Meeting Mez McConnell is a bit like encountering a Buzzsaw. He moves quickly past the pleasantries and wants to know the story of how someone arrived where they did and what they are doing with their life. He doesn’t like small talk. Rather, he jumps into deep conversations with both feet and moves forward in ways that can catch a person off guard if not ready for a serious discussion about areas of life most haven’t thought deeply about.
Knowing his history, he can’t be blamed for a desire to get to the heart of the matter quickly. This is a man whose mother abandoned him when he was two years old. His father was seldom present in his life. By his own admission, his step-mother “used his kidneys as a punching bag” for most of his early childhood. A northern England "scheme" was his home as a child and now he serves in the "schemes" of Scotland. The “schemes” of Scotland are a “cross between an American trailer park, an American urban housing project, and an American Indian reservation.” These areas were built as low-income housing for what has been termed the “new working class” in the late 1800’s across Scotland.
By the age of twelve, he was convicted of assault. He landed in prison, and one day some Christians came to see him. McConnell was converted to Christ by reading through the book of Romans. A Matthew Henry commentary on the Bible helped him learn more about the Bible, and as he read the Bible all the lies he had been taught all his life collapsed in his mind. So many social workers and drug counselors told him he was “a product of his environment.” Reading through the Bible, however, he realized he was a terrible sinner with a terrible future before him. His past was only a precursor to the judgement awaiting him as his life would most certainly continue on a downward spiral because something was wrong in him, not just outside of him.
The Gospel, the Local Church, and Social Ministry
He has dedicated his life to establishing churches in hard places, and he joined another pastor, Mike McKinley, to author a book by this title. The 2016 book, Church in Hard Places: How the Local Church Brings Life to the Poor and Needy, remains a widely read source for those seeking to better understand how the gospel and the local church impacts and transforms the poor and their communities. This book is a standard reference at a time when the issues of social justice, racial reconciliation, and cultural renewal are hot topics in Evangelical and Reformed circles.
McConnell and McKinley aren’t naïve when it comes to the complexity of poverty. Systemic and structural forces combine to perpetuate crisis in the lives of people abused beyond belief. Reading of McConnell’s own experience as a young boy when one of his friends was stabbed to death in front of him or of Innocencia, a thirteen-year-old street girl from northern Brazil whose parents abandoned her when she was five years old and survived since that time as a child prostitute, or of Picachu, a ten-year-old little boy whose grandfather beat and sexually abused him are horrific. Such circumstances immediately issue a call to action by the church of Jesus Christ. Surely, the church must not turn away from such suffering, but what exactly is a faithful church to do?
Analyzing the modern Evangelical scene, the practices of many local churches are to send short-term ministry teams into critical areas in partnership with sophisticated (and well-funded) para-church ministries. By his own testimony, McConnell has seen numerous teams from the United States and the United Kingdom “show up with their paintbrushes and hammers, but with no understanding of the gospel message they think they’ve come to proclaim.” The gospel, therefore, is the starting point for McConnell, and he admits that most who think about doing mission work in hard places do not readily understand the content of the gospel and how it applies to the thinking and habits of poor people.
The Gospel at the Center
Using the framework, of “God, Man, Christ, and Response,” McConnell exposits the gospel from the Bible and quickly moves to emphasize the prioritization of local churches being the chief means by which the poor are helped. Communities are transformed as the result of the work of a biblical church established according to the clearly defined and rigorously enforced aspects of church life. For McConnell, serving in a church is not glamorous or easy, but required for all Christians. He is well aware of the objections against teaching the poor Christian doctrine and calling them to become members of local churches to learn theology.
One objection that I hear from time to time is that poor communities typically have less access to quality education, which means the people in those communities do not have the necessary tools to learn doctrine…If you try, you will shoot over their heads and lose their interest…Honestly, such attitudes strike me as paternalistic and condescending. Poor people are poor, but they are not stupid. They are just as capable of understanding the character and ways of God as anyone else. Paul didn’t write his letters to the faculty of a seminary. His readers were generally not wealthy, privileged, or well-educated. And the Israelites leaving Egypt didn’t have advanced degrees in theology, but God didn’t hesitate to tell them all kinds of in-depth and complicated things about himself.
McConnell isn’t shy about critiquing the prevalence and wealth of some parachurch ministries who often take money from local churches and do not advance the gospel. He takes to task ideas that a church is a bad means of changing society, and he thinks “mercy ministries are dangerous” because they can be “easily abused;” actually be designed to “support sin” and become “self-serving” in ways that undermine the primacy of preaching, meaningful church membership, and stop the natural diversity endemic to a local congregation that is growing in its awareness and obedience to the Great Commission.
The book is often met with criticisms of reductionism and false caricatures of those whom the authors single out as agents that stymie the real path to advancement of the gospel. Yet, these men are convinced as pastors of local churches that their work is hard because sin has infected the world with its deadly poison of godless rebellion, and only the church of Jesus Christ has the God-ordained task of reaching beyond the immediate to the eternal by preaching and teaching and serving and living the gospel. At bottom, they call each Christian to invest their lives in whatever hard place God has deployed him because “the pearl of great price is worth selling everything to buy.”
You can hear more from Mez McConnell and his work in Scotland at this year’s Global Outreach Conference. Learn more and register here.