NEWS Page 9
RISE OF THE NEW CHURCHES
In the first of a two-part series, Caroline O’Doherty examines the alternative Churches in modern Ireland.
We also examine the role played by US churches, who send ‘planters’ here, while an expert on sects outlines his concern at how some churches operate.
ANY time religion hits the news in this country, it’s almost a given that the Catholic Church is the subject of the story. So tied up with national identity is it, and so troubled has it been in recent years, that it dominates public debate on faith and spirituality. But away from the headlines, another movement has been writing its own story. The term “alternative Christian churches” can loosely be used, offering as they do an alternative to the main Christian denominations of the Catholic Church, Church of Ireland, Presbyterianism and Methodism. Within the grouping, some prefer to use the term Evangelical, some Pentecostal, others Born Again or Charismatic. As a rule of thumb, Evangelical churches tend to be more conservative in their beliefs and less dramatic in their worship style than the Pentecostal, and Born Again groups tend to be newer than Charismatic although the differences can be quite subtle.
Between them all, they have about 50,000 followers in Ireland, attached to around 500 churches, fellowships or congregations — again the terminology varies — and their numbers are steadily growing. You might recognise them by their names: Radical Life, Open Arms, Living Hope, Liberty, Victory, Discovery, Abundant Life and Kingdom Praise are just a few examples of the preference for choosing titles that
scream positivity. You may also know them by their premises: shop units, lock-ups in
industrial estates, office buildings and rented rooms in hotels and GAA clubs are all being used for Sunday gatherings. And you’ll definitely know them if you chance upon one of their services for the music is upbeat and rousing; the congregation invariably sings along, often dancing, swaying or raising their hands in acclamation;
and the preacher, pastor or leader — once more the terms differ — is dressed in civilian clothes, typically delivering a stirring sermon packed with rhetoric and exhortation designed to work up a reaction.
But there is still some uncertainty about who Evangelicals are (for convenience, just one term is used here) and what they believe. It was this concern that led to the formation in 2004 of the Evangelical Alliance, an association of about 150
churches. “There was a sense that we were quite disconnected from wider society,”
says Alliance director, Corkman Sean Mullan. “There wasn’t any real general understanding of who these Evangelical, Pentecostal, Charismatic, Born Again
people were. One of the problems is the fact that there is no centralised organisation and no obvious structure so we wanted to provide some sort of public point of contact. Out of confusion, there was suspicion.” He feels the suspicion is less now, thanks in part to the influx of immigrants who arrived here over the past decade, bringing their religions with them. “People have got used to there being a much wider variety of religions,” he says. “Plus, I think that the weakening of loyalty to the Catholic
Church has made people more tolerant of alternatives.” Evangelicalism in its purest form, which requires an intentional conversion or recommitment to Christianity — being born again rather than simply accepting the default position of being born into it through your parents’ religion — is nothing new, having begun as a movement in Britain in the 1700s. The movement came to Ireland too but it really only took off in recent times with members estimated to have increased five-fold since 1980 and much of the growth taking place in the last 10 years. Figures are estimates because the Census is not precise in identifying members. Just 5,276 people declared themselves Evangelical in the last Census in 2006 — a 40% increase on the 2002 Census figure — while 8,116 were counted as “Apostolic or Pentecostal” — a 157% increase. But almost 30,000 were identified as “unspecified Christian” and a total of 265,000 came under the headings of other religions, no religion or “not stated“. A criticism of the Census is that it collects this data under the description “Religious Denomination” when Evangelicalism is not a denomination so it is believed many members feel they can not give an accurate reply. Growth in recent years was largely due to immigration. The Redeemed Christian Church alone, with its mainly Nigerian membership, has over 100 parishes across the country while there are also churches that are almost exclusively Polish, Romanian, Indian, Chinese and West African.
But indigenous Irish churches have flourished too, attracting both native Irish and immigrants to their doors. “In the Irish churches there would be a relatively healthy mix of Irish and non-Irish and I think that has brought a new strength to the Irish Churches,” Mullan says. “I remember a guy from Ghana saying to me when someone got sick, they always prayed first whereas for us, prayer tends to be a last resort.
“A doctor is a luxury where many immigrants come from so when they pray, it’s very real for them.” Praying for healing has its critics, particularly when espoused by the more spurious “televangelists” found preaching on dedicated US television channels, and there are some churches in Ireland using promotional material that suggests that faith and prayer can replace medical advice and drugs. “I would not have met people who have that ideological viewpoint, but I have heard stories,” Mullan concedes. However he insists: “Anyone I interact with in the alliance believes in a mix of faith and practicality — in other words, you call on God and the doctor.”
