First impressions after 17 years

It’s been 17 years since I last lived in the UK.

My wife and I have been serving as mission partners in Southern Africa, first in Lesotho and then in Namibia. Cathy and I left the UK in January 2005 with an eight-month-old son. We arrived back at the end of 2021 with three teenage children. I was in my thirties when we left – I’m now in my fifties. I left local-church ministry here for theological education in Africa. When we set off, Tony Blair was the prime minister, our mobile phone (we only had one) looked like a small black brick and dial up internet connection was all the rage. It was a pre-Brexit, pre-COVID-19 world. The UK has changed a lot whilst we’ve been away and so have we.

Of course, over the years we’ve been back to visit for a few months here and there. And I’ve watched what’s been happening from a distance. But it’s a different thing to be living here again. After being away for so long, living in a different culture with different challenges, we see and feel things here as outsiders. So, here are three first impressions about local church-ministry in the UK in 2022 after 17 years away.  

1. Evangelicals are on the back foot

The prevailing culture in the UK has become more secular and more hostile to Christianity. Any disagreement with the ‘majority view’ on a whole range of subjects is now no longer culturally acceptable.

Nowhere is this more obvious than with sexuality and gender, where any attempt to hold a Biblical, historic Christian line is quickly shouted down as bigoted and out of touch. It seems that even evangelical Christians are, at times, nervous to speak out.

We are on the back foot. We have been pushed (or retreated) further to the margins of society. These strong winds of cultural change and a growing ignorance of the Bible as well as uncertainty among some Christians about its role in the Christian life have created the perfect storm.

Many Christians are valiantly pushing ahead with gospel work in their own small corner, but the evangelical world is somewhat fragmented. There’s suspicion of other denominations and a reluctance to pool resources and work together.

Even the label ‘evangelical’ needs to be carefully nuanced to explain who we are and what we believe. And, as if that weren’t enough, there’s more immediately an urgent need to regroup, reboot and refocus after the pandemic. These are challenging days for Christians in the UK.    

2. Overseas mission is moving off the agenda

One of the welcome changes in the UK church over the past few decades has been a growing awareness of the need for local evangelism and church planting. This has come into sharp focus in many churches as a priority.

However, this sometimes causes churches to only see the ‘mission’ on their doorstep. They’ve lost sight of the need to pray, give and mobilise God’s people for global mission. Overseas mission seems to be moving off the agenda in many local churches.

Mission committees (if churches still have such a thing) are now populated by predominantly older, often retired, Christians. Younger Christians are too preoccupied with other activities to take on this role. Mission conferences see dwindling numbers year on year. Churches are giving much less ‘prime time’ exposure in Sunday morning services to mission prayer and mission promotion.

My suspicion is that church mission budgets are also being repurposed. Many churches remain outward looking, with an admirable concern for local mission, but less concerned for global mission.  The urgency and the necessity of global mission has been muted.

There are also generational differences in the way Christians engage with mission in our churches. Older Christians often value a certain missionary organisation. Middle-aged Christians often value individual mission partners they know and trust. Younger Christians often value short-term mission projects.

And, whether locally or globally, there seems to be a growing unease about speaking out the good news of Jesus. Helping people with their physical needs is well-promoted in our churches, but much less emphasis is placed on people hearing the gospel and being saved, and on being taught the Bible and being discipled. These are challenging days for UK mission societies and churches with regard to global mission.  

3. God is at work

It would be easy to feel overwhelmed by these challenges, but as Christians we have every reason to face the future with confidence in our great, unchanging God.

I’ve noticed something else since I returned to the country.

I’ve been surprised by the excitement of God’s people about expository preaching and serious Bible study. I sense a genuine hunger here among God’s people for God’s word, and a desire to grow in understanding and to walk more closely with Jesus.

God is at work here by his Spirit. In my short time here I’ve met people who’ve recently been wonderfully converted and are being transformed by the power of the gospel. There is so much to be thankful for. God is with us.

It’s true that the cultural tide is against us, and that we need to rethink our role in reaching the nations for Christ. But we can be confident that ‘he who began a good work in [us] will carry it on until the day of Christ Jesus.’ (Philippians 1:6)

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Josh Hooker

Josh Hooker is a Crosslinks mission partner who has been seconded to the Diocese of Down and Dromore in Northern Ireland as a Bible teacher and trainer.