The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound
The first time I heard of 20Schemes was in a blog post by Tim Challies about 5 years ago. Next, they popped up onstage at Together for the Gospel in Louisville, KY in 2014 when Mez McConnell, founder of 20Schemes was most likely introduced by Mark Dever, pastor of Capital Hill Baptist, and cofounder of T4G. Then, a whole group of men from 20Schemes made their way onto the T4G stage in 2018 with Dever again encouraging the crowd to make our way to their information booth and hear more. I was intrigued.
The ministry had my attention from the first partly due to my own family connection with the island nation of Scotland (my own family roots go back to Glasgow, where I am told the first in my lineage made their way across the Atlantic in the 17th century as Scottish missionaries to the Americas), but also because missions to the once pillar of reformation theology seemed a bit like a missions effort to the Vatican. Scotland is a country that was once an anchor and messenger of the gospel, sending out missionaries throughout the world, but is now in need of gospel witness within its own borders, and that is probably stating the need too lightly.
For years, I had been yearning for a trip to Scotland. I had my tickets in hand, gifted to me on my 40th birthday in 2001, and then 9/11 and family crisis changed that itinerary. Several other attempts were planned in detail only to be scuttled or, hopefully, postponed. Seventeen years later, a solid plan began to unfold. My sister, Jo, and I began planning a sibling adventure (with the blessing of my family of course.) But even this trip, before and after departure, was nearly cancelled and or aborted due to my daughter Madison’s ongoing medical crises, but she would have none of that. I prayed hard in the days leading up to our trip, looking for wisdom. It’s hard to explain, but despite all that was going on, I had peace about the trip and I was encouraged by the love and support of my wife and both daughters, indeed, insistence, especially of Madison.
An opportunity with 20Schemes
Concurrently with the planning of this trip, I continued researching 20Schemes. Following a long discussion with one of their team members at T4G, I was put in touch with their U.S. representative, Scott Slater. Scott, pastor of Mercy Hill Church in Shepherdsville, Kentucky, and Partnership Development Manager at 20Schemes, was a huge help in gathering background as I sought necessary details in my role as Missions Coordinator at Grace in order to potentially present the organization as a future supported missionary. Scott encouraged me to consider a Vision Trip. Vision trips are short (5 day) introductory opportunities to visit and experience the work of 20Schemes first hand. While such an opportunity is available in March 2019, while planning my own adventure to Scotland this October, I knew Jo and I needed to find a way to connect with 20Schemes. Emails vacillated between Scott and me for an opportunity to join one of the churches for Sunday worship should one of our planned stays coincide.
We felt the Lord clearly went before us orchestrating divine appointments for our stay. On Thursday, October 11, I received an email from Anna MacRae, Mez’s personal assistant, working to coordinate a meeting between men from 20Schemes and us. On Thursday evening, Anna arranged a breakfast meeting with Niddrie Community Church co-pastor, Andrew Constable, and a missionary, Jason Nelson. I was blessed and encouraged by these men and by the work 20Schemes is doing in Edinburgh and the whole of Scotland. Originally from Manchester, England, Andrew has been serving with 20Schemes for 10 years. As he explained it, “I was asked to come and intern for a year, and I’ve stayed 10.” Andy has a pastoral heart and deep love for the flock of God. Jason was somewhat quiet at first, but it all made sense when I realized he was an American and had only been in the country for 5 weeks.
When the waiter arrived to take our order, I followed Andy’s lead in ordering, “what he’s having,” a Scottish breakfast which consisted of poached eggs, bacon (Scottish style), pork sausage, roasted tomato and mushrooms, blood pudding, toast and yes, haggis. To call it hearty is an enormous understatement. Unfortunately, I consumed much of it tepid, having talked way too much. But these were discerning men who didn’t just want to tell me about themselves or their work. They were by nature men concerned about the spiritual condition of others and how they can best minister to them. They asked questions about our church, how I came to know the Lord, and listened compassionately while I shared our oldest daughters current medical challenges. Fortunately, in between my own testimony of salvation, I heard more about the work of 20Schemes and my understanding of the great need of it began to grow.
With breakfast finished, Andy offered to take us around for the day to various sites around the city. Andy brought with him an interesting young man named Pete (“Pete” is a pseudonym to protect his real identity). It was hard to make out Pete from my vantage in the back seat, but as I caught glimpses of his arms and thick neck, his appearance was a bit intimidating. It wasn’t until he began to speak of his life as a street gang “general” in Wales that I began to realize I was in conversation with someone coming from a very different life experience than my own.
