Towns and cities across Wales, Scotland, and England are full of broken people. Hundreds of thousands are stuck in the deadly grip of deprivation. These places are full of lost sinners living in darkness; hurting themselves and others. If you’re familiar with such places, then you’ll know the kinds of issues I’m talking about. The problems are endless. Humanly speaking, these situations can seem dire and hopeless.
But every lost person’s biggest problem is not that they don’t have a job, or that they can’t kick their addiction, or even that they grew up in poverty. No. Their biggest problem is that they’re in rebellion against God. Therefore, the myriad social problems that accompany deprivation and poverty have one answer: the gospel of Jesus Christ administered through the local church.
The Bible tells us that the local church is the only institution on planet earth that is guaranteed to succeed (Matt. 16:18). This is not to say that God doesn’t work through charities, government organisations, para-church ministries, or other good groups. In His mercy, He does. But Jesus has been made head of only one thing: the church (Col. 1:18). It’s the local church that God has ordained and called to spread the gospel across the globe, which includes the poorest communities here in the UK.
The local church, as it looks to Jesus and holds fast to His Word, is the pillar and foundation of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15). The truth that sets people free—from slavery to sin, from addiction, from destructive patterns of behaviour—comes through the local church. In and through the local church, God gathers people together around the cross of Christ.
The amazing thing about a healthy local church is that it’s the family of God. It may look and feel like a dysfunctional family at times—it’s full of sinners, after all—but it’s a place where all barriers of division are smashed down by the death and resurrection of Christ. And when sin crops up and conflict arises, those barriers are kept down by members of the church dying to self as they trust Christ’s finished work.
Because God calls us to gather together with a particular group of believers in one place in our local church, we are gloriously stuck with these often odd and difficult people. This stands in stark contrast to so many secular or parachurch organisations who give preferential treatment, have exclusive entry requirements, look to recruit a certain type of person, or gather people based on shared interests or talents. But, praise God, the church is not like that. To be ‘in’ with the church, one need only to have received mercy from God through Christ (1 Pet. 2:10).
Consider what that means: the church is full of ordinary, unexceptional sinners. It’s made up of losers and idiots who have trusted Christ alone (which is a massive relief for an idiot like me). Therefore, what the lost souls in poor communities need most is not a flash movement, targeted government project, or elite para-church organisation. Rather, they need the precious variety of ordinary members of Christ’s body, which is the local church.
Only in the local church will you find an ex-policeman sharing a meal in his home with an ex-burglar (and sometimes the not so ex-burglar too). Only in the local church will you find the elderly saint—who’s never drank or smoked—befriending and discipling the young woman in her 20’s who’s struggling with drug and trauma induced mental health issues. Only in the local church will you find a single mum with a house full of men doing DIY, for free, with nothing but good intentions and brotherly love. Only in the local church will you find people who’ve had their children removed from them due to drug-fuelled neglect, now sober and looking after the pastor’s young children. All of these stories, and many more, are possible because sinners—once alienated from God and one another—have now been reconciled to God and each other in and through Christ.
One of the greatest joys in our church in Neath is seeing the ordinary members of the church being used by God to transform the lives of others. For instance, many single-parent children now have spiritual uncles and aunts to care for them, and these single parents have brothers and sisters to love and support them as they raise their children. There are also several recovering drug addicts who’ve been learning a trade from working with another church member.
Or I think of the member who no longer lives with his children, having abandoned them and their mother for heroin. But now that he’s saved and stable, he’s allowed contact with them. He recently told me that he’s learned more about being a good dad from fishing trips with the men in our church and sitting around the elders’ dinner tables than he ever did from his own parents or social services.
But, before we pat ourselves on the back for giving handouts and bestowing our wisdom on the lowly, it’s important to remember that just as God calls us to reach the poor and needy in our communities, he also blesses and helps us through them. One such member of our church is a man whom I will call Tony. Tony has been on the run from the mental health crisis team at various points in his life. He’s even been arrested and sectioned. When he first started coming to our church plant, he didn’t speak to anybody. Sometimes, the strong medication he takes causes him to fall asleep during the service, often during my sermons (it’s the meds, I swear!) and snore incredibly loudly.
Eventually, after about a year, Tony began talking to people. He’d stay for the meal we have after service. Then one of the young men in the church started studying the Bible with Tony (which was crucial, because he can’t read). Then, after about 18 months, Tony professed faith in Christ and was baptised. He’s now one of the most faithful members of our church.
At the funeral of a new convert, Tony cared for the unbelieving family by offering them tissues throughout the service. At the end of the funeral, he invited them to church. He does this with just about everyone he meets—inviting them to church as he testifies to how Jesus has changed his life. His storytelling entertains tables full of people after the service. Tony can’t work, and no one would give him a job even if he were able, but he blesses our church and is being used by God to reach his neighbours, even with his ongoing mental health issues.
Thank God for healthy local churches, God’s (not so) secret weapon to offer hope to those whose lives and communities are blighted by drugs, crime, violence, and deprivation.