Stop Imitating, Start Innovating!

Finding a uniquely Irish model of ministry

By Scott Evans

Several years ago, a mission agency invited me to give a cross-cultural training day to a short-term mission team working in the south east of Ireland. As someone who is passionate about mission and loves teaching young adults, I was delighted to be involved and that they wanted an Irish youth worker to prepare them for outreach. 

I put a lot into my preparation. Over our sessions together, we covered the history and legacy of Catholicism and Protestantism in the Republic, the religious experience of the Irish teen and approaches to mission and discipleship that I had seen work and that I had seen fail. 

After four hours of teaching and conversation, I Skyped with the missionary supervisor who had asked me to facilitate the training, and he had one burning question about what we had covered: “Did you tell them that ‘fanny-pack’ means something different over there?”

This, of course, is a valid concern. Transatlantic differences in slang have led to some very embarrassing moments for well-meaning mission teams. What is more of a concern, however, is when we assume that slang is the primary difference between Ireland and other English-speaking countries around the world. 

We may share the same TV shows, gossip about the same celebrities and read the same books and magazines but, when it comes to faith, we come from different places. While most people would acknowledge that Christianity has lost its place of privilege in the English-speaking world, Christians from the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom are figuring out how to do ministry in countries where Protestantism is in decline. 

What does innovative Irish ministry look like?

In Ireland, we’re struggling to figure out what it looks like to do and be church in the void left by the waning influence of the Catholic Church. In terms of religious experience, upbringing (and baggage), Irish culture has more in common with Spain, France and Italy than it does with the US, the UK or Australia.

One of the findings of VOX’s Young Adults’ Survey has given me much food for thought. Just over half of the 748 respondents, despite being from different contexts, counties and denominations, named the ‘irrelevance of the Church to modern life’ as one of the three biggest spiritual issues facing their community. The more I think about this, the more sense it makes. 

In my experience, one can (with crudeness and inexactitude) divide Christian movements in Ireland into two categories. The first is the established mainline denominations (like the Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland) who have experienced a severe decline in both attendance and influence over the past 30-40 years. 

The second category is the ‘imported’ denominations: church plants or Christian communities based on models that are thriving elsewhere. Some follow Willow Creek’s seeker-sensitive model, some follow Saddleback’s ‘purpose-driven’ ethos and countless others. And yet, from the conversations I’ve had with church leaders or attendees, it seems that the majority of these approaches don’t gain the same traction here.

There is a cultural disconnect — particularly when it comes to reaching youth and young adults. The question that I find myself asking these days is, “What does innovative Irish ministry look like?”

If ‘traditional’ churches tend to perpetuate what has been done before and ‘imported’ churches tend to imitate what is done elsewhere, what does it look like for us to innovate for the sake of the Kingdom here?

What I often forget about ministry models that have succeeded elsewhere is that they are not developed in a vacuum. They are the result of blood, sweat, prayers and tears over years of trying and failing to reach a community. As tempted as I am to imitate their methods, I find myself reminded that my calling is to make my own mistakes as I try, fail and try again to do ministry in my context. 

A few months ago, I had the privilege of helping a friend lead a retreat in a Dublin girls’ secondary school. After the break, he asked the students to leave their seats and lie on the ground for a guided meditation, something I had never experienced before. Inwardly, I scoffed at the idea of teens being interested in such a thing but, much to my surprise, they left their seats and filled the floor in complete silence. As I lay at the front of the room, after relaxing my body and focusing on my breathing, I found myself engaging with my friend’s gracious words about the love and goodness of God with a freshness I hadn’t felt in months. It was only when he invited us to ‘remember a time when you were a little girl’ that I was jolted out of the experience of spending time in silence and wonder! 

Since that day, I have been exploring new ways of engaging with ancient approaches to worship, particularly Ignatian meditation and lectio divina (a traditional Benedictine practice of Scripture reading, meditation and prayer), and it has transformed my own devotional life and my ministry to students. In a world that has become so noisy, my first instinct is to raise the volume of my ministry with louder worship music and to pack my talks with more stimulating media. What I now realise is that in a world of overstimulation, silence is golden. 

While the world competes for our attention with rock-splitting winds, earthquakes and fires, I feel like Elijah finding God in the ‘sound of sheer silence’ (1 Kings 19:12). It’s counter-cultural and feels counter-intuitive and it has turned my ministry upside-down. 

As with all personal stories, this is descriptive rather than prescriptive. I’m not saying that we all need to start meditating or that all churches should seek silence. That would be both ridiculous and hypocritical. What I am saying is that we will never be able to imitate a perfect model for Irish ministry. It must be born and crafted here, in our blood, sweat, tears and prayers; in our experiments that work well and that fail spectacularly. 

Have you ever experienced one of those distinctly Irish moments? It’s something I have never seen or heard of happening anywhere else in the world. It usually happens in a pub in the wee hours when someone starts singing an old song, an ancient tale of love or loss or both, and a sacred silence falls on those gathered. It feels like what the ancient Celtic Christians called a ‘thin place,’ that rare space where the distance has closed between Heaven and Earth. 

Somewhere in our cultural psyche exists a longing for these thin places, a longing that causes us to burst into song. These moments cannot be imitated nor can they be replicated but the potential for them exists, just below the surface, in each of us. My gut feeling is that innovative Irish ministry will only thrive when we stop looking elsewhere for ideas and, instead, tap into the latent longing that has been here along.

 

Scott Evans works as a chaplain through Holy Trinity Rathmines. He has written three books, Closer Still, Beautiful Attitudes and Failing From The Front and is 1/3 of the team on The Graveyard Shift podcast. Connect with him at www.scottevans.ie  / @notscottevans.