Pete explained some of his past life where he was in charge of buying and selling drugs, as well as “enforcing,” which he explained meant “doing some very bad things to people.” Coming from someone else I might have thought there was a bit of exaggeration. But as I listened my impression of Pete was rather a holding back a bit on a past you’d prefer not elaborate. He was so full of the joy and love of Christ that, in one sense, it was hard to reconcile with the life he described, but then I would catch glimpses of a very dangerous individual who had lived a hard life on the streets. He told us how he had been abandoned by his drug addicted parents at 4, was taken into the state foster program, but was then basically on his own by 10 selling crack cocaine and heroin on the streets. He had grown very successful, had money, drove an expensive sports car and was feared wherever he went.
Pete shared his testimony with so much enthusiasm, it left my sister Jo in tears, yet the strong lilt of a Welsh tongue seasoned his story, making it difficult for my American ear to grasp all of it. What I do remember was in the middle of “hurting a man very horribly,” Pete heard a voice say to him something like, “Pete, I want you to stop, Pete.” At this point, somehow he knew it was God; he was overcome by shame and remorse and “couldn’t stop crying and weeping.” I can only imagine what that looked like to the guy he was pummeling! From there, somehow he was connected to 20Schemes and taken in by Christians who worked with him to get him off the streets and free of the gang that continued to threaten him because of his knowledge of their criminal activity.
We spent the afternoon with Andy and Pete visiting Arthur’s Seat, the oldest pub, Sheep Heid Inn where we enjoyed a hot cup of coffee on a cold rainy afternoon, Craigmillar Castle, and then a visit to the schemes and the Niddrie Community Church. We met several folks from the congregation who were just cleaning up from a youth event. Following several enthusiastic invitations to join the church for worship, we looked forward to the next morning for Sunday services. It was an exhausting, but wonderful, day, painted with God’s providence and visible work in the people we met.
Niddrie Community Church
Sunday was our last day in Edinburgh, and it began with a lift from Jason Nelson, an American missionary from Wyoming who had joined Andy and me the day before for breakfast. In encountering 20Schemes, I obviously expected to meet Scottish believers. Jason was an unexpected meeting — one who encouraged me in my own relationship with Christ, and helped me begin to see the international nature of the work of 20Schemes. Jason and his family had only been over from the States roughly 5 weeks prior to my visit. Jason had an infectious love for Christ and clearly a passion for the work 20Schemes is doing in Scotland.
We arrived after a 20-25 minute drive or so into the Niddrie scheme. Schemes are the planned housing for the very poor of Scotland. They began after the Second World War and were intended to move the poor out of the inner slums of the city to the outskirts where they were in proximity to mining and industrial work. Housing, work — sounds like a great plan. But as time went on and manufacturing jobs moved overseas just as they have in the U.S., and coal and other forms of mining were diminished, jobs disappeared and the poor were left in these schemes, entirely dependent on government welfare. I am told racial discrimination is rare in Scotland, but class discrimination is prevalent.
Spiritually, the schemes are in even worse circumstances. A Barna study shows only 2.5% of Scotland’s total population is Evangelical Christian. That’s considered an unreached people group by most missions agency standards. An independent study put together by Harper Church in Glasgow revealed that the number of Evangelicals in Glasgow is closer to 1%. More notably, their research located the Evangelical churches and it’s mind-blowing to see the correlation between the deprived areas of Glasgow and the lack of solid churches in these areas. This is precisely why 20Schemes focuses its efforts on the poor areas of Scotland, because they have the least access to the gospel. Throughout the UK, including Scotland, the state of the church is in great decline. There have been efforts at planting confessing Evangelical churches, but think of how it is typically done. You go where there is a population that can support a church, plant it and pray to see it grow and flourish. Unfortunately, the schemes do not fit that model. Consequently, the schemes became places of hopelessness and life leading to drug and alcohol abuse and the corresponding disintegration of the family, multiple partner relationships, and, worse, a place absent the light of any gospel witness.
As we pulled into Niddrie on a cold and rainy morning, we rounded a bend and found the parking lot of the Niddrie Community Church. All around the community were the signs of poverty, but then glimpses of hope for something better. Where there might be one home with trash and broken articles strewn about the yard (as sign posts for the lives within), others met us with well worked and clearly loved little gardens and welcoming porches. The church itself was just such a well worked, well loved place, not so much for it’s tended garden, but for loving welcoming people whom we immediately felt knew the Lord and had been changed by His love.
As the simple service began, a spirit of worship filled the old damp stone block building with full throated songs of gratitude, praise and glory in the Lord Jesus. I was struck by the associate pastor’s opening prayer, void of general references, but rather filled with specific references to a mom praying for the salvation of her child, the illness of one of their precious flock, and praise for the report of a brother who had fallen away but God had gratefully restored to repentance.
