This summer marks four years since we moved back to the west of Ireland. We came to help start a new church in the town of Castlebar, in partnership with Calvary Mission.
We were fresh out of Bible college, full of ideas, and excited about settling down and establishing a church. We kept our expectations low: growth is desperately slow in this part of the world. After 20 years, the oldest church in the Calvary network has still only a handful of stable Christians from the local community.
However, God blessed us beyond our expectations. We had three missionary couples helping when meetings started. God brought along a few local Christians, and brought others back to church after years away. We have always had regular attendance, including non-Christians with us each week listening to the gospel. Yet there has been constant change too – in four years the makeup of our core team has changed seven times! Building team unity and a shared vision has been an ongoing challenge.
We long to see friends and neighbours from a traditional Irish background engaging with God’s Word
What have we learned along the way? Firstly, to focus on the people God gives you. We spent our formative years in large churches, and I came back to Ireland expecting to set up programmes and groups. Now if I have one person interested in engaging with the Bible, I praise the Lord, and find something that works for them, instead of trying to squeeze them into an existing mould. Likewise, our model for weekly meetings came from churches with a very different mix of people. We’ve had to think hard about tailoring it to the people we have. At the same time, we want to preserve what’s essential, and ensure that our meetings are accessible to visitors with no knowledge of the Bible or Christian culture. Quite a balancing act!
Secondly, that understanding God’s word together is the only way forward. Imagine this: you arrange to meet someone for Bible study. You prepare to read a passage together and discuss what it means. Instead, the person wants to talk about issues with little bearing to everyday life, and quotes ‘proof-texts’ from YouTube videos. Now I start by thinking together about how to read the Bible – it’s been wonderful to see people starting to read verses and passages in context and consider what they mean, rather than jumping to quick conclusions.
Thirdly, we’ve learned that we are missionaries after all. At first we weren’t too sure. At first missionary jargon seemed like a foreign language. What does “home assignment” mean when your area of ministry IS home? What is this “field” they keep talking about? (There are plenty of fields in Mayo, mostly with sheep on them. Surely that’s not what they mean?) But we soon understood that Mayo is a mission field. The indigenous church here is tiny, and reliant on missionaries: within our network of 6 churches there are no non-missionary elders yet. We soon identified, too, with stories of tensions between missionaries from different backgrounds. Yet teamwork is not optional – we wouldn’t still be here if it wasn’t for wise guidance from colleagues close by, not to mention prayer and support from the UFM family.
What are the highlights? Kids from our street in our home for weekly Bible Club; 20 people together on a Saturday morning studying the Bible; our Thursday Bible study finally taking off; someone praying out loud in church for the first time; two non-Christian friends coming to play music at our carol service; long conversations on doorsteps; toddler group friends interested in what the Bible says about life issues; people reconnecting with Jesus and starting to grow again through God’s Word.
As we look to the future, what are our hopes? We long to see friends and neighbours from a traditional Irish background engaging with God’s Word. It is easy enough to talk about spiritual things, but it takes a work of the Spirit to move people beyond casual curiosity. We long to see Christians maturing and serving. We are blessed to have servant-hearted people, but are conscious of the need to equip them. A particular need is for men to share in leadership. Other than that, we just keep going, looking for any and every opportunity to bring the light of the Gospel into people’s lives.