(From the January - March 2019 issue of VOX)
40 issues, over 1,000 articles, interviews and news items featuring churches, individual Christians and Christian ministries in all 32 counties and from every major denomination and type of church on this island… Here VOX editor Ruth Garvey-Williams reflects on the last decade and considers some of the lessons learnt from observing the big picture of Christianity in Ireland.
As we launched VOX magazine in January 2009, at the height of the recession, some voices warned that our efforts were doomed. Thankfully, we also found encouragers along the way – people like Tom Slattery, Warren Nelson and Tony O’Connor – who stood by us, advised us and spurred us on.
From the very beginning, we wanted to explore what faith looks like in our Irish context and how the good news of Jesus Christ applies to every issue we face as individuals, families, churches, communities and in the wider society. We have sought to hold firmly to the Scriptures while, at the same time, seeking to understand the times in which we live (1 Chronicles 12:32) – holding a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. (Although with the advent of smart phones, it is possible to hold both in one hand!)
A quick glance at the timeline reveals some of the seismic shifts that have taken place in the last ten years: from austerity, scandals and referenda to the homeless crisis and Brexit. And through all the highs and lows of national life, churches have faced their own challenges and changes.
In our daily lives, most of us are rightly focused on our own local parishes and communities. But as editor of VOX, my great privilege has been to have a bird’s eye view of what is happening right across Ireland and Northern Ireland, beyond the boundaries of individual congregations, ministries and denominations.
Through our Finding Faith Tours, by attending gatherings, conferences and leadership meetings and by conducting research (e.g. our Millennial Survey in 2015 and the 3:28 Churches? Survey in 2018) recurring themes have emerged. Here I’ll share reasons for gratitude and joy, some challenges and one heart-breaking concern:
1. HOPEFUL SIGNS, EXCITING TIMES
National media outlets would have us believe that Christianity is dead or dying. It is true that some congregations are declining but it has been our joy to share stories of what God is doing in and through His Church in every corner of this island. The recession brought unexpected opportunities as people began to question the values and assumptions of the Celtic Tiger. Many Christian leaders described a new sense of expectancy and openness.
Since 2009, we have seen new churches established and old churches revitalised. There has been an explosion of interest in Alpha, Christianity Explored and similar programmes introducing people to Jesus, and we’ve been thrilled with the stories of people finding forgiveness and new life in Him.
The thriving, immigrant-led churches, especially from African, Brazilian and Romanian backgrounds, have grown rapidly. (Do you recall the inspiring story of the Romanian congregation that renovated their church building in just 27 days?). And Irish churches have also seen significant growth, especially in and around Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Belfast.
But as our Finding Faith tours have demonstrated, God is also at work in rural Ireland; in small, out-of-the-way towns where faithful witness is bearing fruit.
2. FAITH IN ACTION
Christians in Ireland are living out their faith in their local communities through food banks and addiction counselling, community meals and children’s clubs, prisoner rehabilitation, inner-city regeneration, and so much more!
One of my highlights was visiting the Anchorage Project and Fair Play Café in 2013. You can still read the story on our website (www.vox.ie/hope-starts-here. At the heart of Joe Donnelly’s vision was the question, “How can we express authentic Christian hope in 21st Century Ireland?” And that is exactly what Joe and his wife Sharon have been doing in Ringsend, in Dublin city – bringing love and life and colour and bucket-loads of hope. “The Gospel is fabulous. It affects the whole of life and the whole of the person,” Joe told me with a broad grin.
For me, this exemplifies how Christians are transforming their communities with passion, imagination and a lot of hard work. I’ve loved to share and celebrate some of those stories… and we hope there’ll be many more in the years to come!
3. LEARNING TO RESPOND WITH FAITH, NOT FEAR
Ten years ago, most Christians would have struggled to believe the changes that were about to take place in an increasingly secular state. The results of the marriage and abortion referenda took many by surprise, especially those who have yet to come to terms with the demise of Christendom and the declining power and influence of the church.
