Patrick Mitchel, a lecturer in theology at the Irish Bible Institute in Dublin, has posted a blog about ‘Irish evangelicals: unity in diversity or just disunity?’ In the post, Mitchel engages with a chapel message delivered by Crawford Gribben last month at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.
Gribben is Senior Lecturer in Early Modern Print Culture at Trinity College Dublin. His talk is aimed at an audience of American seminarians from the Reformed tradition, and his purpose is to provide them both with a general perspective on the lie of the land on Christianity in Ireland, and a particular view of evangelicalism in the Republic.
Gribben’s message opens with a brief history of religion in Ireland. He starts talking more specifically about evangelicalism about 18 minutes in on the recording. Here, he offers up some interesting statistics on the growth of evangelicalism in the Republic.
- In 1980 there were 10,000 evangelicals in the Republic
- In 2000 there were 30,000 evangelicals in the Republic
- There are about 450 evangelical churches in the Republic today
- 60% of those churches have existed for less than 10 years
Slow Motion Revival
Gribben calls this a ‘revival in slow motion.’ He tells the story of Kilkenny Presbyterian Church, saying that for years a dozen people prayed for revival and a minister who would preach the gospel. He says that today Kilkenny Presbyterian is a thriving congregation.
Gribben also speaks of his own experience as a member of Laois Bible Church, which has grown from a handful of believers nine years ago to a community of more than 100 people which includes Rotimi Adebari, the first immigrant from Africa to become a mayor of an Irish town.
Gribben senses that his audience will be excited by these developments, which he characterises as ‘good news from a far land.’ But he also notes a lack of ‘indigenous’ Irish leadership in these churches, and worries that new EU restrictions on the travel and immigration of religious leaders will deprive Irish evangelicalism of more pastors, ministers, and missionaries who could help keep the revival alive.
“that painful process of differentiating ourselves from each other according to our various theological perspectives”
Mitchel questions Gibben’s claim that the conservative/Reformed Aontas is larger and more influential than the ‘more socially and theologically progressive’ EAI, writing:
One … impression given in the talk of Irish evangelicalism is that [it is] a predominantly conservative reformed network. Maybe this was the case in the past, I just don’t think this is accurate of the present. Crawford does not give due weight to significant fact of recent immigration – mostly of African Pentecostals. Nor does he really mention a network like Assemblies of God Ireland, the Plumbline group of churches and many other charismatic churches like Trinity Church Network and others.
I would add that among many ‘indigenous’ Irish evangelicals there has been a deliberate distancing from conservative and reformed expressions of evangelicalism. These Irish evangelicals see the conservative and reformed brand of evangelicalism as too much associated with Northern Ireland, sectarianism and conflict.
Though coming from different perspectives, both Mitchel and Gribben seem to find the divisions within evangelicalism troubling. Mitchel makes a passionate case from his experience in the Bible institute that diversity can be mutually enriching,
But more than just living with difference, student after student says it is this difference which has enriched and deepened their faith as they not only think through what they believe and why, but also recognise that sincere, passionate followers of Jesus don’t believe the same things on every point of detail.
I agree that difference can be enriching, and the experience should be expanded beyond evangelicalism in the Republic. A recent Church of Ireland Gazette editorial noted with approval the willingness of leaders of the four historic churches and the Evangelical Alliance in Northern Ireland to work together.
I wonder if there is a similar willingness or desire on the part of evangelical organisations in the Republic not just to get on better together within evangelicalism, but to participate in wider ecumenical conversations?
I suspect that there is much that all faith communities can learn from Irish evangelicalism’s ‘slow motion revival.’
(Image from the Irish Bible Institute webpage)