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Tony Merida: Welcome to “Churches Planting Churches,” a podcast on the theology and practice of church planting. I’m your host, Tony Merida.
Church planting pastors who minister in some of the world’s hardest places will encounter many painful issues, whether it be addiction, violence, homelessness, broken families, poverty, or a number of other things.
One especially painful aspect of ministry in such communities concerns the reality of abuse. Far too many children experience the horror of being abused by people in their lives that they should be able to trust. Abuse of any kind is a grievous sin that must be repented of and dealt with accordingly. And as churches are planted in places where abuse is prevalent, pastors need to know how to apply the gospel to people who have suffered from it. But how can we do that? Many of us may feel like we don’t even know where to begin.
To help us think about this, it’s a privilege to have my friend Mez McConnell with me on the podcast. Mez is the senior pastor of Niddrie Community Church in Edinburgh, Scotland. He’s also the director of 20schemes, a church planting and revitalization initiative bringing the light of the gospel to Scotland’s poorest communities. Mez is the co-director of Church in Hard Places here at Acts 29. He has authored multiple books, one of which we will discuss today. Mez is married to Miriam and he has two daughters.
Mez welcome back to the podcast.
Mez McConnell: Thanks baby. You did well there, no mistakes.
Merida: Was that okay?
McConnell: That was a great job, I like that.
Merida: You have quite a bio, Mez. I mean you probably have more lines of stuff you’re doing than anybody we’ve had on the podcast. Do you just, you know, really do these jobs? Are these things your. . . .
McConnell: Yeah. I don’t know who wrote the bio. I didn’t write the bio. I just usually put Mez, pastor of something. And by the way, just to come off that for a minute, excellent pronunciation of Edinburgh.
Merida: You think so?
McConnell: Because the yanks usually say Edinburg. It’s not Edinburg. It’s Edinburgh.
Merida: Well, I do have roots in the UK way back. So I don’t know… That has nothing to do with it.
McConnell: Yeah. Every American I meet. . . .
Merida: Has roots?
McConnell: . . . has roots. They all tell me they’re Scottish.
Merida: I’m 1% black, I’m 1% African. So that’s the, the complexion.
McConnell: You’ve got to be 1% African, Matt, because. . . .
Matthew Spandler-Davison: 1% Swedish
McConnell: This is Jason Bourne here. He’s got, like, 15 passports and. . . .
Merida: You know, Mez always travels with an entourage so with him is his buddy MSD. These are the gangsters in Acts 29. I mean, you want to just see the best guys in A29. I mean, you just look at these guys and it’s a blast.
McConnell: Matthew is a gangster? All my guys listening to this now are ripping.
Spandler-Davison: Loving it.
McConnell: He likes that. He’s never been called a gangster before.
Merida: But he’s got black hoodie on, you know, Church in Hard places. He’s looking tough, you know?
McConnell: Trust me, he’d be under that table the first sign of trouble.
Merida: That’s fantastic. Now tell us a little bit about what you and Doug and MSD are doing with Church in Hard Places?
McConnell: So we started 20schemes maybe six years ago now. And 20schemes is basically we want to plant churches or revitalize churches in Scotland’s poorest communities. 45% of Scotland lives in what we call social housing below the poverty line, very, very, well, zero percentage of evangelical church money was going into planting or developing churches in those communities. So we set that up and then very quickly it just launched, didn’t it?
I mean, my blog took off, I was just doing a little blog about ministry and mental health abuse, the things that we suffer. And then all of a sudden we were getting calls from all over the world saying, “Can you come and do 20schemes here in Australia, China,” China, right? And, you know, South America, South Africa. And we said, “Listen, we can’t do that. 20schemes, is about Scotland.” And so I felt a bit of pastoral concern for a lot of young guys from poor communities around the world who were ringing me and they’re going, “Look, we have no training, we have nothing.”
