican church that seems to be rising up out of the ashes. As you know, there is great concern regarding the split taking place across the world in this denomination. The Church of England seems to be somewhere between the ultra-liberal American Episcopal version of Anglicanism and the fiercely conservative branch in Africa. That said, outside of the strong relationship we have with the local Church of England in our own neighbourhood, I can’t tell you much more.

CW: Europe and the UK are often written about as becoming 'Islamicized.' Do you see this happening where you live, and is it truly a concern? Have you gone into a 'no-go zone'?

Miller: I think different people would probably have different definitions for the term “Islamicized” and I think that it’s a bit of an alarmist’s word. To me, “Islamicized” means that a country is being run by Muslim clerics and/or according to Muslim law.  That certainly can’t be said of a country that continues to debate whether or not Muslim girls should be allowed to wear headscarves in school and where members of Parliament suggest to the media that Muslim women should never be allowed to cover their face in a public setting in Great Britain.

What I would suggest is that the British seem to understand that if we’re ever to heal the great rift that exists between so-called Muslim nations and so-called Christian nations, we’re going to have to do our best to understand each other and to respect each other, even if we disagree with each other. And I know that it’s very difficult to respect a religion whose values seem to fly in the face of our very own, but consider the following:

  • While many Americans consider it sexist to ask a woman to cover her head, many Muslims consider it disrespectful for a woman to be uncovered. For them, it isn’t a matter of keeping a woman in her place, it’s a matter of respecting her by not exposing her to a man who is not married to her.  Consider the fact that many Muslim men will not shake my wife’s hand. It’s not because they deem her unclean, but because they believe that it would be disrespectful to their own wife to even shake the hand of another woman. 
  • Consider also that they see America, a self-described “Christian country,” as a country with absolutely no morals. They see our media where women parade half-naked on stage, they watch as our military sends women to the front lines, and they watch as Christians continue to worship what they see as a prophet (Jesus Christ) alongside the one true God.

From these perspectives, and so much more, Muslims here have just as much to overcome in respecting us as we do them. Mind you, I’m speaking of mainstream Muslims here and not the extremists. I think it would be fair to say that neither Muslims nor Christians would be happy to have their extremists representing them around the world.

One other thing that your readers might find interesting is that Muslims in London absolutely have as many false notions about Christians as Christians do about Muslims.  For instance, when one of my Muslim girls caught me typing out a few paragraphs for a Christian article, she looked at me puzzled and said, “Sir, you’re not a Christian.” To which I replied, “I’m not?” To which she responded, “No. You’re a Protestant!”

Many of our other Muslim young people have cornered me on issues such as our “worship of Mary.” Something else American Christians might be interested to know is that up to 25 percent of the Kurds living throughout the Middle East are Christian. Many estimates suggest that there are just as many Christians living in Palestine as well.

As for “no-go zones,” again, that would be a matter of perspective. Many people would probably consider our neighborhood a “no-go zone.” We do not.

CW: What do you think are the most specific issues and challenges to religion/Christianity/the gospel in the UK?

Miller: In addition to the obvious issues facing the spread of the gospel among the Islamic population of Great Britain, the following are some of the issues we face in sharing the gospel with the indigenous peoples of Great Britian:

Somewhere along the way - I'm not sure when - Brits became quite wary of mixing religion and politics. However, I do know that most Brits point to America as the reason why they are wary.

Both British believers and non-believers cannot reconcile the idea of Christians believing in the death penalty, the right to carry firearms, a pro-war stance, or opposing healthcare for the poor. For them these ideas are completely opposed to the teachings of Christ.  They have watched U.S. President after U.S. President claim to be a Christian while standing up against all of the values which they associate with the message of Christianity. Because of this, they are extremely wary of politicians who claim to be Christian, so they would rather keep religion and politics separate. And they would point to the hypocrisy of religion in American politics as the reason why.

It’s a bit of a dichotomy really because, on one hand, Brits would like to keep religion and politics separate, yet they’re also very critical of the fact that so many American Christians seem to be so hypocritical when it comes to their religion and politics. There seems to be this overriding belief in the UK that Americans have sold out religiously. And that’s just among the British believers. As for the unbelievers, they look at the above concerns and see nothing about Christianity that’s admirable. One of the toughest battles I fight with liberals is that many of them are doing more “good work” than many Christians I know. Between that and the traditional stances on the death penalty, war, equal rights, and gun control, sadly they see nothing morally redeemable about our faith at all.


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