Mullan, from Cobh, was raised a Catholic but began exploring his faith while in college in Scotland. “I remember walking out of the church one Sunday morning thinking there has got to be more to it.” Later, while working as a navigational officer with the P&O shipping company, he left to do volunteer work for a Christian charity on a ship bringing educational materials to South America. That was the start of his career change in earnest. He went on to study theology for three years, then got work as an assistant in Cork Baptist Church before leaving to head up the new Midleton Evangelical Church for the best part of 10 years, followed by nine years as pastor of West Dublin Community Church in Blanchardstown. With community based Churches such as these, faith and practicality again make for the crucial mix. “When a church starts from scratch, it starts with people putting their hands in their pocket to pay for the rent of a room or a hall,” Mullan explains. “But the willingness to fund it comes from a very basic spiritual and theological truth. When someone becomes Christian they commit themselves to the overall leadership of Jesus in their lives. He is the first authority and that means that every other authority is in some way kicked out. “So the other major influences in our lives — money, power and sex — all these things are challenged as a result of that. It doesn’t mean that they don’t have any place in our lives — Christians still have money and they still have sex but their influence
is where it should be. It’s not an overwhelming influence. When money is no longer the most important thing in life, it’s a lot easier to be generous.” Despite the departure of many immigrants recently in recent times, Mullan believes Evangelicalism will continue to grow here. “There is great freedom in Evangelical faith. I’m free to question and think for myself and yet the Bible is there to guide me so I don’t go too far astray. I’m free to become who I’m meant to be. I think there is tremendous appeal in that for a lot of people, now more than ever.”
“IT’S tithing time. ‘The people here were looking for something more’ Hallelujah!” The biggest of the three giant video screens surrounding the stage at the Victory Centre auditorium has been busy flashing hints that today might be a good day to donate. Pay rise. Bonus. Sales and commission. Rebates. Royalties received. Mortgage paid off. Gifts. Estates and inheritances. It has covered all the possible ways a little extra cash might have made its way into your wallet of late. Now it’s suggesting a good way to get rid of the excess. “It’s tithing time. Hallelujah!”
To anyone brought up with the whispered passing of the collection basket during Catholic mass, the unabashed rallying of the wallets by the evangelical pastors of the Victory Christian Fellowship is a startling contrast. Tithing, or giving tithes, technically and historically means contributing a 10th of all household income to your church but while there are no hard and fast rules about how much Victory’s followers give, they don’t shy away from the envelopes. Blue is for cash, cheque or card contributions to the building fund for the hugely impressive Victory Centre where they attend services. White is for a standing order mandate for the same purpose.
Yellow is for any type of donation for any purpose in the fellowship. Since the service began, people have been busy balancing the forms on their knees, squinting in the dimmed light as they fill in their details. All the while, four exuberant lead singers backed by a dozen-strong choir and a six-piece band are belting out a series of songs — some soulful, some ballads, some rocking, all praising God or seeking guidance
— under a stunning light show worthy of a major concert venue. The congregation responds enthusiastically, rising from their seats, swaying with outstretched arms and open palms and singing along, breaking from the lyrics now and again to voice their own spoken prayers or affirmations. “Yes, Lord.” “Thank you, Jesus.” The sentiments are spontaneous and heartfelt. Those filling in the forms finish up and join in. Young, old, African, eastern European, Asian, Irish, a Pussycat Doll wannabe in tight leggings. After half an hour, the music and song subsides and Sheila Hade, one half of the pastor-couple who founded and run Victory, appears, immaculately attired in the style of an American first lady. She stands before a podium and reads out a prayer request. It’s for a member of the church who fell in the bathroom this morning and is in hospital with neck and back injuries. She leads the congregation in prayer for the unfortunate woman. “We command healing into every bone, every muscle, every tissue, every ligament, every sinew …,” while the crowd responds with murmurs of “please Jesus”, “praise Jesus”. Pastor Sheila then reads from a handful of ‘praise reports’ where followers have written of ailments and troubles they have had cured by prayer. As she speaks, around a dozen assistants line up along the stage and members of the congregation queue in