And that’s when I approached Acts 29 and said, “Look, you know, these conferences you hold in these hotels. . . .” I was just telling him, it would take the average wage earner in our most deprived communities, it would take them 365 days to earn what it would cost to spend one night in this hotel. And so there’s just this massive gap between guys coming here, working in that context and bringing them into the sort of A29 family of churches. How do we bridge the gap? How do we bridge the divide? How do we resource them, train them, assess them?
And so yeah, we launched, with A29 about 18 months ago. It’s been phenomenal in terms of growth. It’s just been rapid. I don’t know all the figures. I know we have circumnavigated the globe three times in 18 months. We have done . . . 3500 people have been done through our training. We have 40 cities. I think we have currently have 40 trainees from I don’t know how many countries, all six continents. I mean the need is huge, right?
And so this Church in Hard Places is just the beginning in terms of what we’re trying to do. If A29 truly wants to be global and diverse it’s going to have to embrace a huge swathe of the world’s population which is seriously in poverty and we’re going to have to work out what all this stuff looks like, conferences, speakers and stuff like that.
Merida: Well, I’m personally thankful for you guys. I’m part of the emerging region’s team at Acts 29, so I’m working in East Africa with that team and MSD has been super helpful—how you guys at broken up the assessment into these monthly modules, that’s been really helpful into a two-year kind of runway so guys can get there.
McConnell: So we’re not competing with local sort of network leaders. What we’re saying to network leaders is let us pinpoint some guys in poor communities in your regions and get them assessment ready so when you get them we’ve done all the back-end work.
Merida: Exactly. Exactly. Excellent. So let’s talk about your book. All right? You got a book coming out, it’s really exciting. It’s going to be unique. Tell us about, you know, anything you want to tell us about. What is it about? Somebody’s written the foreward, endorsements, why should we read it? Can we get a discount? Talk to us.
McConnell: So it’s called “The Creaking on the Stairs: Finding Faith. . . .
Merida: You said creaking?
McConnell: “The Creaking on the Stairs: Finding Faith & Forgiveness Through Childhood Abuse.” I personally hate the title. I called it “Ding Dong The Wicked Witch Is Dead,” but they wouldn’t let me keep that title.
Merida: And why was that?
McConnell: Is it copyright? Even though it’s “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead.” That’s actually the title. The second line is ding dong the wicked Witch is like dead, like dead like. Anyway.
Spandler-Davison: Good marketing reasons not to use that title.
McConnell: As usual. I’ve gone with the title. So it’s called “The Creaking on the Stairs”
Merida: Do you find that people like the temper you Mez? Do they feel you’re a little bit too shocking at times?
McConnell: Probably Matthew might suggest that that’s true. I don’t intend to be shocking. I thought “Ding Dong the Wicked Witch Is Dead” was a cool name for the book. Obviously lots of people got very freaked out by it for some reason.
Merida: So what is the book about, the creaking in the floor?
McConnell: So the creaking on the stairs…
Merida: Creaking on the stairs.
McConnell: See, look at that. But I bet you he’d remembered, “Ding Dong the Wicked Witch is Dead.” This is exactly my point right now. Anyway, so the basically the book is about. . . . How old is my testimony book? It’s gotta be. Ten years or so ago, probably more, I wrote a book based on my life called, “Is There Anybody Out There” that’s available in all good bookshops. And it’s basically a testimony of how I came to faith, you know. I was on the streets at two, grew up in care, in trouble with the police at a young age, 12 years old, dealing drugs, hustling, you know, bank robbery, in maximum security jail by the time I was 21, got converted just out of prison. Reading a Matthew Henry commentary on the Bible, right? I remember when we did the interview. . . .
Merida: I love that story. I’ve shared that story many times.
McConnell: That’s my first book. And then, you know, I mean, it’s been a long time I thought about writing a follow-up. I had lots of people say, “Do you want to do a follow-up? Why don’t you do a follow up?” And I’ve always thought about doing one about childhood abuse but just never felt the time was right for it, right? I wasn’t feeling it. I think I signed the contract for this, like, four years ago, right?
Spandler-Davison: Yeah. August.
