Wednesday, 8 October 2014


                       The Challenge & the Opportunity in the UK today

                      Material originally presented as a position paper in 2013

The Demographic Challenge
When the Apostolic Church UK was founded Islam was a religion of people who lived on the other side of the world. Today it is the religion of people who live on the other side of the street.

The demographic sea-change in recent decades was evidenced in the Census statistics for 2011 which showed a rise in the number of Muslims in England & Wales, with the proportion of the population standing at 4.8%, that is 2.7 million, up from 1.65 million in 2001.i This expansion is mirrored in most other Western countries and has led many Muslims to claim their religion to be the fastest-growing on the planet. 

 However such assertions are difficult to either prove or disprove due to the differing measurements which can be used. In Islamic thought a person is born into the religion, so Muslims will use birth-rate –rather than mere conversion rate- to estimate numbers. Contrast this with evangelical Christians who would insist that Christians are not merely born, but must also be born-again! ii

Nevertheless there is no question that the Islamic population worldwide is growing markedly, even if actual conversion rates to Islam have remained steady for a long time. The percentage population growth of Islam in Western countries is further assisted by the low birth rates amongst many non-Muslims.iii

But of even more significance than the demographic expansion of Islam is the growing self-confidence seen amongst Muslim populations globally. Historically Muslim self-esteem enjoyed its heyday in the times of the medieval caliphate, when Islamic civilisation could boast of very considerable scientific and military achievements. 

 The caliphate, at least in its classical form, was destroyed by the Mongol invasions of the 13th Century.iv Long years of cultural decline were then followed by the rise of the European colonial powers and the Islamic Ummah was subdued by this European and “Christian” domination of the world. 

Today European civilization has the unmistakable scent of death about it. It is viewed in Muslim circles as being in a terminal decline due to its moral decadence and many who would never join a violent jihad would nevertheless view the continent as being ripe for an Islamic takeover through peaceful demographic change.

 The situation has been recognised by many within the Church also. Respected Bible teacher David Pawson stunned many in the evangelical world when he declared his belief that the UK would eventually become an Islamic nation, a prediction to which he attached the authority of prophecy.v

The implications of all this for Christian believers are serious enough, but the Islamic challenge to the Church in the UK is actually greater even than that represented by mere demographics.

Secularism & Islam
It is remarkable to witness how in our day a secular society appears to have signed what amounts to an unofficial non-aggression pact with the Islamic religion. This reminds us once again that opposition to the Gospel can create strange bedfellows. Ever since the implausible alliance of Pilate & Herod against Christ (Lk 23:12), Christianity has manifested an uncanny ability to bring together those who would otherwise be enemies.

Examples of this abound today. Witness how a prominent bible sceptic such as the scholar Bart Ehrman, whilst ever-eager to subject the Bible to the penetrating gaze of his scepticism; has publicly shunned invitations to comment upon the Islamic holy book. 

 We may well never see the TV documentary or West End show that pillories Muhammad in the way that Jesus Christ has so often been blasphemed in recent years. Instead what has often been termed “a voluntary dhimmitude” appears to prevail in secular media with regards to Islam. Some of this reluctance to tackle Islam can, of course, be attributed to simple fear. Secularists know that Christians do not issue death threats when insulted! 

 But media often goes beyond mere reluctance to criticize Islam, and instead shows a marked inclination towards actively promoting Islamic belief with many media outlets consistently seeking to portray the religion in a good light. 

 When a positive role-model for religious belief is required, expect the invitee to the TV studio to be an articulate, usually female, westernised Muslim and never a Christian. Conversely, when a religious “extremist” is to be presented for ritual humiliation on TV or radio, it is invariably a Christian who will be sought out for the amusement. Believers ought always to be alert to this media bias & never to miss an opportunity to expose the hypocrisy that lies behind it. 

In his book on Islam Pawson has an interesting discussion of the potential attractiveness of Islam to a post-Christian societyvi. Whilst the religion is fourteen hundred years old in some parts of the world, we ought not to forget that Islam is a new religion to the West. It therefore still has a “fresh” look to those who are familiar to the point of contempt with traditional Christianity. Many who would never dream of converting to Islam will nevertheless give it a fairer hearing than Christianity simply because of this novelty value.

Our society is uniquely vulnerable to the resurgence of Islam. We live in a post-modern culture that lacks any ethical or moral backbone and has no vision for society beyond that of the accumulation of goods & the gratification of personal desires.

 A society that can envisage no higher pursuits than these is hopelessly ill-equipped to tackle the package of self-confident moral certainties (backed up by eternal rewards) that Islam offers to its adherents. Islam’s simple theology and comparatively undemanding moral requirements can make it an attractive religion for many weary with the moral vacuum of secularism.vii 

 Hence we need to be alert to the danger of the Church in our nation being caught in a pincer movement between these two disparate forces, Islam and secularism, each of which is, with differing motives, bent upon her destruction.

The Fear Factor
If all of this gives cause for serious concern for the future of Christianity in the UK, we can also choose to see it as a God-given missional opportunity.

