Vanishing Opportunities to Hear Needed Voices

As a young boy, I remember my grandfather talking to me about serving as a soldier in World War I. Later in life, I often wished that I had listened more carefully, had asked him more questions. Today, no-one can hear such stories from a first-hand witness. The last World War I veteran died over 6 years ago.

Last night, along with a room full of other enthralled visitors, I had the opportunity to hear a voice from another vanishing generation share her personal experience of a significant time in history. And her voice is one that is needed more now than ever before. We live in an age when nationalism and populism are once again rearing their ugly heads. Fear of immigrants and foreigners is being used as a political tool to panic and influence referendums and elections. Acts of ethnic violence, and anti-semitism, are on the increase. And, most tragically, sections of the the church of Jesus Christ, instead of standing out as a voice of love and reason, seem to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

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So that’s why I felt that it was so important to take the opportunity to meet Judith Rosenzweig and hear her story. Judith is part of a generation that was betrayed by the Church. Growing up as a Jew in 1930s Czechoslovakia, the large numbers of Christians in neighbouring Germany should have been a source of love, protection and light. But we know that the Church, with a few heroic exceptions, failed Judith. Large numbers of professing Christians swallowed the national socialist lie that making Germany great again must involve military aggression, stoking hatred against other religions, and fearing those who were different.

After the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, Judith and her family were incarcerated in Theresienstadt concentration camp when she was 12 years old. Then, in 1944, they were transferred to Auschwitz, where she managed to avoid the gas chambers by being young and strong enough to work as a slave labourer.

In January 1945, as Russian forces advanced towards Auschwitz, Himmler ordered the SS to force 68,000 prisoners to march from Auschwitz to Germany. Judith was part of the notorious Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen Death March, where poorly nourished prisoners with no winter clothing were forced to walk 780km in the depths of winter. Hundreds collapsed on the way and were shot where they lay.

Later that year, Bergen-Belsen was liberated by British troops who tried to save the lives of the starving inmates by sharing their rations with them. Judith’s mother was given some soup, but the shock to her system of eating food after so many months of starvation actually killed her. Judith and her sister survived. Eventually, despairing of Europe ever being a place where she could live in peace and security, she emigrated to Israel. Today Judith lives in a home for Holocaust survivors in Haifa, provided by a Christian ministry.

What struck me in Judith’s story was her lack of self-pity, and the total absence of any bitterness or anger towards others. At several points in her story, she paused to express her wish for peace and harmony among various nationalities and peoples. Judith is not a Christian, but we have much to learn from her attitude, particularly at a time when some professing Christians are quick to spread fear and anger, or to quickly jump to criticising and attacking those with whom we disagree.

I spoke with Judith, explained my role as Executive Director of Evangelical Alliance Ireland, and assured her, in the light of the terrible recent hate attack against a synagogue in Pittsburg, that many evangelical Christians were praying for the Jewish people.

Judith is 88 years old. As time and age advances, the opportunities to hear first-hand voices such as hers will become less and less. But how we need to hear such voices!

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Christianity – A Faith Founded on an Act of Blasphemy

In a few days Ireland will vote on whether to remove the offence of blasphemy from the country’s Constitution. Christians are on both sides of the argument on this issue. I recently spoke to some members of my own church who were sincerely and passionately concerned that God was being taken out of the Constitution.

On the other hand my friend David Turner, Director of Church in Chains, wrote an excellent letter in the Irish Times declaring his intention to vote ‘Yes’ in the Referendum because of the ways in which other countries use their blasphemy laws to persecute Christians:  https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/letters/blasphemy-and-the-constitution-1.3669419

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My own opinion is very similar to David’s, even though I love and respect this who hold a different view. Actually, I won’t get to vote in this Referendum because I am in the Middle East this week. Ironically I’m meeting with people who have seen loved ones persecuted and killed because others interpreted their devotion to Jesus Christ and His Gospel as a blasphemy against the dominant faith in their region.

But it’s worth remembering that there’s one important difference between Christians and adherents of other religions who get outraged at blasphemy against their gods and want the sanction of the law against blasphemers. Our very faith is based on the greatest example of blasphemy in history.

