What Americans Need to Know Before Serving in the United Kingdom - Radical

What Americans Need to Know Before Serving in the United Kingdom

In orienting American missionaries to the United Kingdom, I sometimes refer to an image that is split into two pictures. In the top picture, a group of smiling ladies sit around a table in floral dresses and hats sipping tea from little gilded cups and eating dainty sandwiches, with the caption, “What people think England is like.” 

The bottom picture offers a counterpoint: “What England is really like.” A group of visibly unhealthy adults huddle on an unattractively presented doorstep, drinking, and doing drugs. While the truth lies somewhere between the two images, an important point is nonetheless communicated.

Your Idea… and the Reality

“I love the United Kingdom.” Perhaps you do, but that love must and will be tested. Many Americans who express a love for the United Kingdom actually love their idea of the United Kingdom. Upon further examination, this idea is seldom informed by deep personal experience—more likely it’s been informed by a nostalgic view of history and culture or popular media portrayals, such as Downton Abbey or The Crown

‘I love the United Kingdom.’ Perhaps you do, but that love must and will be tested.

The reductive nostalgia of the wider culture may be found even among Christians hoping to serve as missionaries in the United Kingdom, remaining in “tourist” mode. But an indefinite vacation is not sustainable, and like with any trip away, the longing for “home” eventually sets in. If that longing is not kept in perspective, it will destabilize the missionary, eventually limiting their time on the field.

Deceived by the Familiar

People in the United Kingdom speak English, so basically you can hop on a plane with a Bible and little to no contextual preparation before departure and none planned upon arrival, right? Not so fast. A misguided assumption of familiarity will undermine your effectiveness. 

Language is not just about the letters and words. It extends beyond mere spellings and pronunciation to the way people communicate, what they mean, and the cultural contexts in which communication takes place. Language is not the only area of deceptive familiarity, but it is the mask behind which a world that is very unfamiliar hides, surprising missionaries who find themselves less prepared than if they were going elsewhere. You know South Asia is going to be different, but you might not think the United Kingdom is so different. 

There and Back Again

Where are you from? I am from Tumbling Shoals, Arkansas, but I have lived in London, England for 21 years. My experience of London is going to be different from that of someone who moves from New York City. 

Likewise, those who are young will experience such a move differently to those who are older. Even more importantly, where are you going? It is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, with Great Britain consisting of England, Scotland, and Wales—all very different places in almost every way. 

So, where is it? It is not all London. Furthermore, if it is London, where in London? Do not make the mistake of more than a few missionaries, trying to live in the whole city—that is the tourist mode I mentioned earlier. 

Know Who You are Working With

Although the percentage of evangelical Christians might seem to indicate otherwise, this is not a spiritually isolated place with no gospel witness. Local churches are working, often with very limited human and financial resources, to push back the darkness with the light of Christ. They need your help and encouragement, not your missiological colonialism. Build a relationship with a like-minded local church you can work with and through before you even arrive. 

Build a relationship with a like-minded local church you can work with and through before you even arrive.

Become a member of that church, immersing yourself in the same way some would approach language learning in non-English speaking contexts. Listen, learn, serve, and submit to being sent by that church to evangelize, plant, and revitalize churches. You will earn trust and be immeasurably more effective than those who just show up and do their own thing, prioritizing a plethora of skin-deep partnerships over meaningful and multiplicative local church engagement. 

Don’t Lose Sight of the Kingdom to Which you Belong

While doing ministry in the United Kingdom, you will grapple with the challenges of crossing multiple cultures. You will grieve over industrial-scale idolatry, immorality, and injustice in society. You will deeply feel a heavy burden that is simply not shared even by professing Christians, under the oppressive power of spiritual apathy. 

You may not be trusted or respected. You may not be made to feel welcome. But you are not the Savior—Jesus is. And the mission is ultimately not for the United Kingdom, but for the heavenly Kingdom, and Christ is King still.

Ryan Burton King

Ryan Burton King is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church Wood Green in London, United Kingdom. He is the team leader of Grace Baptists in Europe.


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