For some, rapid secularisation has brought disorientation, dismay and fear. Sadly, this can lead to a defensive or even aggressive attitude, erecting walls or drawing lines in the sand.
Being out of step with the prevailing mood of society is nothing new for followers of Jesus – in fact, He warned us of this very thing – but He also told us not to be afraid.
While it may be challenging and uncomfortable, the changing face of Ireland has created new opportunities for faith communities to “shine like stars in the universe.” One beautiful example is the way churches are responding with care, counselling and practical support for women facing crisis pregnancies.
4. TACKLING FAULT LINES OF DISUNITY, DISADVANTAGE AND POLARISATION
I’ve been thrilled to see beautiful examples of unity in places like Mullingar, Sligo and Kilkenny, where Christians are working together, united by their love for Jesus and their desire to share that love with others.
Sadly, however, (and I share this with a heavy heart and some trepidation) it is still common for churches and church leaders to view one another with suspicion and mistrust, to look down on others as ‘lesser’ or to consider Christian unity as an optional extra. There is a tendency to believe the worst, to write one another off or to assign disparaging labels to those with whom we disagree.
Disunity and division between different ‘tribes’ is compounded by the significant generation gap identified by our VOX Millennial Survey and by issues of ethnicity, social class and gender.
My greatest and enduring heartbreak over the last decade has been to see churches and individual Christians making a conscious choice to divide from others. Disobedience to Jesus’ prayer in John 17 is sometimes tolerated or justified on the grounds of cherished doctrines or practices. I believe this polarisation grieves the Holy Spirit and is one of the greatest hindrances to the Gospel that we face.
Loving one another does not mean we have to compromise our own deeply-held convictions, but it does mean showing a Christ-like concern for others and being willing to listen to those with different views. Our unity is in Christ, made possible by His death and His resurrection. Let’s not miss out on the blessing He bestows when His people are united.
Thank you for sharing the journey with us. We’re looking forward to what God has in store for Ireland in the coming years and, with His help, we will continue to serve the Irish Church as together we seek to glorify Jesus and make Him known.
What has happened in the last 10 years?
Irish Rugby team wins the Six Nations Grand Slam
Ryan Commission report into child abuse
Irish government agrees bailout for banks plunging Ireland into austerity
Saville enquiry into Bloody Sunday prompts a British Government apology
Terminal 2 opens at Dublin Airport
Queen Elizabeth II and US President Barak Obama visit Ireland
Landslide victory for Fine Gael in General election – Enda Kenny becomes Taoiseach
Michael D Higgins elected President
Unemployment reaches 16%
Rory McIlroy becomes world number one golfer
Occupy movement and other protests against austerity
Historic handshake in Belfast between Martin McGuinness and Queen Elizabeth II
Ireland exits the EU bailout
Enda Kenny makes an official state apology to the women who were abused in the Magdalene laundries, describing them as casting ‘a long shadow over Irish life.’
Pat Storey becomes the first woman bishop of the Church of Ireland
Tuam Baby Scandal goes viral
Death of Ian Paisley
There are large scale protests against the introduction of Water Charges
Same Sex Marriage Referrendum – Roscommon is the only county to vote no
Centenary of the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme
General election, but it takes over two months for a government to be formed
The UK votes (narrowly) to leave the EU despite a strong ‘remain’ vote in Northern Ireland and Scotland.
Storm Ophelia wreaks havoc across the southern counties in Ireland
The Dail votes to abolish the controversial water charges
Leo Varadkar takes over as Taoiseach
Human remains found in the grounds of the Mother and Baby home in Tuam
Death of Martin McGuinness
The ‘Beast from the East’ brings record snow falls
The 8thAmendment Repealed after a fiercely contended referendum on abortion. Donegal is the only county to vote ‘No’
Irish rugby again wins the Six Nations Grand Slam
Pope’s visit to Ireland