When browsing Crossway’s list of available books for review, I was intrigued by the title Church in Hard Places: How the Local Church Brings Life to the Poor and Needy, but given the growing number of similar books addressing the same thing, it was when I saw that Brian Fikkert (co-author of the wonderful When Helping Hurts) had written the foreword that I decided to read it. As I read, I was shocked by Fikkert’s words—an honest and not-so-glowing reference that made me wonder why it was even included. Fikkert writes, “You might not agree with every word of this book. Indeed, I wish there were some things that were stated differently. But do not let that deter you.” I now stand on similar ground in regards to this book.
Mez McConnell and Mike McKinley, church pastors in Scotland and the US respectively, begin with straight-forward, hard hitting thoughts on poverty and the damage that has been done by incorrect perceptions thereof, emphasizing that poverty and lack of education do not equate to stupidity and the inability to comprehend complexities, as has often been the approach to spreading the gospel in inner-city areas and poorer nations. Though they then proceed to emphasize the need for spreading the whole gospel message alongside meeting physical needs, I believe they have still oversimplified and narrowed the gospel, which is most often spoken of in the New Testament as the “good news of the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus is at the center of the good news, but there’s a whole kingdom he wanted us to know about and live in now that the authors have missed in their address. I concur with that that “getting the gospel right” is important, which is why I mention this. They also place heavy emphasis on the necessary belief that hell is a place of eternal conscious torment, on which there is much historical tradition but nothing in Scripture.
The authors then tackle the issue of whether or not doctrine matters, that which has recently been set aside by many who, with good intent, desire to focus on the love of Christ but throw out the way in which we live a life in God (the rules, commands, or whatever you want to call them that let us know what righteousness and justice really are!). It is at the end of this chapter that the authors explicitly state that they are “convinced Calvinists.” Given that Fikkert is (to my knowledge) Dutch Calvinist and he disagreed with how some things were presented, I could only imagine that the text was not Reformed enough, too hard lined, or too soft. After reading the entire text as one who is not a Calvinist and strongly disagrees with the foundation of Calvinism (summed up in the acronym TULIP), I’ve concluded that the authors and I agree on the big umbrella points of the book: poverty needs to be rightly defined, the gospel in its entirety, doctrine, local churches (parachurch organizations should support and enable local churches, not hinder or replace them), evangelism, preaching (I would say “teaching” with the implication of a two-way relationship), and discipline are important, as well as wisely preparing oneself, family, and team for work in areas of poverty; however, the way we talk about these things, indeed some of our definitions, may differ significantly. I don’t want to speak for Fikkert, but I suppose we may have read this book similarly, that there is heavy emphasis on a Calvinist approach (especially regarding the foundation of “unconditional election”) that may prove divisive, or at least a barrier, to those who could really benefit from the helpful approaches to working in poverty that are found within.
I greatly appreciate the heart of Christ and heart for those need that I read in both McConnell and McKinley. That said, I’m not sure this book is one that I will recommend. However, should one pick it up, I’ll state again that there is some excellent material that may found while wading through the heavily Reformed current.
*I received a complimentary digital copy of the reviewed book from Crossway through the Blog Review Program in exchange for this honest review.