The privilege and challenge of reaching non-Christians in the most deprived areas of the UK is the focus of this landmark book from Mez McConnell, the fruit of two decades of frontline work and deep-dive research. Mez, founder of 20Schemes and Pastor of Niddrie Community Church in Edinburgh leaves no stone unturned in his analysis of what it is to be working class in modern Britain and how churches can re-orient their vision to include the least, the last, and the lost. Judicious use is made of ‘spotlight’ authors who share their testimonies, their ministry experience, or who write on areas within their area of expertise.
In this review my focus will be on the book’s wider ministry ethos, its cultural understanding, and its message to the evangelical constituency. I will conclude by highlighting a risk the book presents to the reader, and a potential positive outcome that it could be instrumental in bringing into being.
There are many books available on poverty and Christian work, but The Least, the Last, and the Lost carries much that sets it apart from its peers.
Firstly, its theology is unabashedly conservative. Mez McConnell (and the contributors he enlists to share their perspectives) has a bedrock commitment to the cardinal doctrines of historical Reformed Christianity, and an unflinching commitment to preaching those truths comprehensively and comprehensibly in their context. This is something for which profound thanks should be offered to God. The vagaries and complexity of facing into the harsh reality of poverty can easily soften the doctrinal edges of one’s ministry, or encourage an overbalance in favour of liberal theology. McConnell espouses a full blown adherence to core doctrine, but he also upholds the Word of God preached in the power of the Spirit of God as the chief means by which God brings people from death to life, from darkness to light.
Secondly, there is an unwavering commitment to the local church as God’s means of making his gospel known in schemes and housing estates. A common victim of socially conscious Christian work is ecclesiology. Not so, here. McConnell is a fearless critic of para-church work and a fierce advocate for church planting and revitalisation. If one were to subtract the local church from this text, its entire thesis would collapse.
Thirdly, there is a helpful emphasis on indigent ministry on schemes and in housing estates. The need not merely to preach but to plant churches and raise up leaders from within communities is placed front and centre throughout the text. McConnell insists on rejecting patronising or condescending approaches to the work he is advocating for.
The Least, the Last, and the Lost is composed of four parts (Poverty, Class, and Culture in the UK; The Bible, Poverty, and Helping the Poor; Exposing the Fault Lines of UK Evangelicalism; Rethinking Everything in Light of the Local Church). The first and third sections deliver statistical, ecclesiological, and financial analysis which is disarming, affecting, and transparently well-researched. McConnell has a unique understanding of working class culture and evangelical subculture, and is able to bring them into painful juxtaposition. The picture painted is bleak, optimistic, generous, and hard-hitting. The author spares no blushes from middle class Christians and church leaders, extending a challenge which ought to rock us to our core about neglect of the poorest in our communities, and financial abdication in supporting those working in areas of poverty across the UK. These are not the passionate rantings of a zealot but the painfully considered and personally experienced prejudices which stop work in key areas flourishing.
McConnell’s language is graphically expressive but not excessive, laying a charge and a challenge at the door of prosperous churches about their responsibility to the souls of unsaved people in schemes and estates. Church leaders may remain unchanged after reading about the burden of what must be done to see Christ shared among the poor, but they cannot remain unchallenged.
The Least, the Last, and the Lost has an urgent message to the wider evangelical community – we must reach those in poverty in the UK. We must work to plant churches in deprived areas in our own towns and cities, and we must direct significant financial and prayerful resources towards those already doing so further afield. The basis for issuing this call is the reality on the ground across the UK, but primarily the Scriptures’ injunction that we make disciples of all people. McConnell offers compelling and convicting evidence that churches often have a cursory commitment to helping the poor, and are quick to engage in activities which salve the conscience, but serve to effectively reinforce patronage and dependency. The solutions offered by this book are costly, but their biblical basis cannot be gainsaid.
A Dangerous Book
As I read The Least, the Last, and the Lost I was deeply moved, occasionally to tears. I cannot fault Mez McConnell’s theology, anthropology, nor ecclesiology. His arguments landed on me with fearful weight, and I had to pause occasionally simply to pray and repent. Such a response to a book is not common for me.
This highlights a danger, however. It is possible to gain the same heart-strings experience from reading a book like this as there is in ‘poverty safari’ mission trips. It is possible for me as the middle-class pastor of a middle-class church to get the thrill of conviction from a book like this, and to imagine that this in itself is some kind of feasible response to what I am reading. There is a possibility that I could mistake stirred affections for being stirred to action, and imagine that I am on McConnell’s side of the argument merely by approving of the coherence of his argument. This will not do. If all I gain from the commitment that a long book like this asks for is a deeper sense of impotent guilt and a better set of statistics to use as proof that I am in touch, then I make a mockery of its entire message. I believe this is a real and live danger for someone in my position.
The foregoing paragraph is not pessimistic, but realistic about how self-justification masquerade as a spiritual response. There is, however, incredible potential for this book to do much good in the world. If I, and others, absorbed its message with integrity and began to put the needs of the poorest on our agenda, the responsibility to plant and support plants in deprived areas at the forefront of our missiology, then the impact could be huge. I have had my eyes and heart opened by this book, but there is also a need to carry its message into the work of vision and strategy, to allow it to elicit genuine and concrete commitments from me about how to join the body of people seeking to advance gospel work in deprived areas.
This book occupies a unique space in my library, and in my heart. There is cogency in its argument and urgency in its message. There are times when its message might have been somewhat condensed, and there are occasional repetitions of key facts, but in all honesty I probably needed these elements reinforced as many of them were new to me, or easily brushed aside. Mez McConnell is to be commended for writing a disturbing, informative, passionate, Christ-honouring, and potentially world-changing book, bursting with fervour for Jesus, His gospel, and the work of mission in our most needy places.
The Least, the Last, and the Lost is published by 10ofThose under their EP franchise. It is beautifully produced with a sturdy paperback binding, and quality materials.