“Healthy Churches in Hard Places” data dump

(The following is the text of an e-mail I sent to my church today, with few modifications.)

Hey everyone,

Hope you’re staying warm and not getting stuck in any snow drifts. I thought I’d pass on to you some items of interest from the conference I invited you to, which took place this past weekend at Grace Harbor Church in Providence. 

The main speaker and big draw for the conference was Mez McConnell, pastor of Niddrie Community Church in Edinburgh, Scotland, and cofounder of the 20Schemes organization (more on that later). Mez talked about his life on Friday night, and it was pretty intense. Basically grew up in a really abusive, nomadic situation, in and out of children’s homes in Ireland and England, and then the old story of crime and drugs. Some Christians who came to his housing project to play soccer and witness to people told him about Jesus, but it wasn’t till later, when they visited him in prison (and didn’t preach to him), then gave him a place to crash when he got out.

The next day a representative of 9Marks (an organization that promotes church health) and the other cofounder of 20Schemes spoke, and Mez spoke again. 20Schemes is an organization that has a simple goal: to plant or revitalize churches in 20 of the poorest housing projects (“schemes”) in Scotland. 40% of the population of Scotland lives in projects (which tells you a lot about the nation). About one half of one percent of the people in the projects are Christians. That’s where Mez is from (though in England, not Scotland) and that’s where 20Schemes is working. There was also a Q&A panel discussion with the speakers. I think everyone there wishes McConnell had had more time to talk and elaborate on some big points he made, but that’s not how it played out. I’d like to summarize those points below.

Mez McConnell on training gospel workers …

When Mez was growing up, church was for “posh” people and for dead people (funerals). 20 years on the evangelical church in the UK is even more middle class and isolated.

50 years back the main way that the poor were reached in Scotland was through “mission halls”, including “city missions”. While they did a lot of good they were “para-church” organizations, not churches, and so did not retain a permanent presence in the poor neighborhoods. Today evangelical churches are aged and dying; they have the gospel but no one to preach it to (little contact with non-Christians). Liberal churches don’t care about evangelism because they don’t really believe in sin or its eternal consequences. So they content themselves with “social justice” initiatives and projects.

Today most evangelism is still done by para-church organizations. Most development (actual community-building change) is done by government agencies. Mez believes that local churches should be doing both, and can do both better than the para-churches or the government. A local church gives a base of operations, a place of spiritual accountability for gospel workers (who are usually headed toward burnout). Just as important, it gives a place where believers and unbelievers grow together in active discipleship.

We need a movement that will incorporate local training of workers, and not require them to leave their own people and culture and become something they are not. How are we going to get there? By being honest about how desperate the situation is. The current method of training personnel (leaving “ministry” to the professionals, and requiring them to get seminary education) is not working.

50-75 years ago at the bottom of the class system was what was called the “working class”. Today they have been replaced with the “underclass”, who are characterized by 3-5 generations of welfare dependency, totally broken family structures, and loads of addiction. The schemes in Scotland were originally built (most of them) to house miners and mill workers, but now house people who have often never done any legitimate work.

Mez is, by his own account, an exception: he is an “insider” who came to Christ, got trained, got ministry experience (he worked with street children in Brazil for several years), and came back to the culture he came from: that of the British/Scottish underclass. Today, church planting and revitalization in places like the schemes depends on cultural outsiders: middle class folks who are willing to be downwardly mobile for the gospel.

The goal of cultural outsiders must be to look for and train cultural insiders to carry on the work of the gospel. Reaching the poor for Christ cannot be done with a top-down, outside-in strategy. Ultimately it must be handled by the cultural indigenous: people who became Christians from within that specific community or scheme. This is a very long-term project. At Niddrie, the team Mez works with have made 20-year commitments to the work there. They live in the community, serve there, and over time, they are accepted and can effectively share the gospel there.

Principles …

  • We need to start throwing lots of money and our very best people at ministry to the poorest. Christians need to aspire to move down the social ladder for the sake of the gospel, not up it.
  • “Iatrogenesis”: a word coined by Ivan Ilych to describe the process where leaders make everyone else think that they, and only they, can serve as leaders. This is very natural and very harmful. All Christians should be trained to serve/lead, and should seek to serve/lead. That’s how the gospel grows.
  • Thanks to a combination of factors, mercy ministry is very much in vogue today. But much of it is “malevolent generosity” and “crippling paternalism”. There is a soup kitchen mentality, where we continually give handouts to people who continually take advantage and pretend to be grateful. There is nothing sadder than a regular at a soup kitchen. The goal must be to help people out of their current situation, to where they can work and serve others. We should stop measuring success by mouths fed or tracts distributed.
  • Most churches that engage in mercy ministry have absolutely no plan for when someone comes to Christ from a hard background. They must be prepared for works of service! Help -> Conversion -> Discipleship -> Maturity -> Leadership. They must be challenged to help themselves and help others: to bear good fruit! Therefore, have a plan before you open your doors!

Suggestions …

  • In leader training, make a conscious effort to overcome cultural barriers. All material is currently written by “cultural outsiders” for other cultural outsiders. It must be rewritten for cultural insiders.
  • Lead from beside and behind, not just from in front. Unleash new converts early. Example: Tasha, running a Bible study within 2 months of her conversion (with a mature Christian woman in the room to help her). Think of leading as shadowing.
  • Think of leadership development as shadowing rather than as reading. Don’t confuse education with intelligence. When developing leaders from this kind of background, the “cream” doesn’t always rise to the top: no culture of achievement/competition in place. Instead, think of it as diamond mining: you have to dig and dig to get to the gems.
  • We must celebrate and build a culture of failure in our ministries. Why is everyone so afraid of failure? God’s in charge: get a grip! If you’re failing, it means you’re trying – and that’s what you need to do!
  • We must repent for our lack of faith. The fields really are white with harvest. The Lord will give a harvest. 
  • We must be sure we understand people’s language; their ways of communicating. In Acts 2 Pentecost reverses Babylon, and makes it possible for people to understand each other – even from different countries and social backgrounds.
  • Cross-cultural exposure is absolutely essential for leadership development. Going to Brazil was the best thing that could have happened to Mez. He likes to send his own trainees (people from the schemes) to visit middle class churches – and forbids them from criticizing!
  • You must be able to come and love the community as it is, rather than seeing it as something to “fix”. 
  • Know the strengths and weaknesses of the culture you’re trying to reach – and the strengths and weaknesses of your own culture. 
  • Observe, don’t assume. Don’t bring “Christian” cultural values with you. 
  • We must work hard at delivering systematic theology in ways that are relevant to each cultural context. 

Phew. Obviously, there’s lots to talk about in here. All of this could have been greatly expanded – I would have appreciated it.

I’m not going to give a big “here’s how we do this in Providence” analysis, but I will say a few things. First, there’s lots of transfer between the situation in the UK and the situation in New England. The numbers on Christians in the two places are similar, and in each place there’s lots of hand-wringing and despair over “reaching people”. Second, people from the beaten-up bottom of society are far more ready to talk about God and hear the gospel than well fed middle class folks. Third, most mercy ministry is a farce. We have been extraordinarily blessed in our church in that respect. Fourth and by far the most important point, something that I didn’t mention above: the most important thing we can do, ever, is pray. Pray for the people in our lives, but also “pray to the Lord of the harvest to raise up workers for the harvest”. Mez said his church has had a prayer meeting every morning from 6-8am for years. There are no gimmicks or tricks. Either the Lord saves and changes people, or he doesn’t. If you want him to do so, and want him to include you in his work, pray for those things.