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.
Usually, at this part of a testimony we get to the good stuff that God does next. I talk about how my life changed for the better, blah de blah de blah. Of course, my life has changed for the better in many ways, and I praise God for that. But I had to go through a bloody culture war first, something that very few people back then understood, and nobody had warned me about. It turns out that there really is a great cost to following Jesus.
Counting The Cost
By the time we get to Luke 14, large crowds are following Jesus. He has become something of a Middle Eastern superstar. Everybody wanted a piece of Him. Doubtless, His closest disciples were loving the buzz of being around Him. So, Luke records these words of Jesus to them at that time.
Large crowds were traveling with Jesus and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters - yes, even their own life - such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
Jesus is clear that He requires absolute devotion from all who claim the name ‘Christian’. That’s exactly what He goes on to tell them. Those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples. In other words, don’t put your name to His if you are not all in.
This is a pretty straightforward set of verses in the Bible. They’re not complicated in any way. But I soon discovered that different social classes interpret them in very different ways. I took Jesus’ words to heart and immediately began to review everything in my life, including lifelong friends and family members, in order to discover who and what would hold me back from getting serious with Jesus. My new middle-class friends applauded me for my commitment. They encouraged me to leave behind all of my friends and family members who were criminals or drug dealers and/or users (not that they all were, you understand).
Don’t get me wrong, there was no malicious intent. But what they were doing, inadvertently I’m sure, was asking me to leave my entire life and culture behind in order to assimilate to theirs. The issue was black and white in their minds. My culture was bad and theirs was good. My culture needed to be discarded and their culture was the one to aspire to. Of course, I lapped it up. Why wouldn’t I? I wanted to get as far away from my old life as I possibly could. I was desperate to fit into this new Christian world, and so I walked away from it all—my family, my friends and my whole way life.
As soon as I made this decision, a spiritual war broke out on two fronts simultaneously.
Warring With The Church
Firstly, I discovered that a person can’t just follow Jesus on their own. They have to be part of this thing called ‘the church’. Or, more particularly, a local church. I thought churches were just places you went for religious ceremonies: baptisms, weddings, funerals, and the like. I had no idea that Christians met together twice on Sundays and again during the midweek.
Then, on top of that, there was all the socialising and drinking copious amounts of Schloer. I wasn’t prepared for the cultural idiosyncrasies of the Christian world. It was intense. The problem was that I had no category for Christians. They were as foreign to me as an Amazonian tribe. I had never in my life met a working-class Christian. I had no idea what went on inside a church any more than I knew what went on inside a Mosque or a Synagogue. Despite the kindness of many church members, the cold reality is that, in the early days of my faith, I felt far safer, and more comfortable, inside a maximum-security prison yard than I ever did attending a Sunday morning service.
Let me reiterate, nobody was mean to me. In fact, far from it. I was saved into a congregation that was full, in the main, of some of the kindest people I had ever met. They were patient, godly saints, many of whom have prayed (and still do) for me faithfully over the years. They weren’t unlikeable or judgemental (in the main). Actually, the opposite was true.
Some people went out of their way to embrace me, and a godly couple even took me into their home for a time. They invited me to eat with them and welcomed me into their family. But it was pretty clear in that AV-only, organ-only, predominantly suit-and-tie-wearing-congregation (at that time), that I was the odd one out. Even my attempts to fit in by wearing a shirt and tie in the early months of my conversion only heightened the difference and made me feel even more uncomfortable. It was clear by how I talked, how I walked, and how I thought, that I was very different to them.
The nicer these Christians were to me, and the more I began to enjoy church life, the more anxious I became. I wanted to love these people. I wanted to be a part of the family of God. I wanted to sit around dinner tables with church members and laugh about my day. But I just couldn’t face it. I felt dirty. I felt unworthy. I felt fake. I just wanted to be alone. I was fearful and anxious that these people would find out what I was really like, and then reject me as so many had before. I wanted to be accepted so much that I hated myself for being so weak.
Almost overnight I became something of a local celebrity among Christians in the town. Everybody knew who I was. I was a novelty item. “A brand plucked from the fire,” is how someone once described me. Soon, I became a man in demand. Everybody wanted to hear my story. They said, ‘Tell us how Jesus saved you,’ but what they really meant was, ‘Tell us all the gory, heart-rending details of your past. Recount your time in prison. Tell us about your childhood abuse and your homelessness. Oh, and tell us about Jesus too’.