The very foundation of Christianity – the crucifixion of Jesus – is in itself an act of blasphemy. What could be more blasphemous than stripping God naked, subjecting Him to a public flogging, and then nailing Him to a piece of wood? After that, any purported blasphemy is tame by comparison. And how did Jesus respond to this ultimate blasphemy? By demanding that the culprits be stoned to death? By calling upon the Romans to impose a €25,000 fine? No. He prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

Glimpsing the Church at its Best

Last week was a tough week in our local church. I’m not talking about the usual crises and conflicts that are part and parcel of daily life among any community. I’m not talking about the spiritual vandals who, rather than contributing to the well being of others, seem to delight in using Facebook and other social media as a battleground to tear others down with criticism and personal attacks on their families. I’m not even talking about the fact that our church offices were broken into and absolutely trashed with thousands of euros worth of damage. No, this was much more serious than that.

A family in our church experienced a devastating and sudden tragedy. Their son, Philip, a popular local musician, dead on the other side of Atlantic. The raw pain of unexpected heartbreak. The grim logistics of bringing his remains home and planning his funeral service. Last week we needed to see and feel the grace of God in a special way.

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And, thank God, we did experience the grace of God in a special way. One church member organised an online crowd funding initiative – ‘Bringing Philip Home’ – to cover the costs of repatriation and the funeral. Within four days over €20,000 was raised, revealing just how loved Philip was by so many people in Drogheda. Church and family members rallied round in an outpouring of love and practical concern. At the funeral Philip’s family, including his parents, Sean and Mary, impressed everyone with their courage and faith as they spoke about their love for Philip and their confidence in Jesus Christ. Philip was honoured and remembered with great affection and the Gospel was shared. For hundreds of mourners, it was their first ever experience of an Evangelical church. There was powerful praise and worship, and Philip’s many musician friends expressed themselves in song also, with a great sense of mutual respect and united grief.

But sometimes it is the little things that make for lasting memories. The church member who volunteered to be a carpark usher in pouring rain, getting soaked to such an extent that he had to go to a nearby store and buy fresh clothes before he could get into his own car afterwards. Or the two church members who asked me for a lift from the church to the cemetery, and then stayed behind in the same pouring rain to change my punctured tyre when I was involved in a minor accident en route.

Last week I caught a brief glimpse of the church at its best – and I have discovered that such moments carry a revelation that can sustain us through all kinds of disappointment and discouragement.

23 years ago, when our family also suffered the indescribable pain of the death of a child, I caught a similar glimpse of what the church can be. Fellow Christians helped in practical ways, bagging up clothes and toys at a time when we were totally unable to cope with such tasks. Over the intervening years that vision of what the church of Jesus Christ looks like when she gets her act together has been a continual inspiration for my life’s work.

It’s increasingly common to hear Christians, and even Christian leaders, speak disparagingly of the church. It can be so easy to become cynical, or to focus on the many times when the human side of church obscures the divine. And, make no mistake, those of us in leadership don’t live in a fool’s paradise. We see the church’s weaknesses and mistakes as much, and probably more so, than anyone else.

But every time I am tempted to join the chorus of negativity, I remember the beauty and majesty of what the church has the potential to be. Yes, I must be honest in facing and acknowledging our frequent foolishness and misguided efforts, but I can never stop loving and serving this Bride of Christ which, according to the New Testament, is God’s workmanship – the ultimate crowning glory of creation (Ephesians 2:10). One day we will see clearly what we currently only catch in passing glimpses, but those glimpses are precious indeed!

So last week was a tough week for our local church. But, for a moment in time, we became what we are becoming, and that will affect us positively for a long time to come.

How a €40 Cake Ended Up Costing Over €500,000

The UK’s Supreme Court has finally, and unanimously, ruled that Asher’s Bakery in Northern Ireland was not acting unfairly or practising discrimination when they refused to fulfil an order for a custom-baked cake featuring two Sesame Street characters and a slogan supporting gay marriage.

Taking the case through its various legal stages has cost over £450,000 (€510,000) in legal fees. Making the lawyers the real winners in this controversy.

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The Supreme Court judgement recognised what was glaringly obvious to most people, that the bakery were not discriminating against the customer on the basis of his sexual orientation, but were rather choosing not to produce a piece of propaganda for a message that went against their deeply held beliefs.

We should not expect a Palestinian baker to be compelled to produce a cake decorated with a Star of David to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel. A printshop owned by a Northern Irish Catholic should not be forced to print election posters for the DUP. Nor should an LGBT publisher be forced to publish a book that argues that marriage is exclusively between a man and a woman. Whether we agree with the beliefs of the business owner, or indeed of the proposed customer, in each of these scenarios is not the issue. In each case both the business owner and the customer have the right to hold their individual beliefs. The issue is that we should not deliberately and provocatively place an order with a particular business, with the express intention of causing offence or creating controversy. Particularly, as in the Belfast bakery case, when there are plenty of other companies that would gladly accept the business.