front of them to receive healing through the laying on of hands or the touch of heads. As the queues finish, the tall, lean, impeccably suited pastor Brendan Hade appears, looking fresher than his 69 years, and announces it’s time to take up the tithes and offerings. He gives a talk based on a letter of St Paul to the Corinthians in which he praises the generosity of the Christians in Macedonia who gave to God not only what they could afford, but far more. “The heart regulates the hand,” Pastor Brendan tells the congregation. “It’s God’s nature to give and we have the nature of God within us,” he says. He goes on to urge prayers for the Government. “The Government came out with some legislation that enables the churches to claim back a percentage of the taxes on the tithes and offerings,” he says, referring to the facility whereby approved charities can claim relief on donations over €250 made by PAYE taxpayers. “That’s a great blessing. That’s why we need to keep praying for the Government,” he continues, as assistants scan the congregation for outstretched hands as they offer the official CHY2 forms donors must complete for the tax claim to be processed. Assistant pastor Gerry Byrne takes the stage next, announcing details of an upcoming jazz night and dinner in the centre, encouraging everyone to bring their friends, workmates and family “for a gentle introduction to the body of Christ.” He also invites newcomers to the hospitality suite once the service is finished and adds that anyone with a question about the CHY2 forms should come see him afterwards. Pastor Sheila is back briefly, with a report from the previous Saturday’s ladies’ breakfast meeting in Kilkenny. Her announcement that six souls were saved at the meeting is met by applause. Her husband returns then and the proceedings take on a more sombre air. He delivers a sermon that requires a good knowledge of the Bible, quoting liberally from the writings of Paul and John to the Ephesians, Romans and Hebrews among others. Despite the scholastic introduction, he speaks of the need to make God’s word more accessible.
Not TV evangelist accessible — he makes clear he has little time for them — but in a way that has practical application for newcomers. “We have become a bit selfish,” he says, telling the congregation they should satisfy their need for in-depth Bible analysis — the meat, he calls it — at their weekly home Bible study groups and concentrate on the more accessible material — the milk — on Sundays. “That’s why we have no unbelievers and unsaved people here.” He sounds a little despondent, though he will later laugh off the suggestion, insisting he was just trying to concentrate minds on the task of spreading the word instead of always preaching to the converted. He doesn’t appear to have much reason for despondency. True, not all 1,040 seats in the auditorium are full but around 650 are and there are many Catholic priests who would be thrilled with such an attendance. “On an average Sunday morning we get about 700 adults,” he confirms the following week. “Plus about 300 children downstairs and maybe 60 teenagers.” Downstairs there is an extensive network of crèches and junior classrooms painted, vibrantly decorated and elaborately kitted out with the very best in play areas, care rooms and instruction facilities. A separate kid zone operates for older children aged 5 to 12 while teenagers have their own theatre with audio-visual facilities to rival those in the main auditorium. The 6,000sq metre complex, located in the mainly residential area straddling Firhouse and Tallaght in suburban Dublin, also has a Starbucks coffee dock, an all-purpose socialising area that becomes a restaurant on Sundays, a recording studio and a bookshop on a landscaped seven acre site that despite its size fails to accommodate all the cars requiring parking spaces. Run by a staff of 10 and scores of volunteers, it’s a long way from the sitting room of the Hades’ family home in nearby Rathfarnham where Brendan and Sheila hosted their first gathering 21 years ago. “There was something missing in my life and I went searching,” Brendan, who was reared a Catholic, explains. “I had my own business electrical contracting and materially we were okay but at the same time there was something missing. “I’m not saying material things are not important, but they don’t fulfil a spiritual role in your life. I went to a number of peace movements, I looked at eastern philosophies and then I was invited to a meeting of the Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship.” The fellowship brings businessmen together to share their experiences of God through personal testimonies.
Brendan immediately felt at home and began reading the Bible for the first time.
Sheila was meanwhile looking on as a curious observer. She shared her husband’s sense of dissatisfaction with Catholicism but wasn’t convinced about the alternative he was exploring. Until she got healed, that was. “She had problems with her back but she came along to a meeting and she never had trouble again,” Brendan says.
