I live and work in a scheme called Niddrie. It is one of the most deprived areas in Edinburgh. The area in recent years has been regenerated but many of the traditional problems occur. The most frequent sight from my children’s bedroom is of a police car. I walk by at least 5 drug dealers on my daily pilgrimage to church from my house. There is the constant smell of weed all across the scheme. And many of the kids are left to roam the streets and cause needless vandalism in public spaces. In this way, it’s a “hard place” compared to the suburbs of Edinburgh. I’m sure many people can identify with the circumstances I’ve just described.
However, Niddrie does not just consist of drugs, violence, and teenage pregnancy. Yes, those things are prevalent, but Niddrie and hard places all across the world are made up of so much more. Often people tend to focus on the negatives without considering the many positives of living amongst the poor. For me, Niddrie is not a hard place. It’s just home. My kids go to school here. Our neighbours are our friends. Many who live here we would call our own family. I love pastoring in a so-called “hard place.” Let me give you some specific reasons why I like pastoring in Niddrie.
First, I like pastoring in a hard place because of the community spirit. Many families in Niddrie have lived here for generations. People are born, they go to school, make friends, and die here. In that way, it’s a settled community. This is different to suburban areas where the communities are often quite transient. The middle class often move around for job promotions, or to buy bigger houses or their children go off to university and settle in different cities. Further, the mindset amongst the middle and upper class is generally individualistic.
However, in the schemes (and amongst other hard places I’ve visited) there is a communitarian outlook. People look out for one another. They care for one another. There is a group identity. Each day I walk from my home down to the church and I will always bump into at least one person I know and have a conversation with them. Often I am able to talk about my faith or at least find out what is going on in their lives. When I was living in suburbia it would be difficult to get a smile and a nod, let alone a conversation.
And once you are “accepted” in a hard place, people are fiercely loyal. Those who are born and bred in my scheme will have your back once you are their friend. They will seek to protect and provide for you. A few weeks ago an intern from the church had his bike stolen by one of the young team. As soon as a local community lady heard the news she immediately started a group on Facebook to raise funds for a new one. Within 48 hours the money was raised and it was all by local people. None of them were Christians but they wanted to show their appreciation for the work of the church.
Second, I like pastoring in a hard place because you get brutal honesty. People in the main let you know how they feel to your face; you know where you stand. This can take some getting used to if you are from a “richer” “polite” culture. The culture I grew up in taught me to be polite to someone’s face but gossip behind their back. It taught me to keep my feelings to myself and not to share too much. If you were not happy about something then you didn’t shout but gave people the cold shoulder. In “hard places” people tell you exactly what they think. This can be brutal in the moment but at least you know where you stand with someone. Further, it means the problem is out in the open and you can sort it out. It’s not swept under the carpet which means you can get on with resolving the problem.
Third, I like pastoring in a hard place because there is a spiritual openness that I’ve not found anywhere else. There is an open door for evangelism in the poorest areas of the world. In richer areas, you have constant debates about evolution and creation, about whether there is a God or not, about lots of side questions. Or people just don’t care because they are so comfortable with life.
In the schemes we can get straight to the gospel. There is a common belief in some sort of God. There is a belief in the supernatural. There is a fear of death. They are aware that they are sinners. Our communities are open to hearing what we have to say about heaven and hell, Jesus, and a whole load of subjects from the bible. Yes, they have their own barriers. Yes, they are blinded by their sin. But there is a wide-open door across the world for the broken, vulnerable, oppressed, and marginalised to hear the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Fourth, I like pastoring in a hard place because I get a front-row seat to see lives transformed by the gospel. Now I know that every single conversion is a miracle. Conversion is a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. However, there is something precious about seeing a prodigal come home. To see someone whose life has been a complete train wreck being transformed by Jesus. To see a person that society has written off being used powerfully in God’s kingdom.
In our hard places, we get to see the change: up-close and personal, both outwardly and inwardly. From someone abusing their bodies with drugs to being clean. From uncontrollable anger to peace. From fear to security. From hopelessness to hope. To see someone who looked like a zombie look human again and have life back in their spirit! To see depression lifted. To see someone who has been rejected their whole life coming to know the infinite love of Jesus Christ. Praise God!
Listen to some of these testimonies and praise Jesus…
Charlene: My life was in the gutter and I was on a one-way track to hell caught up in a world of addiction. I was alone and had nothing. But since coming to Christ I am free from my bonds of addiction and my bonds of hell and have been given eternal life. Surrendering to Christ was the hardest but greatest experience but I live my life to serve him and he has blessed me in ways I could never have thought possible!
Mark: I lived a life where I didn’t give a damn about God. I was unloved, rejected, abused, and slowly becoming the abuser. But Christ loved me while I was being a loser and is doing a mighty work in me, clothed me with his righteousness, and is using me to proclaim his gospel!
Lee: My life before Christ was without meaning, paralysed fear gripped my life, and I was an expert at wearing a mask. I was dying inside. After I gave my life to the Lord my life had meaning and I could finally make decisions for life and move forward. Praise to Jesus.
Sam: Life before Christ I was a murderous rage, constant evil, numb. Life with Christ I am hopeful. I am happy. I feel alive!
This is what the Lord is doing in our hard places!
Finally, I enjoy working in a hard place because I get to see people discipled and transformed into the image of Jesus Christ. The problem in the evangelical church today is that people just stop at the conversion and then don’t disciple new Christians well, especially in the poorest areas of the UK. They wheel people out for the odd testimony but don’t allow people to serve past making a cup of tea. But its a joy to see a new believer from the schemes grow in Christ and use their gifts to serve the body of Christ.
It’s a joy to see someone who was hopeless, preach of the hope they have found in Christ to their friends and family. It’s a joy to see someone who would have been written off by society preaching a sermon. It’s a joy to see someone who formerly only lived for themselves serve in the cafe and clean a church building. It’s a joy to see people’s minds transformed and renewed by the word of God.
Let me tell you about Tasha. Tasha came through the doors of our church about 6 or 7 years ago. She came to our drop-in cafe and as she writes she ‘lived a life controlled by herself.’ As a kid, she got chucked out of our clubs because she was being disruptive. She used to turn up to our evangelistic events drunk. She laughed whenever we talked about the bible but she started attending church services.
And on one Easter service after a year of sharing the gospel with her, Mez was preaching and she came under conviction of sin and she turned to Jesus in repentance and faith. Immediately she began to be discipled and grow as a Christian. This was tough for her because she wasn’t used to opening up to someone and didn’t trust anyone. But she began to trust her one to one and grow!
And so after about 6 months, we offered her an internship as a youth worker. She trained for a few years and now she is looking after the youth work here. From getting chucked out of youth stuff to leading it. From mocking Jesus to sharing the gospel to her friends and family. Isn’t that the power of the gospel? Isn’t that the reason we want to be in schemes and estates and projects of the world? To see souls changed and transformed by the grace of God.
Ministry in hard places is brutal. It’s painful. Its blood, sweat, and tears but could I go back to a normal church in a middle-class area? Not a chance! Let’s not forget what the Lord is doing across the UK and the world amongst the poor. Let’s not forget the joy of our ministry. Let’s keep preaching the gospel and persevering for the glory of Christ!
Andy Constable is co-pastor of Niddrie Community Church in Edinburgh, Scotland. Andy is married to Debbie and they have three children. You can follow him on Twitter @andyconstable.
If you want to read more by Andy, here’s an article on preaching in urban neighborhoods you might find helpful: Eight Principles for Faithful Preaching Among the Poor
 Young team = teenage gangs
Photo Credit: Iridescenti (CC BY-SA 3.0)