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Evangelicalism in Northern Ireland, 1967–2017

September 2017 | by Steven Curry

Visiting tourists and the Province’s 1.8 million citizens enjoy easy access to a rugged coast-line, with breathtaking beaches, fresh-water lakes and rivers that provide great fishing for the keen angler.

Northern Ireland (NI) has some of the best-preserved castles and ancient forts, surrounded by myths and legends from ancient times, and a rich fertile countryside that can really boast of ‘forty shades of green’.

In spite of the economic downturn in 2007, the capital city, Belfast, is buzzing. It was named recently in the Guardian and Observer travel awards as the best city to visit in the UK. Its once derelict sites are now bustling with new retail outlets, artisan coffee shops, sports facilities, museums, art galleries, hotels and entertainment centres.

The new Titanic Visitor Centre, located in the old Harland and Wolfe shipyard, was recently awarded the prestigious accolade of ‘the world’s leading tourist attraction’.

Divided society

However, NI still remains a divided society. When Ireland was given its independence in 1921, NI was created by drawing a border around six of the nine counties of the ancient province of Ulster. This was to satisfy political aspirations and preserve the religious identity of the Protestant community living in the north.

The Catholics in the newly created state felt increasingly disenfranchised and discriminated against, allegedly being treated as second-class citizens in what they regarded as their own country. At the same time, Protestants stressed their union with the rest of the United Kingdom and, as Margaret Thatcher once famously observed, regarded themselves as ‘every bit as British as the people of Finchley’.

So Catholics looked to the new government in Dublin for their national identity and their nationalist aspirations and grievances spilled over into violence and to the terrorist campaigns that blighted the Province for over 30 years.

Despite the Peace Agreement of 1998, the sectarianism still remains. The two communities seem irreconcilable, with bigotry and hatred manifesting themselves publicly, culturally and even, at times, religiously. For instance, the political and religious loyalties of working class areas are easily recognised by the painted kerb stones, the murals on the walls and the flags flown from lamp posts.

Statistics reveal that 66 per cent of the population live in areas where the resident community is either 90 per cent Protestant or 90 per cent Catholic. They also show that 68 per cent of young people between the ages of 18 and 25 have never had a meaningful conversation with a person from the opposite community. A staggering 62 per cent have alleged that they had been the victims of either physical or verbal sectarian abuse.

Flourishing evangelicalism

The strange thing is that, amidst all this bigotry and hatred, evangelicalism has actually flourished. While the evangelical church in the rest of the United Kingdom experienced a rapid decline in church attendance and influence in society, the churches in Northern Ireland prospered and grew.

Between 12 and 18 per cent of the present population claim to be evangelical and, apart from the Western Isles of Scotland, Northern Ireland has the highest church-going population in Western Europe. John Blanchard once described it as ‘the South Korea of Europe’. He said: ‘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 proliferation 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 secondary schools to have one-third of their pupils attending Scripture Union.

However, ‘things they are a-changing’. In the last 20 years, a rapid secularisation has taken place. In the 2011 census 16.9 per cent described themselves as having no religion. Compare that to 1961 when the figure was a mere 2 per cent. In the last 50 years within churches there has also developed a ‘fundamentalism’ that Professor Ted Donnelly has described as ‘bad and ugly’.

The political intransigence of the Protestant community made its way into the church and became, what one writer described as ‘oppositional evangelicalism’. Defined by what they opposed rather than what they stood for, the political mantras of ‘not an inch’ and ‘no surrender’ manifested themselves with many churches dividing over secondary issues.

Reactions to traditionalism

Church members became passionate about their traditions and practice, while at the same time were desperately ignorant of the larger doctrinal issues. All change was considered to be compromise.

As a result, the young people either stopped attending church or were driven into ‘fellowship churches’, which they considered to be more contemporary and culturally relevant but unfortunately had little or no theological foundation.

If the over 60s were removed from many congregations, those churches would cease to exist. A whole generation was lost from the traditional evangelical church. At the beginning of the new millennium many Reformed evangelicals feared that Northern Ireland, instead of being ‘Europe’s Korea’, was in danger of becoming ‘Europe’s Laodicea’.

There was a desperate need for a new generation of Word-centred, doctrinally sound, culturally relevant churches that would be courageous enough to cross the political divide with the gospel and make an impact on both communities.

In the last 20 years, some green shoots have appeared that may indicate these prayers are being answered. Through the influence of Proclamation Trust and Reformed American ‘celebrity pastors’, there is a growing interest, especially among young people, in expository and biblical preaching.

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland has experienced a remarkable recovery in its evangelical identity and Reformed roots. In a denomination once blighted and divided by the liberal theology, that came to prominence at the beginning of the twentieth century, things have largely turned around. Almost all younger graduates from its theological college are of an evangelical persuasion, and evangelicals now hold the key positions within the Church.

Reformed Anglicanism

The Church of Ireland, the second largest Protestant denomination which was dominated by liberals and sacramentalists, with evangelical ministers few and far between, is increasingly being influenced by evangelical Anglican resurgence in England.

Many vibrant young evangelicals, after training in England, have returned and entered that denomination. Smaller denominations such as the Association of Baptist Churches in Ireland and the Reformed Presbyterian Church are reporting healthy growth in some of their key congregations.

Baptist Churches in Ireland, although evangelical, were often more traditional than theological. However, many have recently experienced growth, with the rising tide of interest among younger people in expository preaching. In all these denominations, the influence of their theological colleges has been highly significant and played an important role in their spiritual recovery.

Pentecostal and Charismatic churches have largely flourished outside the mainline denominations, although their influence and emphasis can sometimes bring pressure on the more conservative churches.

Paradoxically, a worrying trend is the current infatuation with ‘church planting’! Targeting a younger age demographic, this movement draws people impatient for change away from the more traditional conservative churches. The sad thing is these plants are most active in areas where a high number of evangelical churches already exist and seem content to have a church of ‘20-somethings’ without the intergenerational mix that is so vital and helpful for church life.

Green shoots

However, the growing emphasis in expository preaching, the desire to be relevant in the twenty-first century and the increasing interest in Reformed theology are all to be commended and a good sign of things to come.

As Adoniram Judson once said, ‘Our future is as bright as the promises of God’! We look forward to the future with anticipation that the green shoots might produce a harvest.

Steven Curry is pastor of Bethany Baptist Church, Bangor, Northern Ireland

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