Ruth Garvey-Williams: The state of the Irish Church … and how it is addressing the needs of Irish society

On Saturday 4 November, Evangelical Alliance Ireland’s 2017 National Forum will focus on ‘Faith That Transforms Communities’.  You can view the Forum programme here: EAI 2017 National Forum Programme and can find more information, discover discounts, buy tickets, get a map for the venue etc. here: EAI Forum Eventbrite Page

In preparation for the National Forum, we asked several thinkers to contribute articles that help us see the big picture against which all our ministry activities are taking place. Today’s article, from Ruth Garvey Williams, Editor of VOX magazine, draws on observations from five years of Finding Faith tours.

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Blind men and women were led up to a unicorn. Each one encountered the animal in a different way. One touched the hard, sharp horn jutting from the unicorn’s forehead. Another stroked the creature’s silky sides, while a third held the rough strands of its tail. Hard, soft, rough, smooth… each person would describe the animal differently.

Introduction

One of the privileges of travelling all over the island of Ireland, visiting every county and a huge spectrum of denominations, types and styles of church, has been the opportunity to experience different perspectives. I have heard (and shared) your stories, asked a thousand questions and seen for myself what is happening. The resulting issues of VOX magazine have been hugely encouraging and inspirational but they have also highlighted common themes – some exciting and some troubling. We are facing a rapidly changing society, which brings both threats and opportunities… the church itself has been through seismic changes, especially over the last 40 years… and our attitude to all this depends on where we are standing.

Here I bring together some of the key themes that have emerged from my travels and meetings with so many of you over the last five years. These observations have been shaped and informed by comments from church leaders and individual Christians that have been repeated so many times, in so many different contexts, that I could not help but take notice!

Throughout scripture, the prophets were often asked the question, “What do you see?” Reflecting prayerfully on what I have seen and heard, I sense once again God’s passionate love for His bride and His longing that we will fulfil our calling to “go and make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28:19 – 20). I believe there is cause for rejoicing and encouragement, but I also believe there are reasons for lament and repentance. If we can embrace both, then we are truly men (and women) of Issachar (1 Chronicles 12:32).

A time of opportunity and expectation

Irish society, our cultural context and the spiritual atmosphere have changed dramatically over recent years. Christian leaders in every county are expressing a sense of expectation and even excitement. There is a new optimism that was missing a decade ago. At community level, especially in rural areas and smaller towns, many churches have experienced increased acceptance and credibility as they live out their faith in action. In cities, there has been a rise of curiosity and a willingness to engage.

Here are just a few of the comments:

  • There is a sense that something is stirring.
  • We’ve had a sense that something is about to happen.
  • I think at this time there is a real openness. When you talk to people there are not the same barriers there once were.
  • I believe the spiritual atmosphere is changing rapidly.
  • People are spiritually hungry. They are saying, “Show us your God” not “Tell us about Him.” 

    First things first – getting back to basics

    One of the threats to growth that was highlighted repeatedly was the risk of losing our “first love” as individuals and as leaders. Too often, burnout and discouragement are hidden behind a veneer of spirituality, and not just in the traditionally “tough” rural areas. Busy “successful” pastors as well as struggling church planters were among those I’ve met who are battling weariness of heart and soul.

At the same time, there is a renewed commitment to exploring ancient rhythms of retreat, contemplation and reflection, which is healthy and exciting. Can we learn from our past and re-discover something of our rich spiritual heritage?

Here’s what some leaders had to say about this:

  • The most important thing about ministry is my own personal relationship with Jesus.
  • If things get too busy, we won’t have time to spend with God. I feel God is saying to us, “I’m more interested in you as an individual than in anything you can ever do for me.”
  • Sadly ministry can be a hindrance to a vibrant personal walk with the Lord. You can be reading the Bible for the next sermon rather than for yourself. It is vital to be continually seeking to renew yourself.

    We need to stop thinking, “This is a good thing to do,” and ask, “Is it a God thing?”

    Breaking down barriers – the challenge of unity

    There are some good news stories of Christian unity and united efforts to reach out and /or pray together from around the country but in my opinion, disunity stands over and above all other issues as a fault line in the Irish church that too many are content to side-line or even ignore. There are divisions north and south, between Catholic and Protestant, between old churches or denominations and new(er) churches, between Pentecostal and reformed traditions, between urban and rural, between Christians in different social classes, between Irish and immigrant-led churches and between individual churches, leaders and individuals. Even “united” events are still tending only to attract particular tribes, flavours or traditions of the church. We have a long way to go – some feel optimistic, others are struggling with this issue.

    Here are a few of your comments:

  • There is more of an understanding that we have our flavours but the gospel is something that unites us. In the past, our divisions were detrimental to God being able to move. Now the barriers are starting to come down and we are starting to see more and more unity.
  • I really do believe that God works through the local church. He loves the church. It’s not about the name across the door, whatever that is!
  • The church needs to come together, stronger, to do the work we need to do. The only way to do that is in brotherhood and unity through prayer.
  • It is heart-breaking when the attitude is “my way or the highway.” Too often if you don’t do what I say or believe what I believe then I will have nothing to do with you and I will feel that I have every right to disrespect you, denounce you or even question your salvation.
  • I want to see a growth of trust and solidarity, which will lead us to reconciliation

    I long to see unity in our diversity, which springs out of humility and reconciliation.

    Relationship / authenticity

    Recognising the importance of relationship and authenticity in Irish society has been crucial to seeing lasting impact in individual lives and communities. Wherever Christians and churches are prioritising relationships over programmes and genuine love and long-term commitment over one-off outreaches, they are starting to see transformation. When clear and courageous proclamation of the gospel accompanies and flows out of these priorities, lives are being changed.