I don’t think anyone genuinely believes that the customer in question just happened to choose a bakery which is well known as a business owned by evangelical Christians, and whose very name, ‘Asher’s’, is taken from the Bible. This was clearly a calculated attempt to provoke a response, and then to claim discrimination.

The ruling from the Supreme Court made clear that it is unacceptable for any business to discriminate against a customer on the basis of their race, religious beliefs, political views or sexual orientation. That is as it should be. But it has also made it clear that free speech and equality do not give us a mandate to behave like jerks. And that is a lesson that all of us, including Christians, need to take to heart.

The Promotion to Glory of an Authentic Christian

On Monday I travelled to Belfast for the funeral of an authentic Christian. Jackie Boyd, a life-long member of the Salvation Army, suffered from dementia in recent years and died last week. He was, in the Army’s terminology, “Promoted to Glory”. As is customary, the flags at his funeral were decorated with white (not black) ribbons, signifying the celebration of a life that has now transitioned into victory and homecoming.

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Sitting once again in a Salvation Army service, listening to the brass band, and seeing many familiar (if older) faces brought back a flood of memories.

In February 1981, I attended my first Salvation Army service. I was 18-years old, homeless and desperate. I genuinely believed that the downward trajectory my life had taken for the last few years – characterised by alcohol and drug abuse – was going to end in an early grave. Some of my drinking buddies had started placing bets with each other on how long I would live – and none of them gave me more than a year. I was experiencing increasing blackouts, and the cuts and scrapes you pick up from life on the street were all turning septic and refusing to heal, as if the poisons I kept pumping into my body had suffocated the body’s natural healing mechanisms.

I arrived early for the service, and felt as out of place as any human being could ever feel. I looked around and felt I had made a terrible mistake. I was getting ready to leave when a guy in Salvation Army uniform came up to me, gave me a huge smile, and pulverised my hand with a bone-crushing handshake. “It’s wonderful to see you,” he boomed, “I’m so glad you decided to come tonight.”

For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out who this guy was, or why he was so glad to see me. He obviously knew me from somewhere, but I couldn’t remember ever meeting him before. Was he a friend of my family? Had I encountered him during one of the blackouts that were gaping holes in my memory? Was he a cop or a lawyer that knew me from one of my court appearances? I thought I’d better hang around and see if it came back to me.

So I stayed. And at the end of the night I responded to an offer to accept Jesus into my life. And my life was changed for ever. And after a long struggle I was free of my addictions. And I ended up going to Bible College. And I met a wonderful wife. And we had two beautiful daughters. And I served as a Salvation Army Officer, and then subsequently as a Pentecostal pastor. And I still have the incredible privilege of getting up every morning to do something I love doing – trying to help other people to have a similarly life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ.

It is no exaggeration to say that Jackie Boyd’s handshake saved my life on that cold February night in East Belfast back in 1981. And guess what? It turned out he didn’t know me from Adam! He welcomed every visitor to the Salvation Army in the same way. Sometimes the other musicians would be checking their instruments were in tune, and making sure they had their music in the right order. They would be looking down at Jackie, wondering if he would make it to his place in the band in time for the opening hymn – but Jackie still took his time in enthusiastically welcoming every visitor. And I, for one, am so, so grateful that he did!

 

 

 

 

The Morning After an Abortion Referendum

I am writing this reflection early on Saturday morning after a referendum campaign that has highlighted great divisions in Irish society. The official counting has not yet begun, but the exit polls show so wide a margin in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment that it seems inevitable that abortion will now be legalised in Ireland in a wide-ranging fashion.

In recent months I have invested a huge amount of time and effort into spreading the message that every human being, including unborn children, deserve to be cherished and protected. So obviously I am profoundly disappointed that the Irish people have, by a significant margin, apparently voted to remove all Constitutional protections for the unborn child, thereby paving the way for the Government, as an initial step, to introduce abortion for any reason whatsoever in the first twelve weeks of pregnancy.

But we need to remember that the Christian Church has, for most of its history, proclaimed the message of Christ in the midst of empires, kingdoms and cultures that followed values and practices that were totally unchristian. From the Day of Pentecost to the present, most Christians have lived their entire lives and borne faithful witness in societies that practiced persecution, discrimination, slavery, racism, genocide, child abuse, oppression and extreme cruelty to both people and animals.

