10 Things to Know About Ministry Among the Poor

by Mez McConnell February 21, 2019

1. Please stop thinking of ministry to the poor only in terms of mercy ministry.

Often, well meaning rich churches and/or middle-class Christians come into financially poorer communities to do good works, usually in the form of a handout or some form of debt counseling. Then, if anybody happens to get saved, they are encouraged to go to a church outside their community and culture. As a result, these new believers are forced to assimilate to middle-class cultural values and norms. The best mercy ministry is a healthy, local gospel church peaching the gospel, loving the poor, and discipling people right at the heartbeat of our schemes.

2. We need to rethink current theological training and strategies for reaching into urban settings & our training processes for church leaders in poor communities.

Most theological institutions merely service the educated middle and upper classes. We need to push back on the lie that only people with Higher Education degrees can be ministers. 20schemes is developing a vocational model of theological training for its leaders and practitioners. Too often, vocational training is seen as inferior to formal Higher Ed training when nothing could be further from the truth, at least up to the undergraduate level. We need to train indigenous leaders. In middle-class churches, the cream rises to the top in terms of leadership development. In the schemes, we need to dig around in the dirt and the coal to find the gold.

3. We need to return to a long-term approach to financing church plants in schemes.

Many middle-class, cash-rich churches simply do not understand this. They have bought into the middle-class business model approach to church-planting which expects financial independence within 3-5 years. A leading evangelical minister said this many years ago: "There is no money in planting among the poor." Of course he is right, which is why it is out of vogue. The cold, hard facts are that many church plants in our communities may not be viable for a decade or more. Some, however, will be and can be useful as training and development hubs.

4. We need to embrace and expect a culture of failure in our church-planting among the poor.

Much of educated, middle-class culture lives with a fear of failure. In our culture of spin, those that do fail are often sold and repackaged as something else. For instance, a pastor isn’t sacked from his church, he is "moving on to explore new opportunities." A church plant didn’t fail, it "succeeded for a season." This kind of language may sound spiritual, and in some cases may be true, but it isn’t helpful. It presents what we do as too clean-cut. In other words, it doesn’t reflect the realities on the ground. I expect at least 50% of church plants in poor communities to fail. They can’t all succeed, even though we want them to. The statistics for planting failure around the world are very high, but without failures, there can be no success.

5. Don’t believe the even bigger lie that only large churches with big budgets can plant churches in poor communities.

Niddrie Community Church has 80 members in one of Edinburgh’s poorest neighbourhoods and yet we have almost 60 staff spread across five cities. We support ministry in the UK and around the globe. A handful of small churches can achieve just as much, if not more, than one larger church if we get our heads together and work in partnership.

6. Don’t undermine the work and importance of church revitalisation in poor communities.

This has far more cultural pull in the schemes than so-called ‘new expressions’ of the church. There are literally hundreds of little church halls and dilapidated buildings around the UK, for example, which, with investment and effort, we could turn around. The impact would be huge.

7 We need to train more women for the ministry in poorer communities.

At 20schemes, we are currently training about a dozen women, but we need more. Culturally, in the UK, more than half of the people living in poor communities are women and a high proportion of them are single mothers. A higher proportion have some form of mental health issue due to (1) sexual abuse and/or (2) drug addiction. We need a generation of biblically mature, Jesus-loving women who will minister into these difficult settings faithfully.

8. We need the middle class to live in our poorest communities.

Poor communities are going to need help from cultural outsiders if they are to develop a generation of indigenous leaders for the future. Without this outside intervention, we are lost. The problem is that most Christians would never dream of living in a deprived community. They love comfort too much. We need a new generation of men and women of faith willing to eschew their parents’ culture of "bigger and better" or "moving up and moving out." What if God doesn’t want you to go to university? What if he wants you to go to a housing project instead? What if he wants you to live and die there for the sake of the gospel in a needy, dangerous part of the world?

9. Don’t assume you know the culture just because we speak a common tongue.

Working and non-working class cultures appreciate directness of speech. They value relationships characterized by speaking honestly. On the other hand, middle-class people value relationships by tempering their speech. For instance, a working-class man and a middle-class man hear the same sermon. Neither man likes what they hear. The working-class man is likely to say it was boring if asked directly about it. The middle-class man is more likely to find something positive to say about it, even though he agrees with the working-class man. As a result, one side looks rude and brutal, while the other appears wishy-washy. The middle-class man thinks, "Why does he have to be so rude?" The working-class man thinks, "Why is he lying?" This leaves working-class Christians confused by the church. They don’t understand why people get upset at them for telling the truth and yet have no problem with lying. Language and culture are very complicated things, even in the English-speaking world.

10. We need big vision and long-term objectives if we are going to make an impact in our poorest communities.

The poorest in our cities, towns, and villages are not going to be won by a group of timid men and women in a committee meeting; they will be won by those who dream big and trust in the absolute sovereignty of God to get things done. The spiritual decline of decades won’t be reversed overnight, but it can be changed over time if we stay and die among the people to whom God has called us.

So let's get on with it. Nobody of note that ever accomplished anything for the kingdom did it without facing a cauldron of opposition and misunderstanding. Nobody is going to thank us for it. Nobody is going to hand out prizes. Let's move.