They didn’t ever put it quite that starkly, but I knew what was expected. They were an easy crowd to please, these Christians, and I was desperate to please them. I wanted to belong. I wanted to be special. I wanted the attention. I was a willing participant. Their applause gave me meaning and made me feel significant. Their awe of my testimony gave me a special kind of pride. It made me feel like I was somebody important. It made me feel admired in a culture that despised my friends at worst and feared them at best. I enjoyed the acclaim. But, while I was fighting for acceptance within this new world, I was also fighting a war on another front.
Warring With My Old Life
As soon as I professed my faith in Jesus, the dynamic of the relationship between my old friends and family members changed dramatically. Becoming a Christian on a council estate is akin to becoming a Conservative voter (back when northern towns exclusively voted Labour!). It was to deny your roots. It was to deny your own kind. It was to defect to the other side. I had committed the cardinal sin of appearing like I was trying to better myself. How dare I deny my working-class roots? How dare I even think of getting out of my chaotic, abusive, self-destructive life?
Many things could be forgiven within my culture. Finding myself in trouble with the police? Easily explained away. Youthful exuberance and, anyway, we all know the police are corrupt. Experimenting with drugs? Easily explained away. Everybody does it, right? It’s almost a rite of passage and, anyway, who doesn’t like a little fun at the weekends? Being sentenced to spend time in prison? Easily explained away. Whilst a disappointment to some, to the majority it was a badge of honour. Certainly, nothing to be ashamed about. Becoming a Christian? Silence. What? Hang on a minute. That’s not right. What’s that about? Why would anyone do that, let alone somebody from our walk of life? That’s not only disappointing, it’s bloody embarrassing.
Indeed, you would have been hard pressed to find a single family member or close friend of mine who was not confused, bemused, or downright angry at this step I had taken in my life. Discussions about Mez turning Christian were almost funereal in some circles. Finding God was pretty much equated with a mental illness, or something lifers and sex offenders did to ease their guilty consciences. I remember reading the experiences of teenage girls getting pregnant in the 1950’s and people whispering about them behind their backs. It was a cultural taboo. Worse yet, a majority of the British population were disdainful of relationships between people of mixed races back in the 60’s and 70’s. Becoming a born-again Christian was on a par with those things, certainly in the 1990’s. I’m convinced that if I had come out as gay, I wouldn’t have elicited such widespread hostility and profound disapproval. It was a very painful time in my life.
The upshot of these pressures was that I found myself walking the tightrope of trying to fit in with Christians, whilst trying to maintain relationships from my old life. I felt like John the Baptist, with one foot in old world and one foot in the new. The pressure was further compounded because I had nobody with whom I could share my experiences, troubles, fears and anxieties. Most of the people in the church had come from a long-established Christian heritage that went back decades, often even longer. That meant that, whilst some Christian confidants could sympathise with me, I faced these spiritual battles on my own. I was always defensive and on-edge. Because of my stunted emotions, and my unspoken fears and doubts—like Israel in the wilderness—I began to pine for my old life on the streets. I romanticised it. I conveniently forgot about all the reasons I had been desperate to leave it behind. I even began to seriously worry whether I was on the verge of losing my mind.
I remember the exact moment when all my emotions came to a head. I was on my own at the bottom of the garden in a house where I was lodging. This house sat on the top of a hill, overlooking the town below. As I sat on that garden wall smoking my roll up, my mind was a mess. I knew it was either flight or fight. It was crunch time. Stay and take the risk on the Christian life that I could see spreading out before me, or run back to the cold, vomit strewn doorways; a life that I at least understood. I had the devil whispering in my ear, coaxing me to run back to the life I knew. At the same time the Holy Spirit was urging me to stay and hold fast to my new life with Jesus. The constant mental to-ing and fro-ing was wearing me down. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit won out that day. The love of Christian strangers won out over the perverse allure of street culture, the devil, and my own sinful desires.
The exact moment I made that decision to stay and fight for this new life was the day that everything began to change for me. I began to devour the Bible. I began to grow in my knowledge of and love for Jesus. I slowly grew more accustomed to the strange culture of the church. Most importantly of all, I began to question everything and everyone around me about all things biblical. That’s when my problems really began.