November 18, 2021

’The Least, the Last and the Lost’—Is Church for Guys Like Me?

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Mez McConnell’s new book The Least, the Last, and the Lost: Understanding Poverty in the UK and the Responsibility of the Local Church. You can order the book now.

Biting The Hand That Didn’t Actually Feed Me!

I don’t recall the exact day that the celebrity shine started to wear off for me. It was a gradual thing. Firstly, I began to grow in my knowledge of the Bible. Then, I began to grow in the knowledge of myself. As time wore on, instead of pride in my past, I began to feel shame. I wanted to run from my past. I wanted to leave it far behind. I didn’t want to talk about it anymore. I felt like every testimony I gave kept me in bondage to the sin from which I was trying so hard to escape.

But, in church circles, everybody wanted me to constantly regurgitate it. I began to feel that perhaps I should be doing more than just continuously telling my horror story for the entertainment of the (mainly) middle-class masses. So, I began to try to distance myself from my testimony. I said ‘no’ to speaking engagements. I offered to teach the Bible instead. Invariably, this suggestion was met with bewilderment and, in some cases, open amusement. I was the church’s testimony guy, not the preacher guy.

That’s when I began to feel a distancing from the church. Subtly, you understand. Not mean spirited, but there, nonetheless. The invitations to speak dried up. It seemed as if the more I wanted to distance myself from my old life, the more the church kept me at arms-length for anything else. These feelings were exacerbated further as I began to study some of the deep doctrines of the faith. To the surprise of many, I read book after book on a variety of biblical subjects. I remember when I first stumbled upon the wonderful doctrines of grace; it was like pouring petrol on the smouldering embers of my soul. My spirit burst into flame with the realisation of the absolute sovereignty of God over all things. So, of course, I wanted to talk about these things. But it wouldn’t be long before somebody in the church would throw cold water over those fires. As one leader told me when I enquired about seminary: “Bible College isn’t for guys like you, Mez. Just stick to loving Jesus and you will be OK.”

The unspoken assumption seemed to be that guys ‘like me’ didn’t need to know the Bible that deeply. After all, it’s not like we’d become pastors, right? I told myself I was just being paranoid, yet everything I saw in the evangelical world confirmed my suspicions. For example, I never met a pastor from a council estate. In fact, I met very few pastors working in council estates. Also, I never heard a voice like mine, or met a person from my background in church, except if there was a testimony night somewhere.

The Christian conferences I attended were the same. When I finally did go to seminary, I discovered the same thing there. When I brought the issue up, I was shushed. What are you talking about? It’s not true. It’s just your imagination. I noted the irritation whenever I spoke about it. It was made clear to me that if I wanted to progress into Christian ministry then I had better not upset the apple cart. ‘After all,’ one friend told me, ‘Where’s the wisdom in biting the hand that feeds you?’ To my shame, I stopped talking about it. Not out of wisdom, but out of fear. The fear that I would be excluded from the middle-class club. I couldn’t go back to my old life, that much was clear. So, I reasoned, if I wanted acceptance in this new life, then I had better toe the line.

Street Gangs & Strippers

Despite my private frustrations, and a recognition of my powerlessness within the evangelical world, I left seminary and went into full-time Christian ministry in 1999. My family and I would be working with street gangs in Brazil by 2003, and so I felt fulfilled with the work that the Lord had given me to do. After all, what did I have to complain about? I had a wonderful family and a successful ministry. I had come a long way from the pitiful figure sleeping in bus shelters and smoking discarded cigarette butts that I found on street corners or picked out of rubbish bins.

But, two phone calls, an off the cuff comment, a surprise party, and a stripper changed the direction of my life, yet again, and reawakened all of the misgivings I had suppressed for so long. The first phone call was with my father, who I rang at least once a month while living in Brazil. There was nothing unusual about it, and I guarantee that he probably has no recollection of it whatsoever. Once the customary football chat was out of the way, I remember him asking me how things were going. I explained what Miriam and I were doing and so, in a rare moment of emotional depth, he announced that he was proud of me. “It’s all Jesus”, I assured him. He grunted, the way he always does when I say things like that. I asked him, “Why don’t you get yourself along to a church this Sunday, dad?” He simply replied, “I don’t think so, son. I haven’t got the bottle to do that.” That was it. That’s all that was said. Completely off the cuff. Nothing profound. The moment passed, and I hung up with the promise to call him the following month.