Globalisation has created unprecedented outlets for witness to peoples from different cultures and creeds. Prior to the 20th Century such outreach meant dangerous travel to far-away lands and so was restricted to a few hardy souls. Today the nations have come to us! A large unevangelized Islamic population is now resident in our country. 

The God-given opportunity is all the more evident when we recall that these are people who might have no chance to hear the Gospel were they living in an Islamic state. Given the Apostolic Church’s rich history of overseas mission the opportunities thus presented ought to be especially apparent to us in our movement.

But in order to grasp that opportunity we must first of all deal with the marked reluctance on the part of most Christians, even amongst those who are usually strongly motivated towards mission, to engage with Muslims evangelistically.

 If we are being honest we would have to admit that thus far most of us have adopted a strategy of simply hoping that the challenge Islam represents to us will somehow go away and that we will never have to address it. Clearly that strategy is not working! 

We are missing out on a huge opportunity for Christian mission and we can summarize the reason for it in a single word: fear. There is a fear that arises naturally from our exposure to the terrorist images displayed with such regularity on our TV screens.

 Here it is important to remind ourselves that the extremists exist only on the radical edge of the UK Muslim population and that the great majority of Muslims we will encounter are just ordinary people getting on with their lives. 

 We must refuse to see the problem of Islam as merely, or even primarily, as an issue of radicalisation. Although there is no question that the threat of Islamist violence represents huge challenges for our society, it needs to be understood that these are dangers that we share with all of our fellow citizens & it ought never to be seen as a specific issue for the Church per se.

Instead the central challenge for Christian believers today is not radical Islam but rather everyday Islam. The nettle to be grasped is our attitude towards those ordinary Muslims we all encounter on a daily basis.

 Here we must identify a secondary cause for our fear, one that is really nothing more than that innate aversion that every human being has to that which is unknown and so not understood. As Christian believers we are largely ignorant of Islam and this ignorance is the real enemy. If it is not confronted then fear will continue to dominate and will prevail in our mindset. An awareness of Islam and a level of familiarity with its beliefs and practices is essential for overcoming this fear.

For one thing is certain: we will not evangelize people that we are afraid of.

Historical Interaction
Unlike other world religions such as Buddhism & Hinduism which grew up in a milieu unconnected with the Judeo-Christian world, Islam developed alongside of the “Abrahamic religions” and indeed would claim itself to be one of them.

Despite this, it is clear from a reading of the Qur’an that Muhammad had only a passing acquaintance with the Bible. His treatment of it often does not rise much above a Sunday School-level knowledge of characters like Moses or Lot. 

 His knowledge of the New Testament was especially limited. You will find within the pages of the Qur’an no interaction with the majestic Son of Man as displayed in the four gospels, or with the soaring heights of Pauline theology. Islam’s prophet had no inkling of these things.

 This should not surprise us since there was no Arabic Bible in Muhammad’s time and many Muslims would claim that he was illiterate anyway. Muhammad would have gained his biblical knowledge largely through conversations had with Jews & Christians whilst traversing the trade routes in and out of Arabia.

An early example of positive dialogue is recorded from the days of Muhammad himself when a Christian delegation from Najran came to Medina in 630 & had discussions with him about the coexistence of the two religions.

 Tragically, thereafter the context of Christian-Islamic interaction has all too often been one of conflict. After Muhammad’s death a rapid and permanent conquest of the Middle East & North Africa took place which began under the reign of the great caliph Umar.

 So successful were these military campaigns that exactly a hundred years after the death of the Islamic Prophet a Muslim army was fighting in France. During the course of that momentous century Middle-eastern Christianity was largely eradicated.

Much later “Christendom” responded with the Crusades. Although in many respects these could be understood as a counter-attack, rather than the unprovoked aggression that they are often painted as today; the subject remains a tender spot for many Muslims. This is a fact that it is well to be aware of in our interaction with Muslims.

It is significant that Islam arose at a time when Christianity was entering its “Dark Ages” having embraced a religious system increasingly based upon the sacerdotal priesthood and papal power, rather than upon the scriptures. It is therefore fair to say that this new religion did not catch us at our best!

 With the true Gospel message effectively obscured, very many centuries would elapse before genuine large-scale evangelism of Muslims would become even remotely possible. Many have recognized that evangelism of the Islamic world is the primary challenge of 21st Century mission. And that necessity applies to the UK situation also.

Here there is encouragement in that both belief-systems are missional and so the opportunity for engagement clearly exists.

We will explore this in part two

ii It is generally believed that where conversion rate is the sole criteria used, then Pentecostal Christianity is the fastest-growing belief in the world.
iii Of further concern in the 2011 census results was the finding that Christianity has the oldest age profile of all religious groups in the UK.
iv The later Turkish Caliphate lingered until the final demise of the Ottoman Empire in the 20th Century but many, especially Arab Muslims, did not recognise its spiritual authority
v pp91-100 The Challenge of Islam to Christians David Pawson Hodder & Stoughton
vi Ibid pp36-55
vii Of the traditional five “pillars of Islam“ perhaps only the Salat or daily prayers constitutes any kind of serious imposition upon daily routine.