Healing is a big part of Victory’s work. “Back problems are our speciality,” he says. He isn’t at all irked by the suggestion that a placebo effect may be in action due to the comfort that comes from a large group of people all praying for the sufferer and giving animated accounts of their own recovery. “It’s not in our nature to keep quiet about healing. Jesus healed the lepers but only one came back to thank him. It’s important that you come back and give testimony. “Sure there are times it doesn’t work. We get people who get healings and we get people who don’t. We don’t know all the answers but we never give up hope.” Brendan and Sheila began Bible studies, using videotaped lessons sent weekly from classes in the US, and after two years began to seriously organise Victory. As they attracted more people, they started holding several meetings every Sunday in rented rooms before buying a property in Westland Row in Dublin city centre which became their church. Around the same time, Hade invested in a property in south Dublin which he opened as accommodation
for asylum seekers who began arriving into the country in large numbers in the late 1990s. When immigration laws tightened up and the numbers arriving dwindled, he applied for planning permission to convert the premises into apartments. He had also bought the site where the Victory Centre now stands and the plan at the back of his mind was to use the proceeds of the sale of Westland Row and the apartment development to get the new complex — the first purpose built evangelical church in the country — off the ground. The property crash, however, means the apartment plan has been put on hold, Westland Row remains unsold and the €12 million spent on the Victory Centre makes for a considerable mortgage. So was it a mistake to try to mix property speculation with religion? Too big a leap of faith, perhaps? Hade remains unflappable. “I’d say it was a step of faith, not a leap,” he says. “We built up an asset base. We had buildings and we used them. God expects us to use whatever gifts he has given us.” Without the historic wealth of an institution such as the Catholic Church to draw on, the strategy has left a huge financial burden on the congregation but Hade says their generosity has never been found wanting. “Do I think, what happens if they stop giving? No, I don’t. We don’t believe they will. This is their church. They put it here.” He doesn’t believe there is too much emphasis on donating in the Sunday service. “We encourage people by saying it would not happen if it wasn’t for their giving but we don’t put pressure on them and we don’t police them. Traditionally you give to the Catholic Church after you die but here people give to us while they are alive.” He practices what he preaches by giving his own time free of charge, saying success in the electrical contracting business — still run by several of his five children — enables him to decline a salary. Besides, if people didn’t like being “encouraged”, they wouldn’t come back and clearly the Victory congregation is finding something that appeals to them for while the majority are immigrants from Africa, Asia and eastern Europe, about 30% are Irish who have left the main denominational churches, primarily the Catholic Church. Hade doesn’t believe, however, that the Catholic Church’s shame over the child abuse scandals has been a major reason for people switching allegiances. “The people coming here were disillusioned even before the problems in the Catholic Church. They were looking for something more. “At one time the denominational churches were alive and vibrant. At
one time it was cutting edge to have stained glass windows and an organ. “But then the times changed and the church didn’t. We use music and light and interaction to engage people while the Catholic Church is still expecting people to sit down and be quiet.” Some who switch do find the contrast too much. “I did once come out after a service and find a note on my windscreen saying: Stop preaching the Hollywood gospel,” he admits with a smile. He doesn’t know if the note writer came back. “Some people come and go,” he says. “It’s not for everyone. We don’t have a formal membership. We don’t keep a register, just an open door.”
All instruction comes from the Bible so any doctrines and practices that developed subsequently, such as the Catholic Church’s teachings on transubstantiation (the changing of bread and water into the body and blood of Jesus), mandatory celibacy and the sacraments, are either not followed or not given the same status as in Catholicism. Adult baptism by immersion in water is very important in some churches and barely features in others but in both cases it is seen as a symbolic act rather than a true sacrament. Baptism in the Holy Spirit, where the believer has a personal experience with the Holy Spirit and speaks in tongues, is a feature of some churches. Stances on divorce, contraception, abortion and homosexuality are more liberal than in the Catholic Church although some churches are more conservative than others.
The personal relationship with God is central and believers must be “born again”, making a conscious decision to invite Jesus into their lives. There are no priests or saints to act as intermediaries and informal praying is encouraged with the words and sentiments coming spontaneously from the individual rather than a scripted prayer. Positivity is emphasised, with personal confession, directly to God, encouraged. Penance is not exercised and “Catholic guilt” is considered a negative force, particularly when it comes to wealth and success.
Many churches are independent standalone operations while others are part of an organised network operating under the same name but there is no international headquarters like the Vatican, no overall head like the Pope, no governing body and no mandatory curriculum of study for pastors. Most pastors undertake Bible study courses and are employed directly by church members who collectively pay the salary. Most churches have home groups or cells who gather for weekly meetings and Bible discussions in each others’ homes.
THE PHYSICAL CHURCHES
The more established churches generally have their own premises while newer churches usually rent rooms for weekly services. In both cases the interiors are modestly decorated and kept free of religious iconography such as statues and paintings.
