This book offers biblical guidelines and practical strategies for ministering among the poor, helping pastors and other church leaders mobilize Christians to take the gospel to the “hard places” in our communities.
About the Author
Mez McConnellis senior pastor of Niddrie Community Church in Edinburgh, Scotland. He has been involved in pastoral ministry since 1999 and is the founder of 20schemes, a ministry dedicated to planting gospel-centered churches among the poorest of the poor throughout Scotland. He is the author ofIs There Anybody Out There?andPreparing for Baptism.
Mike McKinley(MDiv, Westminster Theological Seminary) is senior pastor of Sterling Park Baptist Church in Sterling, Virginia. Formerly, he served on staff alongside Mark Dever at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC. He is the author of a number of books, includingAm I Really a Christian?andChurch Planting Is for Wimps.
Read an Excerpt
What Is Poverty?
This is not a book about poverty. It is a book about starting, leading, and participating in churches that reach people on the margins of respectable society, people in "hard places." It is about being a part of a church that reaches poor people. So we thought it worthwhile to begin by thinking about what we mean by poverty.
Poverty can be a tricky thing to get your mind around. Our church's ministry brings me (Mike) into contact with different kinds of people in need. In one suburb nearby, we distribute food to Latin American immigrants who may not have the legal standing to pursue government assistance. In another suburb, we work with people living in a homeless shelter. In yet another, we work with "at-risk" immigrant teenagers who attend the local high school. By almost any account, these are the people that we would think of as "poor." But as we have grown to know the people in each of these groups, we realize that their experience of poverty is complicated.
I once spoke to a man who had recently come to our town from a very poor part of Central America. He was hungry and told me through an interpreter that he hadn't eaten a meal that day. As we talked, it became clear that this man and I had very different views of his economic condition. To my way of thinking, not eating for twenty-four hours would be about the worst thing that could happen. I have never been forced to go hungry against my will. For this man, it was nothing unusual. In fact, things had been much worse for him in his home country. His frustration was not primarily with his inability to find work to pay for his own expenses; he was upset that he wasn't earning enough money to send back to Central America to help provide for his family. As tough as things were for him at that moment, he was aware that he had access to more material resources than he had ever known in his life. He didn't think of himself as poor.
On the other hand, take the residents of the local homeless shelter. These people are American citizens. For the most part they speak English, understand the way American culture works, and have access to government assistance programs. They live at a standard far below what they expected for their lives. But if you step back for a moment, you can see that we need to give a little more thought to why we would describe them as "poor." After all, they have access to nutritious food, medical care, and indoor plumbing. They sleep in cramped quarters, but the shelter is warm in the winter and cool in the summer. They have cable TV, electric lights, and puzzles to keep away the boredom. If you were momentarily transported to the slums of New Delhi or to rural Zimbabwe, you might not think that the homeless back in Northern Virginia are that badly off. Their creature comforts would be envied.
Still, we know intuitively that these American homeless are poor. To deny it sounds like a cheap excuse to avoid caring and helping. After all, who of us in homes and steady jobs would want to trade places with them? My point is that poverty is more complicated than something that can be superficially captured in digits and dollar signs.
What Is Poverty?
When we think about poverty, Westerners normally think in terms of access to resources. We have a so-called "poverty line," an income threshold that determines who the government considers to be impoverished. Politicians and journalists weigh in on the various ways that poor people lack access to quality education, healthy food supplies, affordable housing, and adequate medical care. Public discourse on addressing the needs of the poor usually revolves around the best ways to help them secure those things that they lack.
In their outstanding book When Helping Hurts, authors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert analyze a study conducted by the World Bank that asked poor people to describe what it was like to be poor. And they found that the view that poor people have of their own poverty often goes much deeper than a list of the things that they lack. They tend to speak in terms of experiences like powerlessness, hopelessness, loss of meaning, and shame. Merely providing resources will not relieve the deeper dimensions of poverty that these people experience.
