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Since 2007 Mez McConnell has been senior pastor of Niddrie Community Church in Edinburgh, Scotland. He’s also active in planting churches in poor areas and believes pastors should not avoid doctrine or dumb down theology when preaching to low-income congregations. Such paternalism misses the mark by wrongly viewing poverty as a lack of means, McConnell says: The primary problem is spiritual. Here are edited excerpts of our interview in front of students at Patrick Henry College.
Your mum abandoned you when you were 2 years old, and your dad was away a lot? Yeah. He liked to bet on horses, watch football, and drink.
Your stepmother was not a nice person? She was highly abusive and violent.
And at age 16 you were convicted of assault? No, age 12. Assaulting a couple of older people.
You grew up with a lot of violence: A friend of yours was stabbed to death? A girlfriend of mine at the time just took a knife and stuck it straight into his heart. One minute we’re having a cigarette. Next minute he’s bleeding to death in the back of the car on the way to the hospital.
‘Historically, Reformed evangelicals were at the forefront of true mercy ministries, hospitals, schooling for the poor. We’ve left the poor behind. We’ve left them to theological fruitcakes.’
That raised in your mind some spiritual questions? I began to wonder, Where was he? What was happening?
Did anyone at that point help you think through those questions? No. Had a Catholic background, sporadically.
So you’re homeless at 16 and you’re in a fight at a nightclub, stabbed a couple of people, could have escaped … Hey, Doc, you’ve got good info on me.
A Patrick Henry student here, Harvest Prude, did some research. There she is, at the back. Is that you? Are you, like, FBI or something?
She’s good. But did you want to be caught? Yeah. I was messed up. Prison seemed like a good idea.
Some Christians came to see you. They brought me some tobacco and a radio. They talked to me like I was a human being rather than a project.
So when you got probation, you went to live in a Christian house? I found an old book in this dude’s house. It was a Matthew Henry commentary on the Bible. You’ve seen one of those bad boys?
Yes, with Bible passages and comments on each. I just thought I’ll read this thing, right? I read it from start to finish. Took me a couple of months, but I read it.
Any particular part got to you? I got converted reading the book of Romans. That’s a cheeky book to get converted by, right? Romans just resonated with me because I’ve been taught lies my entire life, largely by social workers and drug counselors. They just lied to me blatantly.
What were the most common lies? The biggest lie: I wasn’t really a bad person, I was a good guy who had a terrible upbringing, a terribly abusive childhood. I was a product of my environment.
They’re saying you are not responsible. Exactly. I’m a victim. But Paul says: No. You need to take responsibility for yourself, for your actions. Boohoo, you had a tough childhood, but you are a sinner standing in front of a holy God and there’s no excuse for your sin, regardless of how people mistreated you.
The hymn “Amazing Grace” has that famous line, “saved a wretch like me.” Some people in the United States say, “Oh, we don’t like to say wretch.” So they changed the words to “saved someone like me,” but you had the understanding that you’re a wretch. People who don’t like the word “wretch” are wretches too, aren’t they? Simple as that.
How do they come to understand that they are wretches also? You just tell them, Doc. Maybe they dress nicely, but some nicely dressed rich people are the most duplicitous people on the planet.
Because there’s a tendency to think … Wealth, education, erudition: They’re easy masks to hide sin. People say, “It must be so difficult to deal with all the drug addicts and the losers in your ministry?” No. I tell them, “There’s loads of drug addicts and losers in your world. They just hide it better.” Easy to hide being a loser when you’re driving a nice Mercedes, right?
Why do we hear so often that we have to be soothing in sermons, careful not to alienate anyone? Why do we hear that when it so obviously is ineffective? Because people are wretches and they don’t like it.
You’ve been at your church 11 years, and you’ve planted six others. How do you train the people who are coming in to be pastors there? What’s your process of trying, in a sense, to give them the same DNA you have? In the UK Christianity is almost encased in a middle-class educated bubble. But historically, Reformed evangelicals were at the forefront of true mercy ministries, hospitals, schooling for the poor. We’ve left the poor behind. We’ve left them to theological fruitcakes, liberals.
I like your memoir, Is There Anybody Out There? You’re clearly not thrilled with the typical middle-class programs to help the poor. Often guys who like to be trendy say to me, “I’m thinking about starting a mercy ministry. We’ll have a soup kitchen in the city just to show the world the love of Jesus.” Most mercy ministries in most churches in the Western world need to be closed down because they’re not helping the poor at all. They’re doing the reverse. They’re helping middle-class Christians feel good about themselves because they think they’re showing the love of Jesus to poor people by opening a soup kitchen or giving them a handout. But they’re not really helping anybody, not in the long term and certainly not in a Biblical fashion.
What do they typically do wrong? In mercy ministries, 50 homeless guys show up at your soup kitchen or your food pantry, whatever you want to call it. You’re handing out food and maybe you chat to a couple of them about Jesus, and it’s “high-five, 50 people came last night. We’re a roaring success.” But the next week the same 50 guys come, and six months later, it’s the same 50 guys. Twelve months, two years … I was in soup kitchens for six years. I know the drill. The same people are coming, and they’re not being helped to move on.
So what is showing the love of Jesus? What should that really look like? Showing the love of Jesus is proclaiming the truths of the gospel. Jesus came because there’s a sin problem. It doesn’t matter if you live behind a gated community or under a bridge, you are separated from a holy God. But here’s the good news, baby: You can turn from your sinful lifestyle and put your faith and trust in Christ the Lord for salvation, and He’ll forgive you. That’s the good news.
So, mercy ministry and showing the love of Jesus is preaching the gospel of Christ? If you don’t get that, you’re an idiot, in my opinion.