Sunday is the main day of worship but there is no formal structure although most
services include a sermon and prayers for members or specific intentions. Music
and song are important in all services with many churches also encouraging swaying,
dancing and clapping. Services often last well over an hour.
THE ROLE OF WOMEN
Some churches don’t allow women hold senior positions — similar to the Catholic
Church’s ban on women priests — but most churches are open to having male or
female pastors. In reality, however, the majority of pastors are men.
THE PLACE OF YOUNG PEOPLE
Most churches place a very strong emphasis on involving children and teenagers,
appointing dedicated children’s ministers and providing special instruction,
services and social activities for their younger members. We visit a church’s home group.
SERMONS AT STREET LEVEL YOUR STORY
We would love to hear your experience. If you have a story, contact Caroline at:
Evangelical Congregations are setting up in some unlikely venues, writes Caroline O’Doherty.
IRONICALLY it was the songs of praise that brought the criticism. The congregation of Open Arms Community Church in Newbridge, Co Kildare, sang their hearts out on Sundays and whenever else there was reason to gather in musical session. The neighbours complained — not without cause, as assistant pastor, Sean Duncan, admits. “I went around to the estate next to us during a service and I was stunned.
The roof is metal and it amplified everything. We were very loud.” The roof is metal because Open Arms is located in the unlikely setting of a former barge-making factory in Newbridge Industrial Estate. “We did what we could for the residents. We pushed the Sunday service back to 11.30am and stopped using the area for music during the week,” Sean says. They also looked at soundproofing the structure and were seriously considering making the €80,000 investment necessary to keep the peace.
But it was too late. The planning authorities had become aware of the situation, checked the local zoning and discovered a church didn’t fit with an industrial estate’s purpose. Open Arms were refused permission to continue operating there and an appeal to An Bord Pleanála also failed, so they could in theory get a knock on the door any day telling them their time is up. But they aren’t letting a little uncertainty get them down. “We would hope not to be here forever anyway. It would be our vision to eventually move out to a green field site and build from scratch,” says Sean. “We want to aim for 3,000 members,” adds youth minister Nathan Reilly. “That’s 10% of the wider Newbridge community.” They may be thinking big now, but the origins of Open Arms lie, like so many other Evangelical Churches, in the small, niggling doubts of Sean and Open Arms lead pastor, PJ Booth, about the Catholic Church they were brought up in. “Something was stirring inside of me but I didn’t know what it was,” says Sean, a former Dublin Corporation worker. “Small things bothered me — Mass cards for instance (a modern invention rather than a Biblical tradition) — but I knew it was deeper than that.” PJ, a former fitter, was going through the same examination of his faith and the two friends began attending an Evangelical Church in Dublin before deciding to strike out on their own with monthly gatherings in PJ’s house. The attendance grew and they moved to a small shop unit, then a hotel function room and a sports centre before eyeing the spacious old barge-making facility. Despite its dubious zoning, it has served the church well, with plenty of space to allow it open to the wider community who use its facilities
for speech and drama and gymnastics classes, battles of the bands, fundraisers and social gatherings. It’s all in line with the open arms ethos of the church although the
word “community” is gradually being dropped because — more irony — they feel it sends out the wrong message. “We put community in our name because we wanted to affect our community but people think oh, you’re a community — as in a commune — so we’re taking it out,” Sean explains. The desire to be an active and welcome part of the wider community is a common theme among Evangelical Churches.
At the Trinity Church Network, which has three congregations meeting each Sunday in Dublin city centre, the north side and west county, the geographical community is not so clearly defined as a provincial town like Newbridge, but the ethos is the same. Fergus Ryan, a former Aer Lingus pilot who is now senior leader at Trinity (he eschews the term “pastor”) shows around its headquarters with pride. The Exchange, so-called because for almost a century it was a labour exchange, is a landmark 171-year old building close to the Customs House in Dublin. So far Trinity has spent €8 million buying and restoring the property, including its extensive first floor ballroom which is now used for church services but is also for hire for functions. Fergus doesn’t worry that people might make barbed references to the episode where Jesus drove the
traders from the temple. “It does bring in some income but not a lot and that’s not the main reason we hire it out. “It’s a magnificent room — the biggest classical room in Dublin — and it’s full of the city’s history so it should be part of the ongoing life of the city.” Trinity extends its reach beyond its 500 members in other ways too. The church works with Christian charities, Jobcare, Trasna and ACET (Aids Care, Education and Training), providing training, support and rehabilitation to the long-term unemployed, ex-prisoners and other marginalised groups, many of whom have worked on the physical restoration of the church. Trinity’s work certainly has its admirers. “We had a couple walk in one day and give us €30,000. Just like that. I do lie awake some nights over the scale of what we’ve taken on but people are extremely generous.
