GD: Hello Stephen Kneale, and welcome to Exiled Preacher. Please tell us a little about yourself.
SK: Hello! My friends call me Steve (some very close friends and family run with Stevie) I prefer being called Steve but hate it in conjunction with my surname, hence Stephen Kneale. Err... anyway that’s my name (hope you’ve made room for this). I was born in Oxford, began my schooling in Birkenhead, finished my secondary education in W. Berks, did my undergrad degree in History & Politics 10 years ago at Liverpool, where I also met my wife Rachel. From there, I took a Religious Studies & Philosophy PGCE and had a very brief career as a secondary school teacher in Newbury. After a hefty bout of depression, I left teaching and completed an MA in Theology (I had intended to do it with the Artist formerly known as WEST, but their distance programme wasn’t suitable for me at the time). At this point, we were in Shrewsbury due to my wife’s work. From there, we followed my wife’s work again to Manchester where I became a self-employed researcher serving the recruitment sector and serving with a church in Moss Side. From there, I was called to be the pastor at Oldham Bethel Church around 3 ½ years ago. Since then, you asked me to do this a few hours ago, marking the zenith of both my theological development and overall growth as a person.
GD: It doesn't get munch better than this. You blog at https://stephenkneale.com/. What made you start blogging?
SK: My blog began as a primarily political blog with a bit of theological comment thrown in. It has morphed somewhat since then, moving from Blogger to Wordpress and undergoing a couple of rebrands before landing on the form it takes today.
I began for a variety of reasons. I spent the early part of my university years shouting at people for not being political enough and, in a brief flirtation, knocking around with the SWP. Blogging seemed like a more efficient way to shout at a wider range of people. It became apparent that some of the radical SWP views didn’t quite square with the radical Socialism with a Christian bent I tended toward. As I began writing, much of the material was drawn from whatever I was studying or reading infused with a theological twist and a soupcon of my own thoughts. It soon became less a tool to shout my rightness at people and more a means of formulating my own views on a given subject and starting a discussion.
As it morphed into more theological and social comment, I found it helpful in forming my own views or pushing against things that struck me as sub-optimal in the Christian world, as I perceived them. It has also proved to be a making our little corner of the UK, and our unique challenges, a little wider known.
GD: Which blogs do you enjoy reading and why?
SK: You can hardly be reformed and not read Tim Challies blog. Funnily enough, I have valued his a la carte feature as much as anything as it has led me to several blogs I would never have read otherwise.
David Robertson at The Wee Flea is always good value. He is so insightful and absolutely excellent on the pressing social issues of the day.
Then I have valued several smaller blogs of folk working in similar areas to us. Duncan Forbes at Council EstateChristianity has much to say as does Dave Williams at Faithroots.net. Mez McConnell is normally churning out something interesting at the 20Schemes blog too.
GD: What are the strengths and weaknesses of blogging as a medium for reflection on theological and ministry matters?
SK: At its best, blogging can bring real clarity to an issue. More usually, it is helpful in starting a discussion and process of thinking. Occasionally, it descends into arguments because one cannot say in everything 1000 words (particular if someone has a particular something in mind that you chose not to say!)
I have found blogging valuable in offering a quick response, or a basic outline of thoughts, addressing issues that arise in the both the local and wider church. It has also been a useful exercise in offering a position to the church that we would work toward. Due to a combination of character traits (some good; some less good) I appear to have a particular penchant for puncturing what I perceive to be blind spots that are passed around, especially as they relate to how things are on the ground in our particular context.
I have found blogging exceptionally helpful in raising the profile of our work in Oldham. It has also given me room to make clear to those who might support our work to “prove” I am kosher and share their core convictions, rather than relying on some unspoken shibboleth or a secret Reformed handshake (no one has shown it to me yet!)
GD: Do you use other forms of social media, and why/what for?
SK: Being the appropriate age, I joined Facebook when it first hit universities and never really came off it. I joined Twitter much later with almost minimal use and am on Linkedin but rarely visit.
Since becoming a pastor and determining to blog much more frequently, I primarily use all of these as a means of publicising my blog. However, I have since come to value Twitter the most. I have built up a small, but supportive, group of people who are either in similar situations to us, theological training or are inclined to support work such as ours. More than a few excellent steps forward for our church can be traced back to Twitter in some respect.