Andy, my breakfast companion and guide the day before, gave the message. It was his last message in a series on the 5 Solas, God’s Glory Alone. If I had sat and thought of the most perfect morning and perfect message in this little Niddrie church in the most modest of communities in Scotland, this would have been it, and the message would have been “God’s Glory Alone.” I cannot express how humbling this experience was. God was holy; we were desperately lost sinners and no temporal circumstance of life gave us excuse. We, apart from Christ, were children of wrath and our hope was in God’s Son, Jesus Christ, alone. There was no pandering to the congregation this morning. No fear of offending. All sinners alike crowded into the room, filling the front rows to raise hands, hearts and voices in thanks to their Savior. Andy’s message was powerful. It gave no apologies. It gave only hope in Christ. Jesus was glorified.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ
It is the tradition of the church to share a meal together every Sunday after church and we were invited. What a blessing! The responsibility for organizing the meal is shared on rotation by the whole congregation, with various people bringing dishes or something quick to pop in the oven. On this morning, the organizer was on holiday so an impromptu meal was arranged at the home of Anna and Tasha, two single moms.
Within minutes, the kitchen table was covered in food. Chicken, pizza, broccoli cheese soup, fettuccine and more. A young boy reached for a bite and was met with a sharp rebuke, “Boy! You don’t be touching the food with your hands, will ya!? Get yourself a plate lad!” Benny was the correcting man, a rough looking laborer with a quick and welcoming handshake. Both his boys, Kenny a hard looking young thirties and a much younger brother whose name I didn’t quite get, are both in attendance. I had made my way into the kitchen for my own plate by invitation with only a few other church members having arrived.
Once my plate was amply filled I turned to exit the kitchen of the small home and found myself elbow to elbow working my way upstream through the hall swarming with folks and into a front room. I sat and balanced my plate on my knees. A steamy cup of tea soon found its way into my hand from someone with a broad smile. There I met Mairi (pronounced Madi), a young, freshly graduated nursing student from Aberdeen and the daughter of Anna, one of the two moms in whose home we were fellowshipping. She could have been a travel agent with her enthusiastic recommendations for our trip. Once she had my cell, a flurry of text links began buzzing my phone, ready to show us the best from Fort William to Aberdeen.
I also met Jason’s wife, Gretchen, and several of their children. As we chatted, I discovered the kids loved their new surroundings and were managing well. Gretchen saw God’s hand in all that had transpired to bring them to Scotland. In fact, what nearly ended their dream as missionaries in Scotland proved effective in planting them firmly within 20Schemes. The family’s initial planning and interviewing had placed them in a Presbyterian church looking for a youth pastor and worship leader, fitting Jason’s gifting perfectly. In preparation, their house and all they owned was sold and funding established. Unfortunately, with only weeks to go, the denomination’s leadership denied the placement over concerns of church polity differences.
“What to do now?” the Nelson’s wondered. Was this God’s way of showing them they were not called to this country? What about the sale of their house and possessions? There was no undoing that. They were essentially committed to a move, but where? Gretchen confessed, had they not already sold their house they may have taken the downturn in circumstances as a sign that serving in Scotland was not their calling, but, with the house gone, they had nothing but to trust where God was leading them and how He would provide. Almost on a whim, the Scottish pastor who originally hired the Nelson’s, but then reversed the decision, suggested a call to 20Schemes. There was little hope they were told, but it couldn’t hurt. But God’s purposes were unfolding and soon began the interview process to be followed by a confirmation of calling to serve with the Niddrie Community Church with an eye to a new church plant eventually with 20Schemes. “Had we not sold all we had and been committed to our course,” said Gretchen, “we might have very well thought the loss of the first position was God’s way of saying this is not His will for us.” Clearly now, their confidence is firm that 20Schemes is where God has called this family to serve, perhaps for a very long time.
The work continues
Our time with our Niddrie brothers and sisters in Christ was soon over and we were on our way, hurriedly seeking to catch a train to Glasgow. But an awareness that we had experienced a divine appointment with the Niddrie believers, ordained by God, lingered. It is a temptation for all churches to become insular, seeing the work of God within only our own four walls. Opportunities to glimpse the work of global missions humbles us, expands our vision of the gospel work God is doing throughout the world and how we can be part of it. Most importantly, it can fuel an ever growing passion to proclaim the glory of our Savior, Christ Jesus.
Pray for 20Schemes and their work to establish gospel preaching, faithful churches in the poorest communities of Scotland. Pray for these pastors who serve in the most difficult of places like Andy, Mez, and Jason. Pray for those God is touching and changing for his glory such as Pete, Deb and Tasha. Pray for the congregation at Niddrie Community Church as they seek to be a light in their community. And let’s pray that God would do such a work in our congregation that we would more clearly see our calling in God’s work of global missions and gospel proclamation, and see an ever increasing desire to make his glory known.
To find out more about 20Schemes: