The Changing Face of Christianity in Ireland

(From the April - June 2017 issue of VOX.)

The last 30 years have been a period of rapid change in Irish society politically, economically and socially. If you believe the popular media, they have also been a time of massive religious decline. While ageing and shrinking congregations may be a reality in some traditional denominations, this is by no means the full picture. In fact, the last three decades have seen explosive growth of vibrant new churches and denominations. In this issue, VOX finds out more.

To launch our special feature, Olajide Jatto looks at the rapid growth within the Redeemed Church of God in Ireland.
 

“SOMEONE SAY GOD BLESS IRELAND!”
That’s a line the congregation has become accustomed to hearing from the Regional Overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church of God Ireland. Pastor Tunde has a passion for the country he relocated to about 10 years ago. And his passion is not misguided, as the RCCG has grown steadily to become the third-largest Christian denomination in the Republic of Ireland.

The RCCG was born in Nigeria the early 1950s in the southwestern part of the country and currently has a worldwide following that runs into tens of millions of people spread over more than 200 countries. The expansion first came to our shores in 1998. Since then, the church has gone on to establish almost 200 parishes across the island.

As part of the Pentecostal movement in Ireland, RCCG congregations are now located in many of the country’s business parks, in keeping with one of the RCCG mandates to be within a five-minute drive of every part of the world.

Dr. Gladys Ganiel, a research fellow at the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queens University Belfast, released a book last year entitled “Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland: Religious Practice in Late Modernity”. In it, she profiles RCCG Ireland and the role it could play in incorporating faith back into the Irish mainstream.

I asked Gladys what she thinks is the reason behind RCCG’s phenomenal growth here. According to her, the growth ambitions of the church and the increase in Ireland being a multicultural society are big factors.

The people at the Jesus Centre are excited about their faith - for them it is something vibrant and alive, rooted in the Bible, their relationship with God, prayer and the Holy Spirit.

“When I was working on the research project, Richard Carson was the research assistant who interviewed people from the Jesus Centre. He told a story about a visit to the Jesus Centre office. On the wall, there was a map of Ireland, with a pin representing each RCCG parish. At the time, there were about 80 pins on the map. Richard thought this was an amazing number of parishes for the church to have started in such a short time—but this was not the perspective of the National Pastor. Rather, he said the map ‘keeps us humble’ because it reminds them of how much more they have to do. This message was conveyed without arrogance and indicated the hope and high expectations people from the RCCG have for their church.”

“I’m glad to see churches like RCCG in Ireland. They are a great resource for immigrants and help them find their feet when they arrive here. They provide people with social, emotional and spiritual support. There’s always the potential that new churches like this will become inward-looking enclaves, particularly if they continue to cater only to immigrants and don’t seek to interact with other churches and groups in civil society.

“In his study of Pentecostalism in Ireland, Abel Ugba argued that this was what is happening. But this doesn’t have to be inevitable. It would be great to think that Ireland’s ‘new’ churches, like RCCG, and its traditional churches, can learn from each other and serve God together,” Gladys said.


VISIONARY LEADERSHIP
RCCG has an organised structure worldwide under the leadership of Pastor Enoch Adeboye. A former University don, Adeboye has been the General Overseer of the church since the early 80s. According to Newsweek, who in 2008 listed him as one of the 50 most influential people in the world, “His aspirations are outsize. He wants to save souls, and he wants to do so by planting churches the way Starbucks used to build coffee shops: everywhere.”

Right at the centre of the RCCG is the belief in God and the belief in the miraculous. The worldwide motto of the church is “Jesus, the same yesterday and today and forever,” quoting from Hebrews 13:8. There is a firm belief that anything and everything is possible.

Overseeing the phenomenal growth in Ireland is Senior Pastor Tunde Adebayo-Oke, or Pastor Tunde, as he is fondly called. A civil engineer by trade, he was charged with overseeing the church in Ireland in 2007.


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Pastor Tunde Adedebayo-Oke is Regional Pastor and leader of the Redeemed Christian Church of God in Ireland. VOX magazine editor Ruth Garvey-Williams spoke to him about his vision and some of the important issues facing the church in 21st-century Ireland.

WHAT IS YOUR VISION FOR IRELAND?
I’m encouraged about the future. My vision is very simple, for the church and for Ireland, that Jesus will take over. I want to see the atmosphere changing, and I want people to appreciate who Jesus really is. People need to know that Jesus did not come to condemn but to love. I want His love to be widespread and to introduce Jesus to the nation. John 3:16 sums up that vision!

WHY IS UNITY SO IMPORTANT TO YOU?
At the end of the day, we are one family. We have the same Father but different mothers (denominations), but all those walls don’t count for anything. We preach the same message. We follow the same Lord. In heaven, there will be no segregation, and we need to start practising that here. Even though we are part of a denomination, we don’t push that. We don’t say, “Come to our church.” If I speak to someone about Jesus, I encourage them to find a church close to where they live. The church belongs Jesus Christ! The more the Holy Spirit convicts us, the more we will live in unity!

In heaven, there will be no segregation, and we need to start practising that here.

For that reason, as a denomination, we have joined the Evangelical Alliance of Ireland (EAI) and I have become a member of the EAI Council of Reference. We are joining hands together. From a perspective of unity, it is crucial. We speak the same language. We have the same vision. I am totally supportive of everything that EAI stands for. We want to strengthen what they are doing in the nation. It is about the kingdom of God, and our voice is stronger and more influential when we have greater numbers. The churches need to come together - so there is no colour, denomination or separation, but rather unity in Christ.

RCCG CHURCHES ARE SEEKING TO REACH OUT TO THEIR LOCAL COMMUNITY. WHY IS THAT SUCH A PRIORITY?
The Bible says it is better to give than to receive. The only way you can share the love of Christ is to be involved in community. Otherwise, you can become insular. We are blessed to be a blessing. Helping others, especially those in need, is the best way to show who Jesus is. Show them unconditional love and let them make up their own mind. Through friendship at some point they will realise that it is not about me; it is about the one with whom I have relationship. When people can see the love of Jesus and know that it is genuine, the love of God draws them in.

WHY DOES IRELAND HOLD SUCH A SPECIAL PLACE IN THE HEARTS OF NIGERIANS?
If you speak to ten Nigerians, at least seven of them would have been influenced in some way by Irish missionaries. They came to Africa and set up schools and hospitals, but they did not discriminate between Christians and non-Christians. If you look at what they did, it was really remarkable. We are the harvest because they sowed that seed.

SADLY, RACISM AND PREJUDICE IS A REALITY IN IRISH SOCIETY. HOW DO YOU RESPOND?
We teach our people to be bigger than racism and not to be offended by it. It takes a narrow-minded person to be racist. Rather than feel hurt by it, we pray for them and pray for ourselves and that we can overcome the hurt. The interesting thing about racist people is that once you speak their language, they forget about colour. Racism is born out of fear. The truth is, there is racism everywhere - in Africa as well as here in Ireland - but the Holy Spirit can help us to overcome it. The church is the last place you should find racism, so let us keep praying and loving!


RCCG IN THE COMMUNITY
Also at the heart of the growth of the church and its acceptance into mainstream Irish society is the work of RCCG in the community. At the Jesus Centre in Dublin, the “Friend Forever” outreach is a soup run that goes out every Friday into inner-city Dublin. Volunteers give out more than food; they spend time speaking to homeless people. There is also a food bank within the church premises in Bluebell to aid needy people in the community. Other congregations have developed their own community outreach programmes across the country.

A BIGGER ROLE TO PLAY IN CHRISTIANITY IN IRELAND
In her book, Gladys Ganiel argued, “Because the Jesus Centre is not caught up in the sectarianism of the island’s past, they may have unique contributions to make to reconciliation.” When I asked her what role she thought RCCG had to play in Christianity generally in the country, she added:

“RCCG’s fresh approach to ecumenism means that people from RCCG have the potential to operate outside or transcend some of Ireland’s traditional Christian boundaries. This could be a good example to other Irish Christians who may struggle with the divisions of the past. The people at the Jesus Centre also are excited about their faith—for them it is something vibrant and alive, rooted in the Bible, their relationship with God, prayer and the Holy Spirit. They want to share this faith with others.

“There might be some tensions if it seems RCCG is trying to ‘re-convert’ the Irish. But there’s also the potential that as RCCG interacts with ‘traditional’ Irish Christians, those traditional Christians can find their own faith renewed if they are open to learning.”

A VIEW FROM INSIDE
I spoke with four members of the Redeemed Christian Church of God congregations to hear their views about the church. Foluwake Imonopi is a medical doctor, Dolapo Ola is a finance expert with the Bank of Ireland, Afolabi Yisa is a finance professional with a health insurance firm and Michael Isichei is a lecturer with Dublin City University.


HOW HAS ATTENDING THE CHURCH AFFECTED YOU PERSONALLY?
Foluwake: Personally, I love going to church. I find comfort, strength and encouragement in church. It’s helped me grow in my walk with God and in my relationships with everyone around me. RCCG is a family oriented church and the people are usually warm and friendly. There is a real sense of community and it’s easy to build lasting relationships.

Dolapo: I’d say the biggest impact is being able to give my children a home church and getting them into attending church.

Michael: The church has affected my life in a major way. I’ve matured spiritually during my time here. I’ve also been privileged to meet a lot of great people who have helped me to mature in Christ. I’ve gained brothers who I regularly pray and study the word of God with. I also feel that the church has given me opportunities to serve God with the unique abilities that God has given me.

Afolabi: The church has influenced my spiritual growth with God, kept me grounded and disciplined. In decision-making, it has encouraged enquiring from God before making decisions relating to my life in general.

The Bible encourages the church to preach the good news to everyone, not just people who look like us.

WHAT, IN YOUR OPINION, IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE GROWTH OF RCCG IRELAND?
Foluwake: The growth of the RCCG in Ireland is primarily a result of God’s grace and mercy. The church was originally founded in Nigeria, West Africa and it has millions of members. Naturally, when these members move to a different country, in this case Ireland, they will look out for a branch of their home church, thereby making their transition into a foreign country easier.

Michael: I think a key factor is the growth of RCCG internationally. As the ministry grows globally, more people become aware of it. I have a lot of respect and admiration for RCCG, but as things stand, many of the RCCG parishes in Ireland are predominantly black African churches. I feel that a true indicator of the growth of RCCG in Ireland will be the diversification of its members. The gospel is for everyone. Hopefully in the future, people of other nationalities will have joined the church.

DO YOU THINK THERE’S EVEN MORE ROOM FOR GROWTH FOR THE CHURCH?
Foluwake: The RCCG in Ireland is still predominantly an African church, and while that’s great, we can spread out more. We need to reach out to people in communities around Ireland and spread the good news to them as well. The Bible encourages the church to preach the good news to everyone, not just people who look like us.

Dolapo: Yes, that’s true. I don’t believe the church was sent to the African community but to Ireland as a whole.
 

Olajide (Jide) is an IT professional based in Ireland. He loves photography and reading magazine articles. He is married and lives in Kildare with his wife.