GD: Who has had the greatest influence on your theological development?
SK: Without doubt, my Dad. I was brought up in a sound Evangelical family. My Dad’s family were traditionally raised in the Brethren and, whilst my Dad was at Bible College in Birkenhead, we attended a Brethren Assembly on a ‘problem estate’. Whatever else one may say about the Brethren, I have no doubt that my Dad’s evangelistic zeal stemmed from here and passed down to myself (now a pastor) and my brother (now a missionary). When we moved down South, we ended up in Grace Baptists circles – partly due to a lack of Brethren Assemblies and my Dad’s theological shift – and it was here that I essentially became the convinced Reformed Baptist that I remain to this day. But that is all background really. My Dad’s consistent love for the Lord, clear devotion to the word and obvious zeal in evangelism – leading him into a full-time role as Executive Officer with United Beach Mission for a decade – has without doubt had the biggest impact on me, hands down.
GD: Which character from post-New Testament church history would you most like to meet and what would you say to him/her?
SK: What a great question (almost impossible to answer)! I am struggling, I’ve already come back to this twice. It would perhaps be fascinating to go back and ask John Stott for his views on 1966 in the wake of current goings on in the Anglican communion, but that is nothing more than dissenting rubber-necking really isn’t it?
GD: Tell us how you felt called to pastoral ministry:
SK: I’m going to point you to a blog post I wrote a while ago re calling (here). It is a little relevant to the answer. I essentially did my MA for two reasons: (1) a vague sense of wanting to ‘do something’ in ministry at some point in future; (2) as a means of recovering from depression, being well enough to need something to focus my mind but without being able to go back into work. It fit the bill perfectly and the setup of my distance-learning course meant I could fit all this around how I was feeling. I mention this because at that point I wasn’t specifically looking.
I was quite happy serving in our church in Manchester and working in recruitment when I was called. I very definitely was not looking at the time. The outgoing minister was retiring and my pastor at the time had made contact through the NW Partnership and offered to cover their preaching for a time. I was duly dispatched to help, not knowing the church were on the lookout for someone to come in. At some point, my training and background must have been discussed (alongside potential future plans) but I honestly don’t remember much about it. Having made myself available to help fill their pulpit with some frequency, as far as I was concerned I received a call out of the blue asking if i would consider becoming their pastor.
My wife and I prayed about it and, frankly, weren’t sure but couldn’t find any reason to object. I took it to our elders, fully expecting them to laugh at the idea. I intended to speak to all of them together but ended up talking to two independently first (one being the pastor). Both of them was individually very encouraging and said it was a confirmation of their own thinking at the time – the other two elders agreed when we got to meet with all of them. I spoke to my parents, who similarly told me I should go for it. In the face of one church asking, another church telling me it was a good idea and my Dad also affirming the idea, it seemed hard to say no really. So, as per my linked post, I felt called when I actually was called, to be honest.
GD: Where did you train for the ministry and what did you find especially helpful about your training?
SK: All of my undergrad and postgrad work has been useful. But, my direct theological training came in the form of an MA at Kings Evangelical Divinity School.
The course was great for handling the Bible and considering (from an academic stand point) cultural issues pertinent to ministry. But my degree was a purely academic one.
GD: What would be your three top tips for budding preachers?
SK: I’m not sure I’m qualified to comment! Everything I have learnt from preaching has come from Stuart Olyott’s writing and watching others.
I’d probably go for: (1) Stick closely to the text; (2) illustrations are useful but overrated i.e. preach as though what you’re saying is inherently interesting; (3) be yourself in words and dress so that the guy apart from the sermon sounds/looks like the one delivering it.
GD: Describe the situation where you are now ministering. What are some of the key challenges you face?
SK: Oldham is the most deprived town in England. The borough is 230,000 people and is in the top 10 of all the polls you’d rather you weren’t. The town is very segregated with S. Asian Muslims areas almost entirely separated from working class white estates. Joblessness, poverty, homelessness, racial tension and asylum seekers are all rife. We are the only FIEC church in the borough and one of only two gospel partnership churches.