Of course we have an obligation to fight injustice, making a difference where we can. William Wilberforce succeeded in his battle against the slave trade, and he also positively impacted future generations by helping found the first national animal welfare organisation (the RSPCA) and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. I had hoped that Christians in Ireland could make their voice heard on behalf of the unborn with similar effect, but that has not been the case, and for the foreseeable future, abortion is set to be a part of our society.

So how do we respond to this disappointment? It is certainly appropriate to grieve for the increased numbers of unborn children who will be killed. It is only honest to acknowledge that a disregard for the infinite value of life will inevitably have a knock-on effect in many other areas of our culture. Ireland’s future looks a bit darker for all our children today, born or unborn.

But our task, as the Church, is not to retreat into a corner where we can issue angry denunciations and imprecations against those who don’t hear our message. Instead, we are called to respond with love and grace and declare an alternative Kingdom where life, compassion and hope triumph over death, selfishness and despair. When I look at the early Church after the Day of Pentecost, I don’t see that their main priority was to make Rome great again, nor were they trying to create a Christian Empire. They were not even primarily focused on challenging the many evils that characterised Roman society. They had a mandate from heaven to live out their radical discipleship for Jesus and to shine as lights in a dark world. And the darker that world got, the brighter their light shone.

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For example, when Roman models of family life were chaotic and violent, the Church simply provided a better alternative by living out a different kind of family that proved attractive to others. History tells us that women and slaves, excluded from many areas of Roman society, found meaning and significance within the community of the church. Indeed, looking back with the benefit of hindsight, we understand that the greatest tragedy wasn’t that the Church lacked the power to initially change the status of women and slaves in society – but that later on, when it did have that power, it still took centuries to effect such change!

Many of us, as Christians, have been very vocal recently in pointing out that abortion will impact disproportionately on unborn children with disabilities such as Down Syndrome. I believe it was correct and appropriate to point that out. But how many of our churches are now prepared to work to be welcoming spaces for families with children with disabilities? Shining as a light in a dark culture must, more now than ever before, include providing welcome, support and encouragement for such families.

So, while the referendum result looks to be extremely disappointing, our mission remains to worship Jesus, to point others to His truth and grace, and to demonstrate His kingdom in our lives.

Speaking at a Baptist Church in Dublin a few weeks ago, I said that I would wake up on Saturday the 26th of May waiting to hear two things. The second most important thing would be to hear that Ireland had voted to protect the human rights of all. The exit polls suggest that is something that I will be extremely unlikely to hear! However, I went on to say that the most important thing I wanted to hear was the confirmation from the Holy Spirit that we had represented Jesus well in this campaign, and that we had manifested the truth and grace of Jesus Christ in equal measure. I do believe that I can hear that this morning.

In my role as a church pastor I will continue to serve God, and the people of our community, with joy and passion. I am committed to seeing the Church of Jesus Christ shine brighter and brighter as a beacon of light and hope.

In my other role, as an Executive Director of Evangelical Alliance Ireland, I remain passionate about equipping, connecting and representing evangelical Christians. There isn’t any other time in history where I’d want to be alive, any other country in the world where I’d want to live, or any other message that I’d want to be proclaiming.

Yes, Ireland does feel somewhat darker this Saturday morning. But the Church’s opportunity to shine is greater.

Recognising a Fellow Human Being

Tomorrow (Friday 25 May) Ireland goes to the polls to determine whether their Constitution should continue to grant the fundamental human right to life to unborn children, right up to the point of birth. The key question, as I see it, is whether we recognise an unborn child as a human being, a person, or whether we view them as a thing with the potential to later become a human being.

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If you are 100% certain that an unborn child is a thing rather than a person, then it follows that it should not be afforded human rights. In that case abortion is purely a medical procedure.

However, if we allow for the view that the unborn child is a person, a human being, then everything changes.

Even though the majority of abortions carried out are for social reasons, the referendum debate has focussed on the very small percentage of abortions that are carried out in very traumatic circumstances – the victims of rape, or where the baby has a very serious abnormality or disability. These cases are indeed heart-rending, and the Irish government has argued (untruthfully, in my view) that the only way to address such cases is to permit abortion on demand for any reason.

But, once we view the unborn child as a human being, even these ‘hard cases’ look very different. Of course any decent person grieves for rape victims, or for parents who have received a devastating pre-natal diagnosis – but do such situations really justify taking the life of another human being? Is the killing of another innocent human being really an appropriate response to the gross violation that is rape?

