Mez McConnell, The Least, the Last, and the Lost: Understanding Poverty in the UK & The Responsibility of the Local Church
Published by Evangelical Press 2021
Reviewed by Greg Smith, Associate Research Fellow William Temple Foundation
Mez McConnell has, with some contributions from his colleagues, produced a passionate book about urban and estate ministry which should be required reading for anyone involved in the field. It is also aimed at complacent middle class evangelical Christians whom he sees to be in denial about social class in the UK.
McConnell writes as an insider who grew up in a tough unchurched environment, fell into addiction, crime and homelessness, but miraculously experienced a new birth and transformation of his life through an encounter with Jesus Christ. For the last two decades he has served as a pastor and church planter in a working-class housing scheme (council estate) in Edinburgh. He now leads a Scottish network of church planting and revitalisation called 20 Schemes.
As in Paul Keeble’s recent Urban Tract, McConnell underlines the importance of being there, and staying there long term, with a deep appreciation of yet without assimilation to local culture, and a spiritual life rooted in the deep love of Jesus and of people. He stresses above all the importance of the gospel, proclaimed in church, and in the street, in a clear evangelistic message calling for repentance and faith. He expects that some among the least, the last and the lost will respond in professions of faith, conversion and a journey of discipleship, as the church will provide personal mentoring and Biblical teaching. In his opinion, the local church is the only organisation or community that can tackle the deepest problems of such neighbourhoods.
McConnell’s work is not the first to highlight the importance of stories in urban culture and is rich with examples. The stories shared in the book are full of realism, of struggle, of disappointment, of life in a bleak environment, yet interspersed with moments of joy, strength of family and community ties and overcoming difficult circumstances.
McConnell should be commended for recognising the agency of people struggling with poverty, rather than trapping them in dependency and hopelessness. He also recognises the potential among people living on housing schemes for leadership in church and community and suggests models of training that are more appropriate and effective than traditional Bible College courses. Such training does not simply need to “dumb down” on Biblical knowledge or theology, but should rather be on an apprenticeship or in-service basis, applying the learning to real life situations.
At 527 pages, this lengthy volume
The assumptions are largely about communities dominated by the “white British working class”, which is both increasingly difficult to define, and demographically questionable in an era of diverse intersecting identities. While McConnell repeatedly expresses his reluctance to stereotype, and his contempt for the genre of “poverty porn” media depictions, it felt difficult to finish the book without these established perceptions being confirmed or strengthened, rather than appreciating estate life in all its nuanced variety.
The second section presents an excellent basic overview of the Biblical material on poverty from the Law and Prophets in the Old Testament to the Gospel narratives and the teaching and practice of the early church. However, his reading of the texts is very much “plain sense” without exploring the contextual settings either of the writers or of today’s readers. One can sometimes detect a tendency to prioritise “the poor in spirit”, though without neglecting compassion for the materially poor.
Perhaps the biggest weakness is the limited treatment of the Kingdom of God as among us now but not yet on earth in fullness. The author is steeped in Reformed theology which stresses God’s sovereign rule over the whole universe, a doctrine which has led many Christians to redemptive involvement in art and culture, science, medicine and social care politics and business. Yet he does not promote this as within the mission of God.
This view could discourage the development of meaningful public theology, and Christian involvement in attempts to influence local decision makers or work for legislative reform to mitigate poverty, a theme very much part of the 19th Century evangelical heritage.
In the third and fourth sections, which concentrate on the life of the church, there are a number of statements that may likely be a cause of discontent. Readers from outside Reformed and Evangelical tribe will perceive a traditional gospel of exclusivity, narrowness and perhaps even arrogance.
The God McConnell offers is holy, just, and merciful, yet the vast majority of us seem destined (deservedly) for the eternal torments of hell. Church life and worship is centred on traditional expository sermons, and a ‘complementarian’ theology means that church leadership and authority is vested in men. Despite this, the book has some useful material on women’s ministries.
On the other hand, Christians within conservative Evangelical tribe may also likely to be provoked. White British Evangelicals abound in affluent suburbs, but are rarely found living and serving in inner city or estates communities. At best their churches provide occasional opportunities for urban Christians to share testimonies and stories of front-line work—and in return promise prayer, or sometimes some financial support (though large sums of money rarely trickle down to urban churches as David Robertson argues in Part 3.4).
Help in terms of long-term missionary personnel is extremely rare, while short term raids often do more harm than good. McConnell is critical without much nuance of “mercy ministries” (such as food banks and homeless shelters) especially when these are delivered by para church organisations. He argues that they tend to trap people in dependency and fail to communicate in words the gospel of salvation, simply by being too nice.
While I am in many ways enthusiastic about this clarion call to urban mission and rejoice in the work of McConnell and 20 Schemes, through which estate residents are coming to faith in Jesus and local churches are beginning to flourish, the book often appears to lack appreciation of the wider urban mission movement, its history and literature. Indeed, McConnell has little time for pluralism within Christianity: while mainline liberal denominations get some credit for being present in urban estates, they have abandoned the gospel, and charismatics and Pentecostals, (especially prosperity preachers) are seen as heretical.
I see some similarities between Mez McConell and the brilliant, if annoying General William Booth whose passion for “the Least, the Last and the Lost” of the book’s title, led to the foundation of the Salvation Army. The later development of that movement as a major charitable service provider suggests that the urban church cannot live by hellfire preaching alone.