February 11, 2016

Gospel Churches for Ireland's Poorest?

20schemes exists to build healthy, gospel-centred churches in Scotland’s poorest communities—the housing schemes—but we’re also seeing an increasing number of churches and individuals burdened for the deprived communities on their doorstep in other parts of the world.

On Saturday 6th February 2016, Hamilton Road Baptist Church hosted our first Church In Hard Places Workshop in Bangor, Ireland.

  • There were 160 participants.
  • 61 churches represented.
  • 45% Baptist, 35% Presbyterian, 20% other.
  • Over 50 senior pastors/ministers, mostly from Northern Ireland, but also three from the Republic of Ireland.

In Ireland (as in England and Wales), the housing schemes are known as ‘council estates’.

In Northern Ireland, most council estates still remain divided in terms of Protestants and Catholics. Few estates with a predominately Catholic population would have an evangelical church. Many estates with a predominately Protestant population do have a church, but on the whole, these are in decline. Northern Ireland is moving away from Christendom and church attendance is dropping, which is both a challenge and an opportunity for gospel ministry. Many of these council estates top the government’s list of Areas of Social Deprivation.

In the Republic of Ireland, the situation is much bleaker. Many of the towns have no evangelical witness whatsoever, let alone in the council estates. The Republic of Ireland has the lowest percentage of evangelical Christians in the English-speaking world (1.5%).

Just as in the schemes of Scotland, Ireland’s council estates suffer multiple forms of deprivation: high levels of unemployment, addictions, single-parent households, and low levels of education. Culturally, Northern Ireland is 15–20 years behind Scotland in relation to affiliation to churches. But whether we’re talking about the council estates of Ireland or the schemes of Scotland, these areas are rammed-full of sinners heading to hell, in need of the Saviour.

We were really encouraged to see so many church leaders from across Ireland, committed to reaching these areas, coming together for the CiHP Workshop.

Hamilton Road Baptist Church has planted three churches in the past. Keith McIlwaine serves as their Youth Pastor and organised the workshop. He’s been involved in youth ministry to council estates for a number of years. We wanted to get his perspective on the workshop, and the future of gospel ministry in the council estates of Ireland.

What were your expectations of the CiHP workshop?

KM: Mez visited in August 2015 and introduced 20schemes. Interest was high, and as a church we connected well with Mez theologically and personally (even if we dress differently). We felt we needed to get 20schemes back to help our church explore church planting in hard places. We certainly didn’t expect over 60 churches to come to the workshop, but we’re thankful to God that so many did! I think it shows the desire from many churches in Ireland to reach into council estates who are currently not doing that, and the desire from those who are is to do it better.

What stood out most at the CiHP workshop?

KM: It was refreshing to see a strong and rigorous theological basis for all that was shared in the four sessions, and how well they relate to a contemporary world. In NI we generally seem to either do one or the other well (with exceptions of course). There was a sense of humility from the 20schemes team who don’t want to be seen as ‘gurus’, but as ordinary men and women making lots of mistakes and yet still seeing God give the increase. We were all challenged to think about how we present the ancient gospel of Jesus Christ in a contemporary world, across the class divide, and think about how local churches can support, encourage and train for that work. It was also a joy to hear from church planters and church leaders across NI, especially in Belfast, who are doing great things in council estates that I was unaware of.

What was the feedback from those that attended?

KM: Delegates completed feedback sheets and they have been overwhelmingly positive on all fronts. There is much for churches to go away and pray through. During the breaks, it was a delight to hear church leaders sharing about their current context and building links with other like-minded churches. Everyone did talk about how good the lunch was too! One thing that stood out was that this conference was a partnership between two local churches—Niddrie Community Church and Hamilton Road Baptist—seeking to serve other local churches with a desire to equip and encourage those who came along. Hamilton Road has a lot to learn from Niddrie and 20schemes, as well as from other churches in NI, and it was a great time of teaching and training for myself, our leadership and members who attended.

What’s the vision for the future of the council estates of Ireland?

KM: This is the big question, and one that we don’t have a clear answer for. For individual churches, we hope they will consider how better to reach the working class in their society. For some, that may mean planting, for others it may mean something else. For mainstream denominations with churches in council estates, how might they better train and support church planters and gospel workers in these areas? For ourselves at Hamilton Road Baptist, as friends and supporters of 20schemes, we hope to continue discussions with 20schemes and local church planters. There are lots of men and women doing great things in council estates, we would love to learn from them, encourage them, and resource them if possible. This might mean smaller gatherings of planters, establishing training links with 20schemes or something more. We’re letting the dust settle and seeking God for what he would have us do next. We believe that God can do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us (Eph. 3:20). We are looking forward to seeing what he has planned for Northern Ireland.

Please do pray for Ireland, both Northern Ireland and the Republic. Many of you will have prayed for political peace in the country, but Ireland and its people need the Prince of Peace. Pray for Hamilton Road Baptist Church, that they would continue to obey God’s leading in the coming months. And pray for 20schemes as we endeavour to support, resource and train people for gospel ministry in hard places.

Pick up a copy of Mez and Mike McKinley's book Church In Hard Places on the 20schemes Store. All sales directly support the ministry of 20schemes!

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