So who decides whether an unborn child is a human being in their own right or not? The concept of personhood is philosophical, not scientific. We don’t actually have any scientific criteria that determines when somebody becomes a person. Religions offer dogmatic answers, as do the advocates of abortion, but dogma does not make good law.

I would suggest that we look to how we view unborn children in contexts other than abortion. Think of how new parents gasp in wonder when they see the first ultrasound scan of their child. Think of how we congratulate couples when we learn that they are expecting a child. Do we talk about their ‘foetus’, or do we ask after the health of their ‘baby’? When we suffer the heartache of a miscarriage or a stillbirth, are we mourning the loss of a life that never was? A prospective person? Or are we mourning the death of a tiny person?

The fact of the matter is that most of us, irrespective of whether we are religious or not, instinctively view an unborn child as a human being in all contexts other than when we are trying to rationalise its deliberate destruction. And that is very telling indeed. We are, as human beings, hard-wired to recognise other human beings with a sense of kinship. For me, one of the most effective posters that I have seen in the current referendum campaign has not mentioned abortion at all. It simply portrays an unborn child in the early stages of pregnancy with the caption “One of Us”.

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We instinctively recognise unborn children as part of our common humanity. Mothers, in particular, tend to feel this bond much earlier than the rest of us – and we should learn to trust mothers.

Is Ireland really going to vote to amend its Constitution so as to reduce the scope of human rights and exclude a particular group of human beings?

Vote NO.

No Vincent, Being Human Matters Very Much

 

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Former television presenter, Vincent Browne, made an extraordinary claim on Monday in an article in the online Irish newspaper ‘The Journal’:  http://www.thejournal.ie/readme/vincent-brown-eighth-amendment-yes-vote-4026621-May2018/

Other advocates for abortion on demand have attempted to deny the status of the unborn child as a human being. Browne argued for the legalisation of abortion in Ireland, but he claimed that it doesn’t actually matter when human life begins. “The argument about when human life begins is also confusing. The truth is we don’t know – but it doesn’t matter.”

Just think about that for a moment. Browne is saying that it doesn’t actually matter whether an unborn child is a human being in their own right or not. Instead, he used a hypothetical and untestable argument that if men, rather than women, gave birth, then we wouldn’t have laws against abortion. Therefore, his reasoning continues, in the real world where men don’t get pregnant, it is unfair to women to have laws against abortion.

Let’s leave aside for a moment the obvious fact that we have no way of knowing what the laws would be like in Browne’s alternative world where men could get pregnant. Let’s look at the actual thrust of what he’s saying. He is arguing that discrimination (even imaginary discrimination in a non-existent hypothetical world) is so wrong that it justifies taking the lives of other human beings.

This argument is remarkably similar to justifications of slavery prior to the American civil war. It was argued then that the Northern states in the US had very different economies to those of the Southern states. Northern states, so the argument went, would not be opposing slavery if their own economies depended upon slavery. Therefore it was discriminatory for them to object to the practices in Southern states where the economic well being of so many whites depended upon slavery. It didn’t matter whether slavery was morally repugnant or not. Nor did it matter whether African-Americans were viewed as human beings or not. All that mattered, according to this argument, was that any hint of discrimination between Northern whites and Southern whites should be avoided, and if that meant that other human beings were denied basic human rights then that was acceptable.

To see such ‘logic’ rearing its ugly head in 2018 is shocking indeed. Human rights do matter. And it is vitally important whether we see unborn children as being human beings or not.

Discrimination is wrong. It is wrong on so many levels. That is why civilised nations should have laws and protections that prohibit slavery, oppression, or any other denial of anyone’s human rights. But discrimination is not tackled by inventing imaginary worlds and then using that as a basis for justifying the killing of another human being. Discrimination is tackled by defending the human rights of all, irrespective of anyone’s race, religion, gender, sexuality, nationality, age or stage of development.

Like so many other pro-abortion arguments, Browne’s claim is bogus and should be rejected. Voting ‘No’ still represents the least discriminatory way forward for Ireland.

Nick Park: Learning from Celtic Christianity

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 Nick Park, Executive Director of EAI, looks back, and also looks forward, to the best days of Irish Christianity.

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The Irish-American historian, Thomas Cahill, refers to certain key events as ‘the hinges of history.’  These are periods in time when the world changed forever in a fundamental way, with no going back to the old order of things.  Such events might include the Renaissance and the Reformation, or the Industrial Revolution.

