Foundations: No.82 Spring 2022

Book Reviews

The Last, the Lost and the Least: Understanding Poverty in the UK and the Responsibility of the Local Church

Mez McConnell, Evangelical Press, 2021. 544pp, £15.82 pp (Amazon)

It takes Mez McConnell nearly 480 pages in his magnum opus, The Last, the Lost and the Least before he quotes the famous Scottish preacher and social philanthropist Dr Thomas Guthrie (1803-1873). For much of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries Guthrie, and much of what he stood for has been forgotten by the Free Church of Scotland and the wider evangelical community in the UK. Aggressive church planting, schools for young offenders, the parish or parochial system of outreach, systematic Deaconate visitation and even Saturday night concerts to keep people from the Gin Palaces, is a world away from the church in Scotland today. Guthrie and his contemporaries saw no conflict between preaching the gospel and loving the poor. Mez McConnell, Pastor of Niddrie Community Church, and founder of 20schemes, is about half the size of Thomas Guthrie but has just as much vision for the poor of Scotland. He is a straight talker and an even more straightforward writer. The church in Scotland owes him a huge debt in calling the church to action through this book, much in the way that Guthrie did two centuries ago.

McConnell and the team he has assembled is an inspirational example of what can be achieved with passion and vision, and he has injected life into the work of church planting in housing schemes in Scotland. In 2007, with a big vision, 20schemes was born. Could 20 churches be planted in Scotland’s poorest housing schemes? Well, today they are well on their way to that target. They are also supporting many churches in England, and, through Church in Hard Places, they are supporting many churches worldwide. So why the need for a book? McConnell explains: “For a God so obsessed with righteousness and justice for the poor, I am amazed at just how few men and women He is calling to the task. Maybe, he has changed His mind and now just wants us to focus on students or the more upmarket on our societies” (468). McConnell seeks to call the church back to its mission of preaching good news to the poor, planting churches and transforming the often-forgotten housing schemes of Scotland through the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The first part of the book seeks to define and analyse poverty. Poverty is a notoriously complex and thorny issue, but McConnell systematically analyses the many different aspects of poverty. The book uses some excellent data gathered over several years and is available on the 20schemes website with a special QR code that comes with the book. The simple reality is that even if everyone had equality of opportunity, which we don’t, many are starting life with huge disadvantages. As McConnell rightly points out, nothing exposed the huge class divisions in our society more than the lockdown of 2020-21. As he says: “We share the same island. We speak the same language. And yet we inhabit, socialise and work within entirely different worlds” (141).

While much of the analysis is interesting, the “Spotlight” sections are perhaps the most compelling and moving part of the book. The stories and experiences of those growing up in housing schemes give the book colour and depth. When I initially flicked through the book and realised its size, I thought I would probably skip through the “Spotlight” sections, I’m so glad I didn’t. Ian, a Pastor from Middlesborough says: “All I can say is this: Your class isn’t about where you live. It’s an attitude or a belief. It is more about where your head is than where your home is” (117). The accounts of lived experience bring out not just the negatives but also the powerful sense of community in traditionally working-class areas. Rachel, a young woman working for a church on a housing scheme says “…nobody said anything, but we knew that if they were at our house for tea, then their mum was struggling” (120). She talks about the battle for survival and how income takes priority over further education: “It’s hard to foster ambition for the future when you’re just trying to survive hand to mouth each week” (121).

In the second section of the book, McConnell does a deep dive into “The Bible, Poverty and Helping the Poor”. While this section is only 20 pages, McConnell takes a wide survey of Old and New Testament teaching and makes a compelling case for the church to prioritise the poor: “He [God] will not for stand oppression or indifference when it comes to the least, the last and the lost” (231). McConnell makes the point that the Bible’s reasons for poverty are many and varied and therefore the way we respond must be careful and thought through. So often the church responds to crisis in a knee jerk manner with little thought for the long term good of the disadvantaged. If a person is in poverty due to their sin and reckless behaviour, our response may well endorse and compound their behaviour. While this short section is helpful, I thought it was very brief and would have liked to have read a longer analysis of the theology of poverty and the imperative to respond.

In the third section of the book, McConnell seeks to analyse the fault lines in British evangelicalism. He returns to the theme of exposing the inadequacy of mercy ministry across the UK. At this point, I should probably say I have a vested interest in this debate. After 11 years working for local authorities, I have worked for two major Christian charities operating in and around Edinburgh for the last 16 years. McConnell describes most mercy ministries as a “slow death to the soul”. He argues that so much of the charity offered to those in poverty is patronising and far from solving poverty, often compounds it. So often Christian charities merely respond to symptoms and have no long-term vision for discipleship, church planting or the development of indigenous leadership. McConnell helpfully references Darren McGarvey’s bestselling book Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain Underclass which brilliantly analyses the left-leaning, liberal-dominated poverty industry in Scotland.