“We have an interesting social and cultural situation at the moment. People are questioning their church affiliation but the obvious secularisation does not suit them. They have a feeling that there is a spiritual thing out there. Atheism is not succeeding in capturing the popular mind.” Fergus says Trinity is careful in they way it goes about capturing people’s attention and stresses participants in the various charitable programmes are not viewed as prospective church members — unless they want to be. “Some do develop an interest but conversion is not our motive. Churches have no duty to impose values on those who do not share them.” That point is one Sean Duncan can appreciate for personal reasons. He was in the middle of a marriage break-up when he got interested in Evangelicalism and his involvement became a further source of tension within the family which is still not fully resolved. “People don’t always understand what it’s about. They worry about sects and they’re afraid you might try and indoctrinate them or something.” At Open Arms he has occasionally come across a new member who has invented a reason for nipping out of the house for a couple of hours on Sunday mornings. “Obviously it’s not ideal if someone is sneaking into the church without telling their partner. It’s something the couple have to work through honestly and we’ll try to help with that.” Welcoming mum and dad into the church is only part of the job. Nathan O’Reilly’s role is making sure children feel at home there too. The 23-year-old business studies graduate, himself brought up in an Evangelical household, heads up the children’s ministry at Open Arms and runs the youth programme on Sunday afternoons which attracts up to 60 teens, mostly sons and daughters of members but also their friends. “Some go to church in the morning, some don’t. Some are Christian, some aren’t. We have a cafe beforehand and some music, then play football and basketball, and then have a youth service and a talk about things they’re facing in life. “Young people have a lot of issues around identity, peer pressure and trying to fit in. We try to take a practical as well as a spiritual approach. We are a church and we do believe that God is with them and we share that but it’s not pushed on them. It’s not about having power over them.
“Power and the abuse of it and the conflict it causes — that’s what’s damaged religion. What was originally based on a community of people living life according to the Bible became a power struggle. We’re trying to restore the true sense of community.”
‘These are the people we do life with’
SHELLY BERRY greets the arrivals at her house with bright smiles, appeals to sit down, apologies for cramming a dozen chairs around a table made for eight and more apologies for the playful Jack Russell excitedly inspecting the maze of legs newly gathered in her kitchen. There are children watching TV, offerings of packets of chocolate biscuits and snacks piling up on the worktop, introductions being made and banter being exchanged. It could be any social gathering of family or friends — if it wasn’t for the Bibles laid out on the table. This is a normal Wednesday evening in the Berry household in Newbridge where Shelly and her husband, Richard, host a weekly home group for anything between nine and 20 members of Open Arms Church. The couple are from South Africa and the church has played a huge part in making them feel at home. “We’ve been here nine years and we just love this,” says Shelly. “This is my family. These are the people that we do life with.”
Home groups, sometimes called cell groups, are an important feature of Evangelical churches, providing a forum for discussion of the Bible and related topics as well as an instant support network for new members. Sean Duncan, assistant pastor, is sitting in on this evening’s discussion. “When the church gets bigger, it’s harder to make relationships. Places like this are our first line of pastoral care.” The meeting begins with a discussion on the subject of servanthood, a theme raised during the previous Sunday’s service. But before long the conversation veers on to the meaning of worship and the importance of full participation in the very musical Sunday service.