Take, for example, people living in the housing schemes of Edinburgh, the ones where Mez works. Through government assistance, they may have access to medical care, housing, education, and the material resources they need to feed their families. But long-standing patterns of drug addiction, alcoholism, crime, and broken family structures combine to keep people in the schemes in cycles of poverty and misery. They don't need bread; they need an entirely new way of life.
For this reason, it is our conviction that churches that are content to merely provide material assistance to needy people are missing an opportunity to minister to them at a deeper level. Certainly food and shelter are important. The point of the parable of the Good Samaritan still stands; indifference to someone in need is unchristian. But material resources and skills training alone will not address all of the needs poor people have.
The one unique thing that a local church has to offer to people mired in poverty is the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel is not a solution to poverty, at least not in the sense of resolving and removing all of the myriad problems that poor people face in their lives on this earth. But the gospel word is the message of God to people who are caught in the complex patterns of personal sin and systemic challenges that comprise poverty.
While those challenges may never change in this life (John 12:8), the gospel comes to a poor person with news of a loving God who did not withhold his own Son but gave him up freely for the salvation of sinners. The gospel comes to a poor person with the promise of the power of the Holy Spirit to change and sanctify us, breaking long-standing patterns of self-destructive behavior. The gospel comes to a poor person with a call to repent of the futile way of life handed down to him from his forefathers (1 Pet. 1:18). The gospel comes to a poor person with the message that he can be fabulously wealthy even if his economic circumstances stay the same (Rev. 2:9). The gospel comes to a poor person with a message of hope for a world that will be made new, where sickness and poverty and fear will be put away (Rev. 21:4). It is our conviction that the one thing the poor need most is the gospel message. Other things may be very important, but they are still secondary.
If you imagine that this book is like a building, our conviction about the fundamental necessity of the gospel would be the foundation. But in addition to that foundation there are three other beliefs that serve as load-bearing pillars, holding up the rest of the structure.
1. The Gospel Will Spread
First, the gospel is a message that must spread. The New Testament shows over and over again that when the gospel message comes into the world, it comes with a powerful centrifugal force. Fulfilling the Lord's words in Acts 1:8, the message about his death and resurrection spreads out from its center in Jerusalem into Judea and Samaria and eventually into all the world. The outward movement of the gospel was so rapid and dramatic that merely thirty years after the resurrection of Christ, people had come to faith in Jesus in faraway places like Syria, Greece, Italy, Egypt, Northern Africa, and Persia. For this reason, Paul could write to the church at Colossae about "the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing — as it also does among you" (Col. 1:5–6).
This is the story of the book of Acts, where Luke tells us how the power of the Holy Spirit drove the gospel out from the center. The Christian message cannot be contained by the city of Jerusalem, the nation of Israel, or even the region of the Middle East. It must spread over the whole world. The very fact that two white guys from Scotland and America are writing this book is proof. The fact that you are a Christian who (probably) doesn't live in Jerusalem is proof. The gospel must go forward to all people (Matt. 28:18–20).
2. The Gospel Will Spread among the Poor
Second, we see in Scripture that while the gospel must go to all nations, we should expect to see it spread particularly among the poor. This is a matter of both historical reality and theological principle. It's true there were wealthy and powerful early converts (Theophilus and Lydia come to mind; also, see Phil. 4:22). James referred to rich people being present in the congregation (James 2:2). But on the whole, the church seems to have spread mostly to people who were not among the cultural elites. When a famine hit Jerusalem, the church there lacked the resources to survive on their own. When the churches of Macedonia took a collection for their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem, they could give only out of "their extreme poverty" (2 Cor. 8:2). As the apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, "For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth" (1 Cor. 1:26).
But this spread of the gospel among the poor was not a mere accident of history or the product of powerful social forces, as if it could be explained simply by pointing out that poor people might be predisposed to embrace a message of hope. Instead, the Scriptures tell us that the message of Christianity found a home among the needy because of God's deliberate choice. As James wrote, "Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?" (James 2:5).
