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26 February 2016

Church in hard places

Church in hard places

Matthew Spindler-Davison is executive director of 20 Schemes, an organisation working to grow churches in some of Scotland's poorest areas.

What is poverty? We might immediately think of the troubled estates, downtrodden communities, areas often devastated by drugs, social strife, and urban decay. On the face of it this is a simple enough question. Many would say poverty is the lack of something necessary. The lack of material wealth, good housing, a decent job, access to basic services.

However, if you grew up in a poor community you might very well have a different response to that question.  

I grew up in the 1980s on a housing estate in the south-east of England, living in my grandparent's four-room prefab. The coal fire kept the house warm, there was always food on the table, and my mum worked hard during the night shift filing medical records at the local hospital. Poverty to us was less about a lack of stuff, we just made do with what we had.

Rather my experience of poverty was more about feeling a sense of alienation, isolation and shame. It seemed that no matter how hard we tried, we struggled to get ahead - so why bother?

What hurt me more than the lack of food on the table was watching a close friend at school get busted for shoplifting and then seeing his life spiral out of control because of his drug habit. It was living on the same street as someone who seriously assaulted me because the police didn't take the threat seriously. It was being a nine-year-old kid growing up feeling lost, lonely and afraid.

Jesus came to seek and to save the lost, paying particular attention to the downtrodden and the poor. As followers of Jesus, Christians are called to imitate his example and reach out to those who have the least.

So how should the Church be engaging the poor?

Jesus has given us a mandate and it's clear - go and make disciples. That has to be our response to poverty because that has to be our response to every social challenge we face in society. Follow Jesus.

Church in Hard Places is a book written by two pastors faithfully seeking to make disciples in the poor communities they serve.

"The truth is many churches lack a culture of discipleship for coverts from poor backgrounds. These kinds of people may be welcomed into our congregations, but they are usually over-looked when it comes to identifying and training potential leaders." (Mez McConnell, p160)

It offers biblical guidelines and practical strategies for reaching those on the margins of our society with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Mez McConnell and Mike McKinley – both pastors with years of experience ministering among the poor – set forth helpful "dos" and "don'ts" related to serving in the midst of less-affluent communities.

"Poor communities don't need just another 'community centre' that hosts various 'help the neighbourhood' projects and workshops on being responsible parents. They need outposts of Christ's Kingdom that are distinct like salt and bright light on a hill." (Mike McKinley, p131)

Here is the reality: the poor need healthy, gospel-centered churches.

Our greatest need is Christ. Our greatest suffering is separation from God. The Church needs to be in poor communities feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and helping the addict, but if that is all we are doing then we are failing miserably and totally missing the point.

If we want to be merciful to the poor then make Jesus known. We must be confident in the gospel and committed to the gospel. Emphasising the priority of the gospel as well as the importance of addressing issues of social justice.

I believe that Church in Hard Places helpfully seeks to mobilize pastors to equip their churches to make real difference in "hard places" by faithfully making disciples there.

"We write this in the hope that the Western Church will get better at bringing light to the dark and neglected places too often found in their own backyards."– Church in Hard Places.

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