What if you can’t sing, it seems logical to ask? “Make a joyful noise,” Gillian Miller, a cheerful Scot, quotes from the Bible. Brenda Lawlor, a dry-humoured Dub who has
beaten a lifetime of drug abuse with the help of a Christian charity recovery programme, stressing the importance of being present at services in spirit as well as in body. “Just ‘cos you sit in the garage, doesn’t make you a car,” she decrees firmly, to laughter from the others. Their joviality is interrupted by a text message informing them of the death of a member’s partner and there are prayers for the bereaved woman and her children. There are also prayers for an appreciative Gillian, 36, whose future in Ireland has become uncertain following the announcement Pfizer are to close parts of the Newbridge plant. “Without God in my life I would not be able to cope with this. I have given up my family, my job and my church to be here. But I’m at peace with it. Whatever is going to happen, it’s fine.” Not all her workmates are quite so accepting but Gillian says they are curious more than dismissive of her own take on the situation. “I have interesting conversations with people in work about the church and why they feel very let down by their own church. It’s good to have those conversations, particularly among scientists.” Brenda’s story is very different. “I was an addict for 20 years — heroin, coke, methadone, the lot,” the 40-year-old mother of four explains. “Then someone said Jesus will show me the way.” That someone was an outreach worker with Teen Challenge Ireland, an Evangelical Christian charity
that originated in New York and now runs a residential treatment centre in Kildare and an outreach bus that makes night-time visits to areas of Dublin city where addicts are known to congregate. Having graduated from the treatment programme, Brenda is now working on rebuilding her life with the help of her newfound faith. “When I came to the church first I thought they were all mad — with the singing and waving their arms and all. But I realised God has brought me here, he has a plan and a job for me.” Richard also stresses the sense of community the church provides. Coming from South Africa , it helped Shelly and he to put down roots. “I can not stress enough how important the church was for us. My colleagues in the company used to invite me to go out with them in the evenings and I was intimidated by the idea that drinking eight to 10 pints of Guinness was a normal night out. The church gives me a social and spiritual outlet.”
Catholic priest and the nun who married and became teachers
Paul and Nuala O’Higgins: Abandoned their vows 33 years ago and ran off to be married. THEY aren’t the most likely of missionaries — a Catholic priest and nun who abandoned their vows and ran off together to be married. But 33 years after they left Ireland for the socially and meteorologically more agreeable climate of Florida, evangelists Paul and Nuala O’Higgins have this year completed their biggest ever speaking tour of the homeland, addressing 80 churches and home groups over a two and a half month visit. The couple make up the Reconciliation Outreach ministry, running it from their adopted home of Stuart, Florida, a seaside town of marinas and sailfish anglers on the east coast of the Sunshine State. Ambassadors for Christ is how they describe themselves and ‘prophetic teaching’ is their vocation. It has taken them to 30 countries around the globe, many repeatedly. They followed up their Irish tour with trips to Finland and Chile and will be making their annual pilgrimage to Israel this month. “We spend more time away than we do at home,” says Paul, 62.
“We’ve got very good at packing.” The first time they packed their bags as a couple was in very different circumstances. Paul, from Limerick, had been Fr Paul, a
teacher of theology at Mary Immaculate teacher training college in his home city who ran into trouble with his bishop, Jeremiah Newman. “I began to teach the Bible and
the immediate experience with Jesus and the Holy Spirit,” explains Paul. “The bishop said you’re not teaching the traditional doctrines. I said I can’t go back to teaching
doctrine. He fired me from my position in the college.” “I always say praise the Lord for the bishop,” Nuala interjects cheerfully. Nuala, who was a nun with the Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny, met Paul while he was in the seminary in Maynooth and she was there doing a social studies course. She was attracted to him personally as well as to his beliefs and over time the two drew closer to each other as they each moved further
away from the religious orders they served. They arrived in the United States in 1977 with no clear plan as to what they were going to do. “We were very innocent,” Nuala
says. “We went to immigration with our visitors’ visa and we told the official we needed to stay long-term, that we were here to preach the Gospel. He said how are you going to live? We said by faith.” They were more innocent times all round. The official processed their documents and 33 years later, the US remains their home.
They picked up work teaching, running Bible classes and assisting at local churches and gradually their efforts evolved into Reconciliation Outreach which, they say, is still run on faith alone. “We are not paid by any organisation,” Nuala says. “People donate money but for 30 years we’ve never asked for it. The Lord, through wonderful people, has kept us going. But we also go places where people are too poor to give us anything.” When they first started travelling abroad, Ireland was a tough assignment. Confusion over whether their position meant they were anti- Catholic, or pro-Protestant, meant they had reservations to overcome. “We’re neither. We see ourselves in a post-Catholic/Protestant place or even a pre-Catholic/Protestant place,” Paul says. “We have great sympathy and compassion with the Catholic
Church. But it’s become so cluttered. It’s rather like if you have a fence and a hedge and the hedge grows so thick you can’t see the fence any more. It’s in there somewhere but you can’t see it.” Attitudes are changing, he says, and that may be due in part to the difficulties the Catholic Church has faced in the last few years. “We find the Catholic clergy are much less suspicious of us than before. They no longer see it as competition.” Nuala agrees. “The Catholic hierarchy would be suspicious of us
but generally we have had greater freedom this year in Ireland. “Maybe some of the dyed-in the-wool loyalty was shattered and people had ears to hear us. “I think that is because of the trouble the Catholic Church is in. There definitely was greater receptivity this year. I’ll give you an example. We were in a farmhouse in south Wicklow with 40 people crammed into the kitchen. People were very, very hungry.”