Our main challenges are severaly fold: (1) the church has been through something of a journey over the years. Whilst the eldership is overtly and decidedly Reformed, the congregation is not. We are working with many from Pentecostal backgrounds and trying to lead them to Biblical truth; (2) trying to break into the local Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities (we are making some inroad but it is a drop in the bucket); (3) We function bilingually due to the large number of Iranian and Afghan asylum seekers coming into the church and converting (we are now 50% Farsi-speaking). This has difficult challenges in discipling and teaching new believers when hardly anything exists in Farsi and what does is typically rubbish that leads to the similarly bad delivery of English stuff by English guys like us and the hope it is being adequately translated on the hoof. (4) Reaching asylum seekers and the jobless means we are not solvent as a church (we have a regular £1500 deficit), are unlikely to ever be and thus rely on outside supporters. We have a few but not nearly enough to cover the gap in finances caused by a combination of people unable to give substantially, my salary and deep practical needs among the membership. [Info on how to Give in support of the work].
GD: How can Reformed Evangelicalism reconnect with disadvantaged communities?
SK: By teaching the truth of the gospel. The false promises of the Prosperity Gospel take hold easily but always fail to deliver. Methodism has had a stranglehold in Oldham for decades, but a social gospel is great for those using its services but quickly falters for those doing the serving (and does little for the souls of those coming). The borough is littered with failing Methodist churches that have dwindled down to a handful because, essentially, people got sick of serving just because it’s a nice thing to do.
It is only the gospel that will reconnect with the poor. That is what Jesus called good news – not the feeding of the 5000, but the gospel itself. If we want the promises we offer people to last, we need to offer them the unfailing promises of Christ in the gospel. If we want people to stick in the church, we need to give them something more than ‘serving is nice’. We need to serve them and give them the reason for the hope that is in us.
GD: Is the church you serve part of a wider group? If so, what are the benefits of belonging to the FIEC/NWP
SK: We are a part of both the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches and North West Partnership. Both these groups have given us churches we can pass new converts who have had to move onto. They have also given us a ready made network of churches with whom we can work in the gospel both locally and more nationally. They have also provided something of a platform for us to share our work with those who would otherwise never have heard of it. These links will come into their own, particularly as we look to plant into unchurched areas of the borough.
GD: What is the most helpful theological book that you have read in the last twelve months? It is a must read because?
SK: There are several that are good contenders. We were doing a lot of work on polity and membership this last year. Whilst Dever’s 9 Marks of a Healthy Church was extraordinarily helpful, I think Thom Rainer’s I am a member was probably the simplest and easiest that laid out in the clearest possible work what membership should be from a members point of view. I suspect it would be the book to have the biggest impact on our members if we all read it together as a church.
GD: In a recent blog post you argued that it isn’t necessary to wear a suit and tie in the pulpit. Since when was scruffiness next to godliness?
SK: When in Rome... (and, of course, according to the Bible!) According to my Facebook comments, the turning point seems to be somewhere around 55.
GD: What do you do to relax?
SK: My wife would say, ‘not much’. I genuinely like blogging and find it quite cathartic. But, if that sounds too close to work, I tend to veg out of TV of some sort. Streaming boxsets are very helpful.
GD: Care to share your top three songs or pieces of music?
SK: Just 3? I’m not sure they’re top 3 but they are 3 I have really been enjoying lately:
- Start a War – The National
- Hail to the Lord’s Anointed – The Welcome Wagon
- Tom on the Boulevard – The Innocence Mission
GD: What is the biggest problem facing evangelicalism today and how should we respond?
SK: Presuming we are saying in the UK, it is hands down the overwhelming white educated middle class and Southern nature of British Evangelicalism that is seeing swathes of the poor and needy heading for Hell because we are unwilling to go to them because we are, frankly, comfortable where we are in our middle class enclaves. Evangelicalism will always remain minority unless we revive the missionary spirit and make a concerted effort to reach those in deprived communities, not just those people like us with whom we are comfortable, where the schools and cafes are to our liking.
GD: Agreed. Thanks for dropping by for this conversation, Steve.