I sometimes speak to young men who say they are interested in planting churches on council estates. There’s one issue in particular which seems to hinder them, especially if they’re from an educated, middle-class background. It’s the problem of children. They are either worried about their current child/children or they have concerns about raising future children in a housing estate environment.
Count the cost
Let me begin by affirming that following Jesus into estates as a church planter truly can, at times, be a brutal business. Following Jesus, at the best of times, comes with all sorts of pressures and temptations. Surely that’s why Jesus told his disciples to “count the cost” before deciding to follow him (Luke 14: 28).
If you want to plant a church in a housing scheme, then you better take Jesus at his word. Consider what He says in Luke 9:56-62:
As they were going along the road, someone said to Him, “I will follow You wherever You go.” And Jesus said to him, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” And He said to another, “Follow Me.” But he said, “Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.” But He said to him, “Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.” Another also said, “I will follow You, Lord; but first permit me to say goodbye to those at home.” But Jesus said to him, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”
I’m not going to exegete this text, but suffice to say that one clear point of application is this: Jesus is more important than your family. He is certainly more important than your children. Deal with it. Or walk away.
There will always be issues and worries and problems and questions concerning the Christian life. When considering moving into an estate, these are manifold. But the bottom line will always be: are you prepared to put your allegiance to Christ before all and above all, including those wonderful, fluffy, cute, sweet-smelling bundles of (often) idolatrous joy that we call our offspring? These verses read well until they have to be put into practice. If you truly want to serve Jesus in a housing estate, then it will be hard. That’s not a ‘manly’ catchphrase; it is a heart-breaking reality.
When children suffer
When Miriam and I made a decision to move to Brazil in 2003, we had two young children under the age of two. We knew it was going to be hot, but we had no idea just how difficult it was going to be for us emotionally, physically and spiritually. Don’t get me wrong; we were ready for hardship and difficulty. We were ready to suffer for Jesus. We just weren’t ready to watch our children suffer for choices we had made.
Both of my children were ill almost as soon as we arrived. And I’m not talking just a cold or a runny nose. It was often brutal vomiting and diarrhoea. In fact, on one occasion, my youngest lost half her body weight in the space of two days.
I remember turning up to the hospital with her in my arms and they had to stick a drip in her heel because she was so dehydrated. We were shoved in a room with three other children. There was mould on the floor and blood up the walls and the whole place stank of defecation. It was horrific. We hardly spoke the lingo and I had no real clue how to communicate what was wrong. When they began treatment, I couldn’t even be sure of what they were giving her.
The whole thing was traumatic. I was burning with rage, fear and frustration. Psalm 46:1-3 came to mind: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.”
He didn’t feel like my help and strength. And I was frightened in that stinking, third-rate hospital watching my little baby suffer unimaginably while a child on the bed next to us was screeching in pain and bleeding all over the floor.
Another time, we were at a BBQ with friends, and suddenly my eldest daughter began screaming in absolute agony. She had stumbled onto a fire ant nest and had begun playing with it because it looked a bit like a sandcastle. They were all over her, biting into almost every part of her body. I had to pick her up and throw her into a neighbour’s swimming pool.
Again, it was horrendous. As I watched her writhing in agony, completely helpless to ease her suffering, I remember thinking: What am I doing to my children? Have I put their lives in jeopardy for some romantic notion of missionary living? I remember well the many people we knew back in the UK who had gossiped behind our backs about what we were doing to our children, bringing them to such a place. What about their health? Their education? What about taking them away from their family? It was all coming back to haunt me.
I had read the missionary biographies. I thought that I was supposed to be feeling some kind of deep peace about my sense of call. I was supposed to rest in the fact of God’s providence. Well, I wasn’t feeling peace and I wasn’t feeling a deep sense of call. I was just feeling a deep sense of pain and an overwhelming desire to return home with my tail between my legs. I felt like I was abusing my children out of a sense of some personal, spiritual duty. I felt exactly as the Psalmist did in Psalm 10:1: “O Lord, why do you stand so far away? Why do you hide when I need you the most?”
I feel like I want to quote some Bible verse that came to me in those dark days, but none really did. There was just a sense of putting one foot in front of the other and hoping that things would get better as long as I kept trusting the Lord.
In our first year in Brazil, Miriam was ill, both my girls were seriously ill, and I had a life-threatening illness which resulted in my being unconscious for three days. We wanted to leave and never go back. We despised the place and its people. But we loved the Lord and we knew that even in the deepest pit of our emotions, He wanted us to be there. It was just a price we had to pay. It was part of the cost. I just didn’t realise that the cost meant everybody in my family and not just me.
The Great High Priest
In those dark days, we remembered, somehow, that we were there because people were suffering just as we were (and often worse) without Christ. Imagine that, if you can. We were traumatised, sure, but we had hope—and we had come to live among a people who had none.
If our troubles did nothing else, they gave us a profound empathy with people. They gave us a faint glimpse behind the curtain of Calvary, where Christ cried out: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Even more profoundly, consider how deeply the father must have suffered to watch his son in agony as he pursued his heavenly mission. Hebrews 4:15 came alive then, let me tell you: “For we do not have a High Priest who is unable to feel sympathy for our weaknesses…”
God’s Fatherly Care
Then, in 2006, we moved to a council estate in Scotland. That brought with it a whole host of other issues related to our children. Our concerns included: What about friends for them in a church with few or no children their own age? Wouldn’t it be easier and fairer to pastor in a church with an established children’s ministry and youth group? What about schooling in an area of failing educational systems? How about the fact that we can’t really let them play in the street with so many questionable (read: sex offenders) people about? We can’t let them go into certain houses we know are associated with drugs and crime. These are all big questions that need to be carefully considered.
There aren’t easy answers to these questions. We need wisdom from above, but I read these words recently, and I’ll finish with them here: “Good God, thank you that this life is not a random throw of the dice, but is watched over by your favour and fatherly care.
“That’s easy to confess when the wind is at my back and the sun is on my face; give me the same trust in your will when the circumstances of life turn tragic and are tear-stained. Let me understand that, even then, I am kept by you.”
Mez McConnell is the senior pastor of Niddrie Community Church and director of 20Schemes. He is the author of numerous books, including The Creaking on the Stairs: Finding Faith in God Through Childhood Abuse (Christian Focus) and Is There Anybody Out There?: A Journey from Despair to Hope (Christian Focus). He’s married to Miriam and has two daughters.
The full version of this blog originally appeared on the 20Schemes site and is republished here with permission.
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