McConnell’s analysis, that there are many patronising projects often set up by well-meaning but slightly naïve Christians where there is little discernible pathway to a better life never mind Biblical discipleship, is no doubt true. Some people are driven by a “middle-class guilt complex” as the drive for so many projects that neither help nor empower the poor: “In fact I would argue that much of what we do for the poor is to salve middle-class guilt complexes, rather than being something that is well thought out, biblically-based and has a clear long term strategy for helping people to move forward with their lives” (243). I do, however, think that McConnell possibly throws the baby out with the bathwater in seeking to make his point. In my own experience, certainly in the context of Scotland, many mercy ministries are careful to avoid dependency and genuinely seek to take a long-term approach. I heard recently of the senior management team of a large Christian charity who were away on a strategy retreat to study the lessons of the book Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help. They want to work in partnership with the local church, partner with those they are serving and make a long-term impact in poorer areas. I’m not aware of many local foodbanks that would give out food without limit. Most limit their donations and seek evidence of how people are seeking to address their poverty. My own charity seeks to support families with volunteers from local churches. Far from disempowering churches, we seek to provide the training and support necessary for local churches to reach out to families in crisis. We act as a bridge for the local church to reach the last, the lost and the least.

To be fair to McConnell, he is not asking for mercy ministries to be stopped so much as radically redesigned. As he says: “I am not calling for an end to mercy ministry. I am calling for them to be made better. I am calling for them to be more reciprocal, less one-sided, and more of a stepping stone on the road to serious Christian discipleship within a local church. My contention is that generous justice is not enough on its own” (265). I couldn’t agree more. This is a timely call for all of us to review what we are doing and ask ourselves if what we are doing is, in the long term, helping or hurting the poor.

My only slight caveat concerning the soup kitchens that McConnell characterises as a “slow death to the soul” is that many similar projects are keeping people alive and are the stepping stone to other help. I have visited (and developed) many projects over the last 27 years where basic care was linked to debt advice, housing support, health care, employment support, addiction help and perhaps most importantly of all, relationships with Christians who can talk to them about their deeper need. As we see with the Good Samaritan, loving our neighbour does not always lead to conversion or discipleship. Sometimes people need to be picked up in all their needs and pain and loved, even if, at that point, they don’t see their need for Christ. There is a place for mercy ministries that work in partnership with the poor and who strengthen and support the work of the local church.

The final section of the book plots the journey to revitalisation and transformation amongst the last, the lost and the least. McConnell helpfully argues that the local church not only matters but is the only long-term solution to the poverty, crime and family breakdown in so many poorer communities: “Who will be the light to our poor communities if it is not the local churches, holding out the gospel and passing on the baton? We need flaming bonfires of gospel light burning brightly in the darkness of our schemes and housing estates” (349). There is a particularly good chapter on discipleship which turns so much of the modern Christian thinking on discipleship on its head. As he says, “In Christian discipleship, we must steel our hearts for disappointment, but we must not have steely hearts” (406). McConnell argues for proper expository preaching to the poor rather than the gimmicks they are so often fed. The journey of discipleship can be hard and disappointing, but this is the call of the gospel.

In my experience, love for the poor is fundamentally a theological issue and it takes time and patience to win people over. Fundamentally, the book is not intended to alienate but to start a dialogue. As he says in his conclusion: “My intention in writing this book has not been to offend, but to generate fruitful discussion” (449). It has certainly succeeded in doing that. I found it stimulating, challenging and if I’m honest, quite unsettling.

Thomas Guthrie’s lonely statue stands in Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh, unknown and unrecognised by a society that has long since lost its Christian heritage. The statue beautifully reminds passers-by of true Christianity. Guthrie stands resplendent with a Bible in one hand and his arm around a “ragged” child on the other. He embodies the Christian gospel: truth and love. The Last, the Lost, and the Least is a call for the church to return to its Biblical roots and reverse 50 years of flight from the most deprived areas of the UK. McConnell doesn’t pull any punches, the situation is desperate, the harvest is great, and the labourers are few. Contrary to what many people believe, there is a real spiritual hunger on housing schemes and the need for gospel-centred healthy churches has never been greater. Let’s step up to the huge challenge of this book: “Come and migrate to the spiritual wastelands of the UK and work long hours, in difficult circumstances, with some beautiful glimpses of gospel light, with many discouragements and little financial reward. And then die here. Nameless and forgotten by all but Him who we serve: King Jesus” (479).

Andrew Murray
Deacon, Livingston Free Church and Director of Family Support, Safe Families, Edinburgh and the Lothians


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