    Here’s what you said:

    • You might impress people at a distance but you impact them up close!
    • Superficiality won’t cut it. People are looking for reality!
    • When you talk to people there are not the same barriers there once were. We need to reach out and make connections with people. There are a lot of broken and hurting people.

      People are craving authenticity. They are tired of the image and pretend and falseness. They are tired of religion. We are seeing a culture crumbling. They want something real.

      Fear or faith? Christendom or salt?

      “We asked people what they thought about Christianity. They were bitter, even venomous when it came to talking about Church!”

Rampant secularism, media bias, erosion of Christian values, divisive referendums on moral issues, rapidly changing “norms”… for many Christians, Ireland is an uncomfortable place to live and many church leaders have expressed deep concern (even fear?). Social changes in the last 40 years have had the effect of a tsunami on much that the church holds dear. However, there appear to be two distinct ways of approaching the changes.

Fear tends to breed defensive and even aggressive attitudes, especially when long-held freedoms and privileges are snatched away. This can lead to a siege mentality or “us and them” culture wars. Perhaps it is important to note that it is Christendom, rather than Christianity that expects a position of power and privilege. The way of Jesus and the way of the cross are characterised by humility, sacrifice and weakness.

Faith approaches changes in society without panic and with a recognition that the church in minority and the church under fire is often at its most vibrant and influential. We may, or may not, be able to change laws and governments. We can, however, “shine like stars;” we can live such “salty” lives that people will take note that we have been with Jesus!

Here’s how a few Irish leaders expressed it:

  • We are pleasantly out of step. We are very much counter culture… a voice crying in the wilderness. And it is okay!
  • I think there is huge opportunity for the church as we come out of kilter with society. It is increasingly easy to be distinctive as Christians but the challenge is to be credible. If we are out of kilter but credible, that is exciting.

    Bad news has gone viral. We need to celebrate any good news there is.

    Church without walls / whole life mission

    There is an increasing understanding and embracing of whole life mission among churches across Ireland. It is here that we see exciting areas of growth and development within the church in recent years. Finding creative and innovative ways of reaching out and addressing the needs of the community is increasingly the norm, rather than exception. A growing theology and understanding of how our faith can be worked out in every sphere of life and influence has helped to fuel changing attitudes and break down the faith /life divide that was prevalent in previous generations.

    There are myriad examples probably best read in the pages of VOX magazine than in a bullet list but suffice to say that this is an area where many Irish churches are doing well. There are always dangers of “treating symptoms rather than causes” or simply jumping onto the latest trendy idea as a quick fix but overall most churches are doing more than they think!

    In cities, towns and villages around the country, the church is actively addressing the needs of Irish society and although it is unnoticed and unheralded by the media, it doesn’t have to be. Those who benefit do notice, and that is what matters.

    Here are a few of your comments:

  • There are always pressures but there are also lots of opportunities to be Christ-like.
  • We need to be living out church in our community. Sunday morning service is that sacred cow that we should probably slaughter every now and again.

    In a place like this, talk is cheap. As a church we want to be the hands and feet of Jesus!

    In for the long haul

    Taking a long-term view of ministry has proved important, especially outside the large urban centres. Where churches have carried out research, followed community development principles and addressed the deeper symptoms rather than just the causes of societal problems, they have seen the greatest impact. One of the unmet challenges is a deeper understanding of how to engage with the past, as well as the present. Wrongs perpetrated by the church as a whole have seriously undermined the work of the gospel and often continue to do so. Can we address the past in a way that is healing and transformative?

Here are some of your comments:

  • We experience lovely highlights but we need to keep the long view. People are sick of quick fixes.
  • Persistence overcomes resistance. We need to keep at it and keep at it; if we keep sowing we will reap. I don’t have to be the one who sees it. We need to have a 100-year vision, passing it on from one generation to the next.
  • Irish people are curious but they are also innately suspicious of anything. They don’t trust the church. They will wait you out. You have to stay there a long time and you have to become part of the community. You have to [mess] up and let them see how you deal with real life and how you own up to your mistakes.Still only scratching the surfaceThe success stories of vibrant growing churches in our cities (while wonderful) can mask the reality that there are still significant areas of rural Ireland with little or no effective witness and major urban centres where life-giving, Bible believing churches remain a tiny minority. Here are a few of the challenging comments you made:

    • Too often we’re so busy focusing on our (tiny) Christian community and we neglect the vast majority of people outside the church. When we supply Christian resources to Christians we are pandering to the minority. It’s time we took risks and got out of our bubble.

    Why are we not more dissatisfied with our tiny impact? Reaching / touching 1% of the population is not good enough when there are 99% who are lost!

    Generational divide

    Highlighted through the VOX magazine Young Adults survey in 2015 (data available on request) and the recent Barna Research conducted on behalf of CIY (Christ in Youth), there is a significant generational gap within the Irish church as a whole. While some newer churches continue to attract young adults, in many other churches there is an on-going decline in the numbers of younger members. And those who stay within the church often have different priorities to the older generations leading to conflict or disillusionment. These are telling comments by young adults taken from the VOX survey:

    • Ease off the religion and turn up the love. Get out of the pews and into the streets and love people even if (especially if) it hurts. Stop worrying about the hot topic issues of the day (and looking foolish) and add some practicality to the theology by reaching out to people.

    • I want to see everyone actively engaged and serving as a response to what God has done in their lives.

    I would love to see us move away from the “but-that’s-how-it’s-always-been-done” attitude and instead think more strategically about how we do church.
    What would most benefit those who are outside the church?”

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