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Missionary Spotlight – Northern Ireland today – Steven Curry

June 2007 | by Steven Curry

Northern Ireland today

Northern Ireland has a population of less than 1.6 million. Its people are characterised by warmth and friendliness. It is a place of ‘compact natural beauty’ with easy access to a rugged coastline, fresh-water lakes and the spectacular scenery of a rich, fertile countryside.

The two main cities of Belfast and Derry are recovering rapidly from years of terrorism and industrial decline. New buildings are springing up everywhere. Concert halls, sports facilities and entertainment centres – along with restaurants, shops and art galleries – are replacing redundant factories and derelict sites.

Divided community

In Belfast house prices are escalating and new apartment buildings dominate the skyline as people move back into the city to avail themselves of its busy economic and cultural life. Politically, things have been relatively stable since the signing of the Belfast Agreement in the mid 1990s. However, it is still a very divided community.

When Ireland was partitioned in 1921, Northern Ireland was created by drawing a border around six of the nine counties of the old historic province of Ulster – putting a small Protestant minority in control of the young country.
The Catholics felt increasingly disenfranchised and discriminated against, allegedly being treated as second-class citizens. While Protestants stressed their Britishness and union with the rest of the UK (hence the term ‘Unionist’), Catholics looked to the new government in Dublin for their national identity (‘Nationalist’).
Perceived Nationalist grievances spilled over into Provisional IRA activity – and initiated what was euphemistically referred to as ‘the troubles’, which blighted the Province for 30 years.

Sectarianism

Despite the Belfast Peace Agreement, sectarianism still remains. The two communities seem irreconcilable, with bigotry and hatred manifesting themselves politically, culturally and even religiously.

For instance, the political and religious loyalties of working class areas are easily recognised by the painted kerb stones (red, white and blue; or green, white and orange); by the murals on gable walls; and by the flags flown on lamp posts and houses.
Statistics published in the Belfast Telegraph on 4 January 2002 revealed that 66% of all the Province’s citizens live in areas where the resident population is either 90% Protestant or 90% Catholic.
They also showed that 68% of people between the ages of 18 and 25 have never had a meaningful conversation with a person of the opposite community. A staggering 62% alleged that they had been the victims of either physical or verbal sectarian abuse!
The strange thing is that amid all the bigotry and hatred, Evangelicalism has flourished. Between 12% and 18% of the population claim to be evangelical. In percentage terms, Northern Ireland also has the highest churchgoing population in all of Western Europe.

European ‘Korea’

In recent reports of visits to Northern Ireland, both Geoff Thomas and John Blanchard refer to the Province as ‘the Korea of Europe’. John Blanchard continues: ‘For uninterrupted Christian heritage, church attendance, steady depth of commitment and support of missionary causes, I know of no country on the continent that surpasses it’.

Evidence of this is seen in the large number of evangelical churches both within and outside the main denominations and the strong Christian influence in schools, universities and the wider community. It is not unusual for some of the secondary schools to have one third of their pupils attending Scripture Union.
But things are changing. The rapid growth of European secularism is beginning to make inroads in Ulster too. In the 2001 census, 13.9% of the population declared themselves as having no religion. Compare that to 1951, when the figure was 0.02%, or 1961, when it was only 2%.
Many churches, although numerically strong, are ageing – and if the over-50s were removed would be in danger of collapsing. Northern Ireland is facing, for the first time in its history, an unchurched generation.

Decline

Another indication of decline is a decrease in missionary interest. The Province has always been a fertile region for missionary support and recruitment. Most missionary societies have a Northern Irish Secretary to promote their work. However, it seems those missionary representatives are now facing hard times, having difficulty raising their own finances, never mind support for the wider work of their missions.

It is also reported that many denominations are having trouble recruiting ministers and there is a noticeable drop in the number of men training for the ministry. For example, almost a third of churches within the Baptist Association have vacant ministries and the theological hall of the Reformed Presbyterian Church has ended its annual recruitment of students in favour of one intake every three years.
The influence of Evangelicals in Irish society is also in sharp decline. Institutions such as schools, hospitals, the media and government bodies are increasingly marginalising Evangelicals in the name of political correctness. Indeed, Northern Ireland has become a test bed for some of the most radical liberalisation of laws in Western Europe.

Polarisation

When you examine Evangelicalism itself, it is not as healthy as visitors to the Province might think. There is a fundamentalism which Prof. Ted Donnelly describes as ‘bad and ugly’. Largely ignorant of larger doctrinal issues, it focuses on secondary matters as tests of orthodoxy.

That has provoked an overreaction in some quarters, producing a ‘wishy-washy’ Christianity that accommodates all and excludes none. There is a desperate lack of sensible, Bible-centred churches that are doctrinally aware, evangelistically active and not hung up on the traditions of the past.
Another practical difficulty is that because of the division in Northern Irish society, the Catholic population is under-evangelised, while the Protestant community is almost over-evangelised – which in turn desensitises many to the gospel.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the sectarianism of the wider population has infiltrated evangelical churches and contributed to this state of affairs. Indeed many evangelical churches have become so identified with political Protestantism that they are ‘no-go areas’ for Catholics.

Korea or Laodicea?

Things may not be as good as they first appear. They are certainly not as good as they once were. Numerically, Evangelicals may be stronger than other regions of the UK but numbers are not everything. It could be argued that although churches in the rest of Britain are generally smaller and more scattered, the Province’s churches are less healthy in terms of Reformed
Evangelicalism.

Many Reformed Evangelicals would argue that rather than being ‘Europe’s Korea’, Northern Ireland may prove to be ‘Europe’s Laodicea’! We need to pray that God in his grace would once more pour out his Spirit here and create a hunger for a Word-centred, doctrinally sound, culturally relevant, biblical Christianity.

Steven Curry
Ballymoney