January 18, 2022

’The Least, the Last and the Lost’—Will We Address the Problem in the UK Church?

If You Always Do What You’ve Always Done, You Always Get What You’ve Always Gotten

I will state, once again, what Roy Joslin pointed out in 1982 and what I have been claiming for the last decade or more. There is a problem in the UK church in how it does outreach into council estates and housing schemes. Do movement leaders, para-church leaders and theological institutions have the courage to call a moratorium on this subject, in order to produce a biblically thought through, and practical way forward, that will help us to reach and disciple those living in deprived communities more effectively?

Can we just admit that being busy isn’t the same as being effective? Your soup kitchen ministry may well be feeding 100 people per week, but that is clearly a sign of need, not necessarily proof that the ministry itself is effective for the kingdom in evangelising and growing disciples.

Pastors, how much of our energy and resources are we expending on reaching trainee electricians, hairdressers, or builders in relation to the amount spent on evangelising students in our churches? How much money have we been earmarking specifically for church planting and revitalisation in the most deprived communities on our doorsteps? They’re not hard to find. They are all around us.

Don’t farm out evangelism to the poor in your community to para-church organisations. They may well do good work, but four decades of this has not seen the establishment of very many gospel-preaching churches in these communities. We need to pray for the courage to take the harder, longer, more expensive and self-sacrificial route of church planting and revitalisation. Local children need a healthy local church in their communities far more than they need our yearly holiday Bible clubs or weekly drop-ins.If the evangelical church, and her institutions and systems, don’t change, then what will close the spiritual and cultural gap between middle-class Christianity and the rest of the country? If we continue to do what we’ve always done, then we will continue to get what we have always gotten. Nothing of substance.

My Intention in Writing this Book

Christian, as you read this book, please do so with an open mind and heart. If you’re involved in mercy ministry and in the lives of the neediest souls in our towns, our cities and our villages then, trust me, I have no desire to crush you or to belittle your work. In fact, my intention is the exact opposite. I know all about the hard, often thankless, work that you do. I know how many of you have been battling away for years, bringing Christ to the fringes of society, and trying, often unsuccessfully, to incorporate them into the life of your churches. As one who was on the streets for 6 years, I thank you deeply for your kindness and self-sacrifice. My aim in writing this book is to encourage you to help your churches think more broadly, and more biblically, about your vital work.

If you are a church leader, or someone thinking about planting or revitalising a church, then I would urge you to use the statistics and stories within this book to help you to think more strategically for the kingdom. Think about that housing estate near you, or that community that seems cut off in your town or village. Review your church’s ministry to the poor. How effective is it in evangelising lost souls? How effective are you in keeping the saved, discipling them, and then integrating them fully into the life of your church? How many men and women from council estates or schemes has your church trained for future ministry, whether vocational or not? How are you celebrating and encouraging those in your congregation who are battling on the front lines in deprived communities? It’s not an exhaustive list of questions, but it’s a start.

Change is required. But we cannot change a system with which we are happy and comfortable. Therefore, we are going to have to think seriously, from the ground up, if we want to make a difference in the lives of millions of people in our country who will be born, live, love, work and die without any access to the gospel. Their only crime? They’re not middle class and university educated. They live in our council estates and housing schemes. They live in the high-rise flats most of us pass on our way to work every day. They live in our picture-perfect country towns and villages. They empty our dustbins. They deliver our mail. They clean our office blocks. They mop the toilets of our favourite supermarkets. They cut our hair. They deliver our shopping and our takeaways. They cut our grass and paint our fences. They wash our windows and clean our gutters. They sweep our roads and labour on our building sites. They’re everywhere we look, and yet they are hardly anywhere to be seen in our churches.

These are the reasons behind why I have written this book.

As to my what questions, the answers to those are much simpler and more straightforward.

What you have your hand is the product of over 1,000 hours of dedicated research and over 21 years of ministry to the poor and/or marginalised in various contexts around the world. I was going to include a statistical breakdown of the whole of the UK, plus London (which is pretty much a country of its own in terms of population). However, I decided that this would make an already lengthy book even longer. So, there will be a code at the end of this chapter which will lead you to a webpage. There you will be able to click on any country in the UK and have all the statistical research at your fingertips. We will also include a section detailing any and all FIEC churches that operate within, or close to, areas of deprivation.

When it comes to the statistical data, I have sought to be as independent as possible, so as to avoid any appearance of confirmation bias. I did that by hiring an American PHD student, who had no prior understanding of a scheme or council estate life. In fact, he didn’t even know what those terms meant! I gave him a simple objective. In each country, research the communities regarded by their respective governments as most deprived. Understanding that even that term is loaded, I played no part in any of his research and did not interfere with his findings. He would send me regular reports of his progress, but at no time did I make any comment or give him any feedback. I wanted the information to arrive on my desk completely unvarnished. As a result, some of his findings were of great surprise to me, although much of it confirmed what I already knew.

Once that was done, he also attempted to map out where FIEC churches were to be found in relation to these communities. This research proved to be the most difficult to carry out. We sent out questionnaires to various churches. We surveyed church leaders at the FIEC Leaders Conference in 2019. We talked to Pastors working in deprived communities and to a host of others operating on the fringes. The results were complicated by a number of factors.

  • Some pastors were unwilling to share any data with us regarding the cultural mix of    their congregations.
  • Some churches never responded to our requests for information and/or interviews.
  • Some deprived communities, on paper, look like they are well served by a local FIEC church, when the reality is that the congregation is either dying, ageing, and/or almost exclusively attended by people from outside the community in which their building is situated.

As you can imagine, the data gathered in each country was highly complex, multi-layered, and produced different results depending upon multiple factors, including the size of a particular community, the ethnic makeup of different areas, and a host of other things. The reality is that I could have written a book on each country, plus London, with the information that was gathered. Such is the depth of our research that we have could have easily produced an academic textbook. But my aim has always been to produce a work that is both statistically rigorous, but also popularly accessible.

My aims are simple, whilst at the same time recognising that the resulting discussions will be complex and nuanced. This book, broadly, aims:

  • To produce an informed and rigorous survey detailing the most deprived council estates and housing schemes across the UK.
  • To seek to understand where evangelical churches (specifically FIEC) are to be found in relation to these communities.
  • To try to understand some of the issues facing people in these communities.
  • To help the church understand the cultural and social make up of these communities.
  • To help the church to understand how people from these communities view the world and their place in it.
  • To help the church to think through what effective evangelism and discipleship look like in these communities.
  • To look at some of the failings of the UK church and the many para-church organisations who work with the most deprived people in our nation.
  • To seek to galvanise a new generation of church leaders and women’s workers who can take the gospel out to the least and the lost in the UK.
  • To encourage the revitalisation and planting of gospel centred churches in these communities by offering reliable research as to the geographical locations of some of the UK’s least-reached people.
  • To help the wider Christian community understand the needs of gospel workers and/or churches already working in these areas or attempting to establish works.
  • To provoke debate and to think about possible solutions to the current crisis of effective gospel outreach, meaningful discipleship, and leadership training available and accessible to those from deprived communities.
  • Finally, and most importantly, even if it does nothing else, I pray that it brings glory to our Triune God.

This book is the culmination of 25 years of thinking, failing, and experimenting about what we, as Great Commission Christians, could do better to effectively reach and disciple the least, the last and the lost in our country (and beyond).

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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