McConnell: Yeah. I wrote a blog. So what happened was, I’ll tell you what happened. Somebody contacted me through social media and said, “Your stepmother’s died.” I mean I hadn’t thought about this woman for a long time, 30 years, right? So my dad was with this woman for about 10 years between the ages of like 10 and 13, 14. I would be, me and my sister, we would stay with them for a time but then we would be taken off then we would be put into care or put into a foster home or an orphanage then we’d come back and we’d stay with them. I mean, it was chaos, right? She was a supremely abusive individual.
I had not thought about these things for a long time and then I just. . . . Somebody said, “Look, she’s dead.” I think it was a family member. And I clicked on this thing and it said, “You know, she died.” Man, I was feeling emotional about it. And so I wrote a blog. I just sat and wrote it overnight. And it just sort of, because you know, just like to process like that. I write a lot. And I think I posted this blog in the early hours, right? And I think it basically crashed our website. I woke up, at lie 9am, I think we had 200,000 views in, like, two hours or something. I mean, it stopped at just over a million in 72 hours.
I mean, it just went mental, right? Emails everywhere, all sorts of agencies picking it up all over the world saying, “Can we publish it? Blah, blah, blah.” Anyway, I mean quite a few publishers said to me, “Why don’t you write a book about it?” I’m like, “I’m not feeling it.” Had a lot going on. And then I think I did sort of sign a pre-book deal, didn’t I, about four years ago and I just wasn’t feeling it. It’s not a book like you can . . . it’s not like a systematic theology, you can just sit down and, you know, crack a book out. Anyway, something came up, supposed to go to Australia, right? I supposed to go to Australia to do Acts 29 Australia last year, last February. And my visa didn’t come in time because obviously I’ve got restrictions because of my convictions.
And so right at the last minute, like the day everything got canceled and I had these like 10 days spare like that I set apart to be away. And so my wife said to me, “Why don’t you go away, you know, book an Airbnb somewhere and write the book?” And I’m like, “I’m just not feeling it.” So I went away and, yeah, I actually wrote the book in about three days, about 80,000 words I wrote. I mean, I just cranked it out.
And then I spent like the next week editing it down to. . . . It’s about 50,000 words, editing it down to what it was, so I cranked it out. It’s quite emotional. It brought up a lot of memories that I thought had gone decades, you know, I hadn’t thought of things for decades and decades. And so it took me at least a month, I think, just to get over the sort of emotional trauma of just remembering.
Merida: What was the blog about? What was it that was so. . . .
McConnell: The blog was called “Ding Dong the Wicked Witch Is Dead” which is a great title for a book. And I tell you what I riffed-off, I read an online obituary of a woman who died in America and a family wrote her obituary and basically said, “Our mother of 82 years, has died, blah, blah, blah. The earth is rid of an absolute stain on humanity who was nothing but cruel and evil and horrible to us, etc, etc. We hope she rots in hell.”
McConnell: And I’m, like, “yeah, that’s basically how I feel right now.” And so I just wrote this book about this. . . . The blog was about my conflicting emotions. I’m a pastor, I teach about repentance and forgiveness and reconciliation, but yet at the same time I’m thinking, “Here’s this woman, she’s dead, I hope she’s in hell.” I’m like, “what if she’s not in hell? Should I be thinking she’s not? Is it allowed for me to think that she should be in hell?” And so the blog was sort of a confliction of, “How do I arrive at a theology consistent with the Bible of somebody who spent most of my early life just systematically torturing and humiliating me?”
Merida: And this was not just verbal?
McConnell: Oh no, this was physical, this was sexual. This was neglect. This was, like, I mean, yeah, the book goes into some not graphic detail on some of it, but yeah, it was vicious stuff, starvation, you know. It was brutal stuff.
Merida: So we’re thinking on this podcast about church planting, about pastoring. Do you think the book will be helpful for pastors in learning to identify with abuse victim?
McConnell: Every single pastor I know; everybody who’s sees me on social media; everyone without fail said they can’t wait for the book to come out. I mean, it’s one of the big apologetic questions we get. About 90% of my congregation have been sexually abused largely, by the way, by family members. I think there’s a lie out there that says, you know, “stranger danger” and, you know, all this stuff. But anyway, that’s another debate.