One such ‘hinge of history’ was the collapse of the Roman Empire. A system that had imposed its will upon most of the known world began to collapse, and the uncertainty and chaos which resulted impacted on everyone’s lives. Economic crises were accompanied by barbarian invasions and widespread predictions that the end of the world had arrived.

In the midst of such widespread fear and instability, Ireland assumed a place in history way out of proportion to its tiny size and population. Cahill has written about this in his popular book, “How the Irish Saved Civilization.”

On Easter of 433 AD, Patrick stood on the Hill of Slane in the Boyne Valley.  The druids had decreed that no fires were to be lit in the Kingdom that day until the King himself lit a fire in honour of his pagan gods.  Patrick lit a bonfire, causing the druids to cry out, “This fire, which has been lighted in defiance of the royal edict, will blaze for ever in this land unless it be this very night extinguished.” The fire continued to burn and Ireland experienced a national revival.

A Celtic Church grew out of Ireland and established monastic centres in Iona in Scotland and Lindisfarne in Northern England that would exercise great influence across Europe for several centuries.  These monastic centres were not places of retreat from the world, as in Eastern Christianity, but rather missions stations that prepared missionaries to go out into the world.  This missionary effort coincided with a period of confusion and lawlessness in Europe following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and invasions by various barbarian tribes.  Pioneers such as Columba, Aidan, Columbanus and Kilian spread the Gospel far and wide.  Celtic missionaries travelled as far as Iceland and Russia, and it is even thought that one missionary, Brendan the Voyager, may have reached America in the Sixth Century.

Some historians have questioned how much the Celtic Church was really distinct from Rome in matters of doctrine, but that is to miss the point of what made the Celtic Church so significant.  The uniqueness of the Celtic Church was not its doctrinal differences, but its distance from the seat of political power.  The Celtic monasteries were perched on the edge of, and even beyond, the Empire’s crumbling borders.  This meant that their energies were able to concentrate on the conversion of unbelievers to Christ rather than in justifying or supporting Christendom’s Church/State project.  The Celtic monasteries became centres of learning where the Scriptures, and indeed many other manuscripts, were copied, distributed and preserved.  Eventually, as Christendom re-established itself across Europe, Celtic Christians were persuaded to toe the line and lost their missionary zeal.  In the Twelfth Century King Henry II of England was authorised by the Pope to invade Ireland and to force the Irish Church to conform to the rule of Rome and to adopt the practices of the English Church.  This was officially achieved at the Synod of Cashel in 1172.

Now let’s fast forward to the year 2017. Once again we find ourselves in a place where Irish Christians have fundamental choices to make. We are living through one of those ‘hinges of history’ – witnessing the collapse of Christendom and the onset of secularism.

It is important that we do not confuse Christendom with Christianity. ‘Christendom’ refers to the Church’s domination of society and culture, often through an alliance with the political powers. It refers to Christians enforcing their will upon others. True Christianity is something very different. Christianity does not need political power or the patronage of the State in order to flourish. Indeed, some of the greatest periods of Christian growth have occurred in the face of outright hostility and persecution.

Europe, for a variety of reasons, finds itself at the cutting edge of secularisation and the collapse of Christendom. This has led some to refer to ‘Post-Christian Europe.’ However, it may well be that true Christianity, by which we mean the faith of those who have chosen to follow Christ rather than just conform to an outwardly Christian culture, is healthier in Europe than it has been for many years.

So where do we fit in? Do we believe that God still has a place in history for the Irish Church? This question has particular relevance to Irish Evangelicals who, if we are honest, have often been content to copy what seems to be working for our brethren in other countries, particularly the United States. What should an authentically Irish expression of the Church look like today?

I would suggest that it should have some of the following characteristics:

  1. A radical commitment to putting Jesus first, laying aside every other loyalty based on nationality or ethnicity.
  2. A consistent emphasis on sharing the Good News about Jesus in ways that genuinely care for people. Not just getting people to pray a ‘sinner’s prayer’ – but showing them how to follow Jesus in ways that are life-changing and transformational.
  3. The humility to listen to other people, even when we find what they say to be profoundly uncomfortable.
  4. The ability to ask the right questions, instead of trying to always be the people with the right answer.
  5. Identifying with the weak, the marginalised and the oppressed.
  6. A servant spirit, rejecting the temptation to corrupt the Gospel by building our own power and prestige.
  7. An emphasis on inspiring, equipping and releasing every Christian to fulfil their purpose and calling.

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?”