God is passionate about displaying his own glory. If he lavished his salvation primarily on the powerful, the wealthy, and the beautiful, it would seem like he was simply giving them what they had earned. But by showing favor to those who have nothing to offer back to him, God shows his greatness and confounds the world's system. Again, Paul told the Corinthians, "But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God" (1 Cor. 1:27–29).
3. The Gospel Will Spread through the Local Church
The third pillar that undergirds this book is that the spread of local churches is God's normal means for spreading the gospel. The church is at the heart of God's saving plan. His love does not rest on a multitude of isolated individuals, but it calls out and creates a people who can now be called "God's people" (1 Pet. 2:9–10). And if the church is at the heart of God's purposes, then the local congregation has to be at the heart of the practice of mission. This is not to deny that individuals can spread the gospel without a connection to a local congregation. We mean simply to point out that such evangelism is misshapen.
God has designed the church to be the vehicle that takes his saving message to the world. Local churches teach the Word of God week in and week out, both to disciple believers and to evangelize unbelievers. They send missionaries and start new churches to take gospel proclamation into places that lack a gospel witness.
But it's important to recognize that the church is more than just a preaching point for the message about Jesus. It is itself a demonstration of the very gospel that it proclaims. The existence of the local church points to the power and reality of the gospel. It gives credibility and plausibility to the message of the gospel. In the words of the missiologist Lesslie Newbigin, the congregation is the hermeneutic of the gospel. It's the way the world comes to understand the gospel message.
A local church is a community of the reconciled — those reconciled to God and (startlingly enough) to each other. In the church, Jew and Gentile, ancient enemies, have been brought together as a display of God's wisdom and glory to the world. Reflecting on this fact in Ephesians 3:8–10, Paul writes, "To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places."
How will the universe know the wisdom of God? They will know it by the existence of the local church. As the people of the church love each other in ways that don't make sense to the world, they show that the gospel is true. As they love outsiders and welcome them in, the church demonstrates the power of the gospel to change hearts. As they spend their money and their time and their lives pursuing the spread of the gospel, they show what it looks like to have a life that is transformed, set free from the hopeless futility of life without God. The church proclaims the gospel and then lives out the radical, transforming truth of the gospel in its community. It demonstrates the gospel.
The unique way God has ordered local churches actually encourages the spread of the gospel. That is to say, God has particularly set up the church to accomplish the task of glorifying God by spreading his saving message. You see this in the leadership structure of the church: the ascended Jesus has given people to each congregation whose job it is "to equip the saints for the work of ministry" so that the body grows (Eph. 4:12; see also 4:11–16).
So in one sense, a church is a gathered group of believers that has been equipped by God-given leaders to take the gospel out to the world around them. The leaders of the church (in Paul's taxonomy, the apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers) are given to the congregation in order that the saints might be equipped for the work of ministry. That's a large part of the job that Mez and I do as pastors, and that's the job description of all the other elders in our churches.
And as if that were not enough, the church is also indwelt and gifted by the Holy Spirit for the building up of the body. The Spirit has given the local church the right mix and varieties of gifts that it needs to carry out its work in the world. If the members of the church will exercise those gifts faithfully in the power of the Spirit, the church will accomplish its task.
Think about the task of evangelism. It makes a lot of individual Christians feel nervous and guilty. They know they should speak to others about Jesus but feel like they aren't good at it, and so they avoid it. But let's say you take four Christians and assign them the task of telling someone the good news:
Alan is an outgoing person. He's good at meeting people and building friendships. But he's not great at sharing his faith clearly. He doesn't do a very good job answering questions and making the case for Christ.
Carla is great at hospitality. She has people over to her house regularly and is good at making them feel comfortable and loved. She's not great at starting deep conversations, however.
Raul is a real prayer warrior. He loves to pray for hours on end, asking the Lord to have mercy on lost people.