And so what I wanted to do, I want to write a book with a guy who would come into my office, sit down and go, “You know what? Where was God then? If God’s real and you say, he loves me, he wants a relationship with me, why didn’t he help me out then when I was getting raped by my uncles,” or whatever was going on by family members, “you explain that to me.” And most middle-class Christians just get stumped by this, right? “Oh, well, you know, he meant it for evil, but you know, God meant it for good,” and all this chat, which is not really that helpful to people going through serious trauma.
And so I thought, you know what, I’m going to write a book that’s part testimony but part apologetic for, you know, and then, but also at the end there’s a twist where I interview a convicted pedophile who systematically raped and abused a four-year-old and a seven-year-old boy and he got 50 years for it. He was converted 11 years into his sentence, and just how he as a child abuser has worked out forgiveness and peace and reconciliation but how I coped emotionally just interviewing him because, you know, my instinct was,”I’ll cut your throat.” I’m 20 years a pastor, right? And so it’s a very raw emotional book.
And it asks questions like, you know, I mean, it gets deep penal substitutionary atonement. I mean, there are stories in the Bible that sound abusive. Abraham and Isaac. I mean, that sounds hugely abusive. The Lord going to the cross, the father sending his innocent son to face punishment for guilty people. I mean cosmic child abuse, right? So I just look at some of those things and then just tease it out. I don’t know, you’ve read it. I find it hard to describe. It’s not a particularly normal book.
Merida: You’re not a really normal person, though, Mez. I think it’s appropriate.
McConnell: Yeah. It’s hard to describe what it’s like, but it’s like. . . . You’ve read it and I know you’ve suffered abuse yourself and so it’s emotional to you.
Spandler-Davison: You’re interacting with the story.
Merida: Interacting with your own testimony. Right.
McConnell: But it’s not about my testimony. It’s about. . . .
Merida: Correct. It’s about the subject.
McConnell: So one chapter is humiliation, right? So I recount a situation when I was, you know, forced to stand naked in front of older strangers, etc., and being humiliated. But then the next chapter is, but Christ’s humiliation. Where was God in my moment of humiliation? I’ll tell you where he was, he was hanging on a tree facing his own cosmic humiliation. And so it’s a book about child abuse that’s actually about Christ.
Merida: Yeah. The hope of the gospel.
McConnell: And so it’s dark but actually it’s light at the same time, would you say?
McConnell: But it’s not linear, that’s the thing.
Spandler-Davison: It’s a dark story but offers hope.
Merida: Offers hope, yeah.
McConnell: But I’m not messing around, I’m not messing around with a cheesy Christian answers. Do you know what I mean? You know, Genesis, you know, Joseph’s . . . but I’m not saying that’s not true. But people need to time to process, people need time to say, you know, it’s all right to be angry when you first come to Christ with the Lord and wonder why did this happen to me? What’s going on? How can I work this out? Yeah. It’s gonna be a wild book, I think.
Merida: I can’t wait to read it. Now you said earlier to me that Rosaria Butterfield wrote the foreword, is that right?
McConnell: Yeah Rosaria wrote the foreword for me.
Merida: Did she say some nice things?
McConnell: She hated and loved the book. This is what I like about people who blurbed it, most people said they hated it and yet they loved it. And so, I mean, one guy said I think it’s most disturbing thing he’s ever read, but also the most hopeful thing he’s ever read.
Merida: That’s good, man.
McConnell: And I’m not going out to shock, this is not a shock jock book. This is like, these are real stories that are real to me but I know are real to so many tens of thousands—probably more—of people out there who suffer in silence. They’re too embarrassed. Yeah, it’s very difficult.
Merida: How can churches care for people who have been abused? I don’t know if you deal with that in this kind of book but just you can maybe not in the book, but, how do you answer that?
