January 11, 2022

’The Least, the Last and the Lost’—Is Scotland a ’Spiritual Wasteland’?

Shortly before leaving for Scotland, one old saint took me aside and said, “It won’t be like Brazil, son. Scotland is a spiritual wasteland, and the people are hard to the gospel up there.” I don’t think he was trying to discourage me, more prepare me for the hard work ahead. Yet, when I got there, I found that the people were not hard to the gospel (although many were and are), they had just never heard it before, and certainly not from someone from their own background.

It wasn’t long before we started to see conversions, and our church slowly grew. Instead of being a building full of outsiders, who were subject to the taunts and assaults of local youths, we became an intrinsic part of the community again. God was at work in Niddrie, and He still is. Not long after this, 20schemes was born.

Our idea was simply to revitalise or plant 20 gospel-preaching churches in 20 schemes across Scotland over 10 years. Despite lots of cynicism, opposition, ambivalence, and a lack of support from the UK Christian church, our ministry flourished—and continues to do so thanks to God’s mercy and kindness. In one sense, the old saint was right when he said that Scotland is a spiritual wasteland. I would be even more specific by stating that Scotland’s schemes are a spiritual wasteland. Not because of a lack of gospel opportunities, rather a lack of healthy, gospel-preaching local churches.

Stand Up & Speak Out

Once again, I had found my voice to speak up for the millions in our country who live, work and die in council estates and housing schemes. As I began to write and speak about these concerns, I was quickly denounced as a trouble causer or, more popularly, of having a chip on my shoulder. I have prayed, cried, shouted, fought, studied, sacrificed my health, and spent all my energy over two decades so that believers from council estates and housing schemes can have a voice in the Reformed Evangelical wing of the UK church. I’ve had to scrap my way through the system, as well as jump through all the hoops and barriers put in my way, in order to be accepted as credible in the UK church.

There is quite clearly a fault line in the UK evangelical world. All men and women are not equal when it comes to having access to the gospel and discipleship-oriented resources. I’ve seen it in everything from the heavy emphasis on student ministry, the speakers at conferences, internships offered at local churches, theological publications, books (specifically evangelistic material) and theological education. Let me be clear, the fault does not lie with para-church organisations or theological institutions and book publishers. They are only catering to, and for, the markets they have access to. The fault lies at the local church level. It lies with pastors and church leaders who, quite obviously, do not see gospel ministry to council estates and schemes as a priority in their towns, villages and cities.

Thankfully, it is not all doom and gloom. The FIEC, for example, have prioritised our communities in recent years, and have released a lot of money toward work in deprived communities across the country. They continue to hold discussions with us, even if they often feel our approaches are somewhat ‘bull in a China shop’! Likewise, 10ofThose_have proved a valuable ally to us and, along with Christian Focus Publishing, they have enabled us to get our resources out to a wider audience. Union School of Theology have sought to work in genuine partnership with us whereas, historically, other institutions have sought to control us. In other words, there are slivers of light on the horizon, but every square inch we move forward is hard fought.

Some feel that there is altogether far too much talk concerning deprived communities in the UK right now, yet it’s been 38 years since Roy Joslin wrote Urban Harvest. His worry for the UK church back then was that it was leaving behind the working classes. Bearing in mind this was almost four decades ago, he writes: ‘Christianity in this country has become a middle-class movement.’ In the intervening years, since those words were written, the church has become more middle class, not less, and the gap between the evangelical church and those living and dying in housing schemes and council estates is as vast as it has ever been. One theologically-minded book in nearly four decades hardly constitutes a massive swing in our direction!

Quite simply, if the church in the UK is not willing to listen to our pleas, then we will plant new churches and revitalise dying ones ourselves. It will take longer, and be more difficult, but we will do it. It is what we have had to do with 20schemes, and it is what is happening through Church in Hard Places in over 20 countries around the world.

Why are those involved in planting, pastoring and revitalising churches in deprived communities finding it so hard for our voices to be both heard and taken seriously? Darren McGarvey, in his brilliantly provocative book, Poverty Safari gets to the nub of the issue. He states:

“In Scotland poverty is dominated by a left leaning, liberal, middle class. Because the specialist class is so genuinely well-intentioned when it comes to the interests of people in deprived communities, they get a bit confused, upset and offended when those very people start expressing their anger towards them. It never occurs to them, because they see themselves as the good guys, that the people they purport to serve may, in fact, perceive them as chancers, careerists or charlatans. They regard themselves as champions of the underclass and, therefore, should any poor folk begin to get their own ideas, or, God forbid, rebel against the poverty experts, the blame is laid at the door of the complainants for misunderstanding what is going on”.

Swap the well-meaning liberal left with the well-meaning middle-class Christian and we get to the heart of the problem. I could stand up in almost any church and conference in the UK, state that there is a problem with how the church is doing outreach and discipleship to people from deprived communities, and I will be ignored or castigated for being ‘reactionary and divisive’. God forbid that I say anything negative about the golden calf of UK Christianity—foodbanks! This, after all, seems to be the tool by which most middle-class churches gauge their love of the poor and the needy. Despite the fact that they are mainly disastrous (more on this later) and may, in fact, contribute toward poverty rather than alleviate it, most churches and leaders bury their heads in the sand when it comes to any kind of critique of their so-called mercy ministries.

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.

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