Book Review: Church in Hard Places

by Mez McConnell and Mike McKinley

If you’ve never heard Mez McConnell speak, he is worth a listen. With his Scottish accent and street-smart personality, he has a way of putting deep theological concepts into easy-to-understand vernacular. Before reading his work, I would highly recommend listening to his testimony, which can be found by doing a simple search on YouTube. McConnell spent several years ministering among the neediest in Brazil before going to Scotland as a pastor/missionary to plant churches among the “schemes” (think poor neighborhoods in the inner-city).

McConnell and Mike McKinley have teamed up to address what they see are pressing issues facing the church. They present their concerns in the context of church planting in hard places, but don’t be fooled…the points that they make apply to any church in the world that is seeking to engage its community with the gospel while addressing felt needs in the process.

The book is well written and short, two things that make it highly appealing and accessible, so I’d encourage you to give it a read (you can find it on Hoopla if your local library offers Hoopla accounts). I am not going to give a full rundown of the book here, but rather highlight a few key points that are relevant for the church today.

The first issue that the authors highlight is the blessing and curse of parachurch ministries. I need to start with a working definition. A parachurch ministry is an organization that operates “alongside” (para) the church. These ministries are not rooted in the local church and do not function under the authority of the local church, but rather serve to help equip the church to fulfill its mission or perform specialty tasks that the local church struggles to accomplish. There are hundreds of these types of ministries, from Prison Fellowship to FCA to Samaritan’s Purse. When done well, parachurch ministries are a huge blessing to the local church. Answers in Genesis does tremendous work in the field of science that the local church simply is not equipped to do. The same could be said for Operation Christmas Child, a ministry that delivers gifts and good news to kids who might otherwise not hear.

But there is a dangerous side to parachurch ministries as well. The minute a ministry stops supporting the church and instead begins to supplant the church, it is a hindrance and distraction to the primary mission and means of reaching the world with the truth of the gospel. I have personally observed this occurring in two ways. First, parachurch ministry leaders can begin to see their work as replacing local church involvement, or not see the need for being personally involved in a local church at all. The second way is when parachurch ministry leaders see the local church as a means of fueling their ministry, rather than their ministry being a means of building the local church. This leads to ministry leaders who are consumers of the church rather than contributors to it.

Another key issue that McConnell and McKinley point out is the problem that can arise when churches focus on “mercy” ministry to the exclusion of the gospel. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with running a food pantry, giving out Thanksgiving baskets, or filling up someone’s gas tank. But if those events are not connected in some direct way to the gospel, there is very little (if any) eternal benefit. This is not a call to cease acts of mercy, but to be significantly more intentional about how the church goes about them.

In sum, time is short, and resources are not unlimited. Too often, we have settled for doing “something” because it feels good or seems to reap some benefit. Instead, we should focus on grounding everything we do in the context of the gospel. We need to think through every ministry of our churches to bring it in line with the mandate to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…

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