McConnell: I think there’s a section in the book where I do a Q&A with three pastors, me, Matthew, and another pastor. And it’s basically the top questions, the most popular questions . . . popular is the wrong word, but you know the most frequent questions we get asked on this issue. And I think that’s one of them. I mean, what do you think, how can they best care? It’s difficult.
Spandler-Davison: Yeah it’s. . . discipleship. It’s the church as a place not to be seen as a place of danger but a place of refuge for somebody who has suffered from abuse.
Merida: Yeah. Yeah. I think. . . .
McConnell: The big problem is how would you disciple them in a church if you’ve got a convicted child abuser who’s converted present? That’s one of the questions we talk about and we have different answers to that, right?
Merida: Yeah. And that’s probably another podcast to think through all the complexities and it is a big issue and it’s something we care about in Acts 29, you know, protecting the vulnerable, taking appropriate action on perpetrators. And. . . .
McConnell: But does God save perpetrators? Does he save pedophiles? Does he save rapists?
Merida: Of course, yeah.
McConnell: Does he save murderers? See, I hate that about the gospel. And yeah, I’m a rat just like them, right? Which is what the book comes out basically. I mean, how different am I? And so it’s just the, you know, it’s a book that took me 20 years to write. I didn’t write it in five minutes, and so it’s a lot of reflection. It doesn’t tie everything up in a neat bow. It’s not like. . . .
Merida: In your experience of being abused, did you think about people in the church being people who had it all together? Where I’m going with this is I think one of the challenges and one of the needs is to make our churches safe places for the abused to be able to come forward and come talk and feel loved. But because they feel often I think alone, different when the reality is, as you already mentioned, tons of people that have faced various kinds of abuse through life and our church is just gotta be those redemptive hospitals, right?
McConnell: Listen, when I first came to Christ obviously I had no experience of church before in my early, mid-20’s. And so when I first went to church, how it was portrayed particularly in the UK, evangelicalism is very white, very middle class, educated people. The portrayal is, they’ve all got it together, they dress nice, they talk nice and so a guy like me, walks in and thinks. . . .
Merida: Can’t identify?
McConnell: “I shouldn’t be here.” Do you know what I mean? And I’m like, “These guys are like the never do anything wrong, there’s never a hair out of place” Do you know what I mean? They look and sound perfect. And then took me a few years when I became a pastor, “These people are some of the most disturbed sick people in the world.” Do you know what I mean?
Merida: Yes. Yes. I do.
McConnell: But they just learn this sort of facade of Christianity, which guys from my background quickly sniff out by the way. And so yeah, so it’s very important, at least in how we plant and do our churches that we have a very expansive discipleship process.
I mean, we live with each other, day in, day out, hour by hour. And, you know, no topics are out of bounds for discussions and prayers. And also, you know, sometimes people come to faith in Jesus but they don’t forgive people who’ve hurt them for a long time. And we’ve got to give people space to grow. You know, justification happens instantaneously upon conversion but the rest for some people is a long slog until we get to glory, right?
And sometimes I think there’s a pressure when you come to a church where it’s everybody’s like “yummy mummies” and do you know what I mean? And everybody’s got it together. That these guys have got an instantly now well. You now gotta eat, think like this and act like this and live like this. And often they just can’t cope.
Merida: I can’t wait to read it. Any other thoughts we need to hit on the book? How people can get it. You said the basic bookshops? We’ve got discounts? What have we got?
McConnell: We want people to buy it through 10of those. So 10ofthose.com is in the UK, the USA. 10of those USA as well, right? Basically we’re using 10ofthose, One because they’re a Christian book distributor, both in the States and in the UK and Europe. But secondly, because every book sold they give 10% to the ministry of 20schemes, so not only is it, you know, you’re buying a book, that’s we hope it’s going to be helpful in helping you minister to your own soul if you’ve been abused or help you minister to those who have been abused. But also that you’re helping in ministry that is reaching into some of the like roughest places in Scotland. So buy it, buy it through those brothers and that will be helpful to us.
Merida: Love it, man.
Merida: You’re an inspiring example and your teaching, your labor, all the stuff you guys do in hard places.
McConnell: Appreciate this interview.