Links with US-based evangelicals are common among Irish churches keen to learn from a country which boasts an estimated 50 million followers, although most say they keep in touch to exchange visits and guest speakers and that the ties are not financial. Some US churches have also sent out what they call “planters” to establish congregations here and they’ve had varying degrees of success.
The sheer scale of the movement in the US makes generalisation unwise but it does tend to be more politicised than its Irish counterpart. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,
sympathies tend to lie with the Israeli side. Paul and Nuala O’Higgins travel to Israel annually, leading 10-day bible study tours that concentrate on the main historical sites of the region although they say they have also visited communities affected by the conflict. Their stance is not political, they insist, but is dictated by the Bible which tells them that God himself decreed the Jewish people must have their own homeland.
“Whoever blesses them shall be blessed; whoever curses them shall be cursed,” Paul quotes. “We stay out of politics altogether,” says Nuala. “We are not from the right or left. We are from the kingdom of Heaven. We are not saying we agree with everything the Israeli politicians or army does but we are standing with God’s people. The Islamic nations have an agenda to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth.” The O’Higginses were in Ireland during the international furore over the killing of nine Turkish activists taking part in an aid flotilla to the blockaded Palestinian territory of Gaza and they were dismayed by what they considered to be the anti-Israeli reaction in Ireland. “I heard some people say thousands f children are dying in Gaza because of the blockade. That’s not true. We have been on the borders of Gaza where the bombs have been fired on Israeli homes. “That’s the true story. The Irish people like to take up causes. There is a tremendous amount of misunderstanding,” Nuala says.
“The atmosphere is like the 1930s when there was silence in Europe in the face of danger to the Jewish people. It’s the same now,” Paul adds, although he believes this time, they will not be abandoned to their fate. “The Bible says Jesus will come
again when the chosen people return to Israel and all the nations rise up against them.
There are signs of that happening,” he says. “We’re not political,” Nuala stresses
again. “We don’t do politics — we do prayer. The Lord will sort it out.”
‘Check it out before joining’
WHILE many Evangelicals celebrate the autonomy they enjoy as independent churches it could work against them if they have a grievance to raise. Mike Garde, an expert on new religious movements and cults, says the lack of hierarchy or oversight by a governing body could make it difficult to have complaints dealt with. Garde heads up Dialogue Ireland, an independent trust founded by the main Christian Churches to monitor alternative religious organisations. ( Now an independent Trust -http://dialogueireland.wordpress.com/about/ ) He does not often receive complaints about Evangelical churches but says people interested in becoming involved should do their homework first. “I would say the same thing I would say about any group — check things out first. Ask what are governance structures and if you have a complaint, where do you bring it to?
“Evaluate how the group meets your needs and what it expects from you. If you feel you are coming under pressure, that’s a good sign not to get involved with a group. “An organisation that gives you space generally means it takes its responsibilities to members seriously. One that puts you under undue pressure is one that is meeting its needs as a group rather than your needs.” Garde believes Evangelicalism is probably the fastest growing religious movement in Ireland but without a formal entry into it — such as mandatory baptism — there are few records to pinpoint numbers. “Evangelicalism is growing because it is creating an alternative both for Protestants and Catholics without moving too far from their core beliefs. “With the Catholic Church in particular, the sex abuse scandals are having a corrosive effect and many Irish people are looking for alternatives.
“Evangelicalism can be very attractive to younger people because there’s a lot of life in the churches and a lot of activities for them and emphasis on them. “About the only thing we see in the Catholic Church for young people is youth days of prayer with the Pope while in the parishes, there is nothing to do other than joining the choir. “All the eggs are put into the school basket with the presumption that if you give children a Catholic education, they’ll stay in the church but that doesn’t sustain them when they grow up.” Garde says he knows of people who have left Evangelical churches because they felt too much emphasis was placed on “prosperity theology” or the “health and wealth Gospel” whereby prayer, devotion and the paying of tithes is said to be rewarded with material riches and good health.
“There is a notion that the blessed are not poor. Evangelicals are not really addressing that issue of poverty and they don’t generally believe in the Catholic idea of a vow of poverty. Some people have been uncomfortable with that.”