Naomi is an introvert. She doesn't make friends quickly on her own, but if someone introduces her and breaks the ice, she's quite good at sharing Christ in a clear and effective way.
Chances are that on their own, those four people aren't going to evangelize anyone anytime soon. But if you put them together in a church and give them a corporate life together, suddenly there's a mixture of gifts and a blending of strengths that can make them a very potent team.
Everywhere the New Testament assumes that these gifts have been given for and will be exercised in the context of a local church. Much evangelizing might be done alongside other church members, and what evangelizing you do on your own should not be done without the support, care, prayer, and encouragement of the local church behind you. And then when people are led to Christ, they must be incorporated into the life of a local congregation of believers where they will be helped to grow into maturity in Christ, joining in the life of the body.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Church in Hard Places"
Copyright © 2016 Mez McConnell and Mike McKinley.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Series Preface 9
Foreword Brian Fikkert 11
Part 1 The Gospel in Hard Places
1 What Is Poverty? 25
2 What Gospel Do They Need? 37
3 Does Doctrine Matter? 59
Part 2 The Church in Hard Places
4 The Parachurch Problem 73
5 The Local Church Solution 83
6 The Work of Evangelism 95
7 The Role of Preaching 107
8 The Importance of Membership and Discipline 117
Part 3 The Work in Hard Places
9 Prepare Yourself 135
10 Prepare the Work 147
11 Prepare to Change Your Thinking 159
12 Prepare for Mercy Ministry? 173
Conclusion: Count the Cost… and Reward 183
General Index 195
Scripture Index 197
What People are Saying About This
“Two pastors from opposite sides of the Atlantic come together to share their stories of pastoring people in hard places. Mike McKinley and Mez McConnell care about what the Bible says, they care about people, and they care about the local church. Their stories communicate love, joy, humor, and wisdom. I pray that this convincing and compelling book encourages others to labor for the spread of the gospel where today there is no witness.”
Mark Dever, Pastor, Capitol Hill Baptist Church, Washington, DC; President, 9Marks
“Mez McConnell and Mike McKinley have written a book that we need. Church in Hard Places is timely and will instruct a generation serious about taking the gospel to and seeing the church planted in difficult contexts and situations. Those with the highest views of God and grace ought to be most passionate about seeing the church gathered in the hardest places. Mez and Mike spur us on to this task.”
J. Ligon Duncan III, Chancellor, CEO, and John E. Richards Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary
“McConnell and McKinley have done us a great service in collaborating to write this accessible, passionate, and important book. Seldom have I read something with such a mixture of gospel ambition and hard-nosed realism. That’s probably because it is written by practitioners rather than theorists. May God grant a plethora of such practitioners to be birthed by this book for the vital task of reaching those neither easily nor often reached.”
Steve Timmis, Executive Director, Acts 29 Church Planting Network
“Finallya book on this vital aspect of the gospel mission that is Bible-rich, gospel-centered, and church-focused! And it’s written for the average Christian by two guys with skin in the game. Church in Hard Places is a gift to the church.”
Jared C. Wilson, Director of Content Strategy, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; Director, Pastoral Training Center, Liberty Baptist Church, Kansas City, Missouri; author, Supernatural Power for Everyday People
“If your heart is moved with compassion for the weak and the suffering in the world, then you will want to pick up this book. But I must warn you, it’s not the book you think you’re getting. Instead, it’s the very book you need to read. Mike McKinley and Mez McConnell argue that while it is heartless to ignore the needs of the weak and suffering, the greatest need they have is the same need we all haveto turn away from sin, embrace Christ, and grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ in a healthy fellowship of believers committed to one another under the faithful leadership of caring pastors who will equip the church for ongoing ministry. Apart from that, we are merely meeting temporal needs and offering no hope for a changed life now.”
Juan R. Sanchez, Senior Pastor, High Pointe Baptist Church, Austin, Texas; Cofounder and President, Coalición; author, Seven Dangers Facing Your Church and 1 Peter for You