However, try as I might, I couldn’t get his words out of my mind. My dad has been a builder for 50 years and has seen the rough end of life. He socialises in Miner’s Clubs and is well used to being in bars and going to parties that, more often than not, end in violence and multiple arrests. To be clear, he is not a criminal nor a violent man. My point is that he doesn’t even blink in those situations, and yet here he was admitting to me that he was scared to go into a church! But, when I thought back to my own experiences of church in the early days, I began to appreciate what he meant.

Several months later our little family returned from Brazil on furlough. We were tired, but extremely encouraged by the work we had established there. The ministry was blossoming, and all was well. That’s when I received the second phone call. This time it was from a family member inviting me to a surprise birthday party for my dad. “Is there anything I can do to help?” I asked. “Oh yes,” came the reply. “You can pay for the stripper.” I laughed, but they were deadly serious. “I’m not paying for a stripper!” I said, “I will pay for the DJ.” “OK.” was the reply as they hung up.

Of course, this now left me with a new dilemma. Do I go to my dad’s party or not? I hadn’t seen him for a couple of years at this point, and so I was leaning toward going. But, now that I knew there was going be a stripper, where did that leave me as a Christian? Every Christian friend I asked counselled me not to go, citing a bad witness as the reason. Fellow pastors offered the same advice. But, after praying about it, and talking to my wife, who would ultimately accompany me to the party, I decided that I would go and just leave the room when the stripper made her appearance.

The day of the party came and as expected, the pub was packed to the rafters with family and friends I had not seen for years. It was loud, it was raucous, and it was (mostly) fun. It didn’t take me long to spot the drugs being handed out in one corner, or the shady deals being made in another. The karaoke machine was being well used and, bang on time, the stripper made her entrance. As Miriam and I got up to leave the whole place started howling abuse and making fun of us. But we moved into the other bar and waited for the show to be over. When we returned, we received more than our fair share of scowls and snarky comments from people who thought our actions somehow communicated that we were better than them. Miriam and I retreated to a quiet corner with our drinks, planning to stay a couple of hours more so as not to appear rude.

Then, over the course of the evening, a strange thing happened. One-by-one people who had been mocking my faith earlier in the evening, came to sit at our table. Every person asked me about my faith, and every single one regaled me with stories of their own broken lives, and how empty they felt. By the end of the evening, there was a crowd around our table as people sat, some nursing their drinks, some smoking their joints, listening as I explained the gospel to them. A few made snarky, sarcastic comments, playing to the crowds, but the majority were taking in what I was saying. Instead of leaving early, we ended up being the last to leave. Of course, I was exhilarated by what had happened. I spent the next couple of days on a spiritual high. But that wouldn’t last long.

Questions, Questions, Questions

Miriam and I were touring the country at this time as we visited churches to raise the profile of our work back in Brazil. Life was so busy that I had little time to think. But, in my few quiet moments, usually on the long car journeys, my mind drifted back to my family and friends at that party. Did any of them come to faith? Not to my knowledge. That wasn’t what was troubling me. What if one or more of them had come to faith? Where would they go to church? How would the church cope with them, and they with the church? The churches I had been in struggled with one or two people from my background, so what would they do if multiple people came to faith?

Then I thought about the party as a whole. How many of those who were in attendance would ever come into contact with a Christian in their daily lives? These were dustbin men, hairdressers, builders, scrap merchants, painters and decorators, electricians, plumbers, and labourers. Never mind the criminal element, who were a whole other ball game. When would any of them have an opportunity to hear the gospel proclaimed? I knew the answers to these questions, and it depressed me. There was very little gospel light in my hometown in Yorkshire (there still isn’t) and, even if it did exist, it was not easily accessible by people from my cultural background.

It was then that I began to question whether I should return to Brazil. In the town where I worked, there were at least 10 solid gospel churches along a three-mile stretch of road near my home. One of these churches had 15,000 members! On the other hand, I reasoned (with myself), none of them were reaching the street gangs and local favelas. Yet, what they had in Brazil was far more than those living in the council estates and schemes of the UK. So, I asked myself, why travel thousands of miles to bring Christ there, when my own people were toppling headfirst into a lost eternity right on my doorstep?

After much prayer and soul searching, Miriam and I made the difficult decision to leave our burgeoning ministry in Brazil and return to the UK to plant a church on a housing estate. At that point we had no idea where, we just knew that this is what we should do. Not long after that, a providential turn of events took us to Niddrie Community Church, on a housing scheme in Edinburgh, where, in 2007, I became the pastor of a small congregation in need of revitalisation.

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