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Soft Hearts in Hard Places

20schemes is a ministry of Niddrie Community Church in Edinburgh which has a vision to see gospel churches planted in 20 of Scotland’s most deprived housing schemes (estates). Andy Hunter gives his reflections on attending one of their weekend conferences.

Soft Hearts in Hard Places primary image

The 20Schemes Weekender is a window into what gospel ministry at the sharp end of ‘broken Britain’ looks like. These twice-yearly gatherings bring together gospel workers from some of the toughest and most deprived areas of the UK and beyond.

Of course, the heart problem is the same in all communities – alienation from God – but in the schemes where there isn’t the money or middle-class trickery to cover over problems the consequences can be especially blatant and destructive. Places where mental health problems, substance abuse, violence and extreme poverty are not rare pastoral exceptions but everyday ministry.

You might think that to survive in those situations you would either need to be extremely hard-bitten or super-spiritual. The refreshing and humbling reality was that the 100+ attendees were neither. Here was a group of ordinary Christians, fully aware of their weaknesses, but united with a deep desire to reach some of our most unreached communities.

Looking at Family

The major theme of the Weekender was Family Issues in Council Estate Ministry and we heard from those with first-hand experience of challenges in this area.

Mez McConnell spoke of the messiness of families where multiple relationships are the norm, and of having to make the best of undesirable situations in order to prevent further harm. Ian Williamson, spoke movingly of his childhood world ‘falling apart’ when his father left his family. He outlined his life following dysfunctional male role models in which power and independence were paramount before coming to faith aged 28. His plea was for Christian men to become fathers for ‘fatherless’ children – e.g. to get involved in Sunday School and youth ministries and be role models of Christ-like manhood.

Mez speaking at the Weekender

Sharon Dickens spoke of the pressures of being a single mum – financial, emotional, spiritual and often compounded by the insensitivity of other Christians. However, like all the sessions this wasn’t about self-pity but on the need to ‘play the long game’ – that is, trusting yourself and your children to God’s promises.

Andy and Debbie Constable gave us an insight into the pressures and joys of your home being a centre of scheme ministry – last minute lodgers, unexpected guests for dinner, the doorbell ringing on your ‘date night’. In a culture where many of us see home as the place to escape ministry it was a reminder that our homes are actually a vital place to do ministry.

Andy Prime outlined his experiences of helping to lead children and youth ministries in schemes. “Be prepared to have your house egged and be called a paedo” – such can be the suspicion to anyone showing an interest in young people. Positively he also showed how with patience, firmness and care, trust can be built-up and such ministries can open doors to the heart of communities.

There was even a talk on Church Polity from Pete Stewart – reminding us that church structures are not bureaucratic niceties but are essential, for both leaders and church attendees, if a church is to maintain good Biblical pastoral care and accountability.

Making much of Christ

In all the sessions the difficulties were presented honestly along with the struggles of dealing with them at both personal and ministry levels. But more importantly it was a reminder of the wonder of the gospel, the goodness of God and the urgency of making Christ known.

handouts from the day

As Andy Constable noted in his introduction the aim was that attendees would “leave totally underwhelmed by our little church but absolutely overwhelmed by the glorious gospel of Jesus.”

The great news is that “the glorious gospel of Jesus” is working and changing lives in ‘hard places’. Churches are being planted, relationships formed and people are coming to faith. 20Schemes are currently providing support and training for six church plants in Scotland (two of which Barlanark Glasgow & Bingham Edinburgh are also linked to FIEC) – many more are needed!

Leaving the Weekender I was left with two major impressions. First, the hardness of gospel work in the schemes, but secondly the softness of the workers’ hearts. Big men with beards and tattoos got tearful, and women who had been ‘though the mill’ humbly talking about the goodness of God.

This was a window into gospel love in action – self-giving and Jesus-centred.

Pray for gospel work across Great Britain on housing estates; pray for many more gospel churches to be established in those areas; pray particularly for 20schemes as it seeks to raise finances, as well as train and support church planters and their families.

Andy Hunter photo
Andy Hunter - FIEC Scotland Director

Before joining FIEC in November 2013, Andy worked for Greenview Church in Glasgow for nine years, prior to which he trained at Oak Hill College in London. He is married to Jessica and they have three children.