Visiting Urban Expression teams in Manchester last Friday, we found ourselves in somewhat unusual surroundings. In the space of 8 hours we visited a Sure Start children’s centre, an Asda supermarket, the Rampant Lion pub, walked round a local Estate and finally gathered for reflection and prayer – in Tesco’s café!
BMS first partnered with Urban Expression in the late 1990’s when they were getting started and we have been doing so again over the last year or so. Although BMS primarily works outside the UK, we share the vision of those committed to mission on the margins of society, which in the UK can often mean ministry in the inner city.
With Juliet Kilpin as our guide, Peter, Mat and I met with Clare and Tim, Gary and Derek, and Angie… and others along the way. And what came home, perhaps unsurprisingly, was the parallels to the kind of mission work we are used to doing in countries around the world.
I was in no doubt that the inner city option was not the easy choice , or the natural choice for most of those we met. It was a vocational presence – a calling if you like! A language we are familiar with.
For those who had more recently made the move to the inner city, there was a new culture to learn, and maybe in some ways a new language too. So, in the first hour I found myself sat with a young couple from the Middle East, only four years in the country but their English was good, and when we stumbled over words, well - they had an iPhone App for that! We talked about family and friends, their respect for the fact that the law in the UK seemed to apply to everyone, and of course religion – and they brought up the fact that they were Muslims. They invited us for lunch – the kind of hospitality that so often outs us to shame – but we couldn’t go.
And if ever we think mission work anywhere is attractive, the reality is usually somewhat different. Walking round the estate, we followed a young family – Mum with baby in a pushchair, and a 5 year old tagging along after them – stepping over the condom lying by a bin, the little lad in a sleeveless short on what was, for me, an increasingly cold afternoon.
The Muslim family who run the Rampant Lion pub welcomed us as Gary spoke openly about his ‘church’ group who meet on their premises – they were proud of these regulars! It was hard to get my head around all that this meant, but it reinforced how much we are so often scared of getting out of our churches. People don’t bite, in fact throughout the day I sensed a real welcome to the varied presence of believers in the community.
And so the day ended and we left with memories and questions.
Does BMS have a role to play here? As we sat in Tesco we were encouraged to believe that the cross-cultural insights we take for granted may be useful to share.
What kind of leadership is best in these settings? We all know that local indigenous leadership is best in the long run. But I couldn’t help thinking that someone from outside, someone who isn't beaten down by the prevailing hopelessness of some places, or whose horizon hasn’t been limited by circumstance and upbringing, can bring hope and envision people. We see it so often when one of our mission workers enters a new community in various countries.
And how does this kind of mission affect your theology? This is a favourite of mine – seeing again and again how our once watertight doctrinal formulations leak like a sieve once we actually sit down and get to know the kind of people our theology sometimes alienates.
Urban Expression are wonderful people, engaged in mission that doesn’t grab the headlines but there is something very Christ-like about it. They embrace the margins, and these days, the margins of our society are found in the heart of our cities.