The Wild Atlantic Way is (in the words of the tourist board) an “unforgettable coastal touring route” that takes tourists along the West Coast of Ireland “to enjoy breathtaking scenery and exceptional experiences”.
Yet 150 years ago, very different travellers discovered the rugged beauty of this region. In the mid-19th century, Anglican missionaries such as Alexander Dallas and Edward Nangle brought the gospel to the most remote western corners of Ireland.
These pioneers learned to speak Irish to communicate biblical truth to the local people. They established churches and schools throughout the region and their reports speak of thousands of converts. Yet if you were to drive this stunning route today, you would pass through village after village without any gospel witness.
What happened? As with much in Irish history, the answer is complex and controversial. But one thing is clear: intensive missionary effort and apparent success left no lasting legacy.
We have now been living in Castlebar for over six years. We came to join the work of Calvary Mission, a locally initiated network working to establish biblical churches. God has blessed our network greatly: there are now around 30 fulltime Christian workers, and eight new churches meet every Sunday. Sounds impressive, but how can we ensure that, this time, the legacy lasts?
The right foundation
In five years of pastoring our tiny new church in Castlebar, 1 Corinthians 3 has been crucial in shaping my perspective. In a context of immaturity and division, Paul describes the craftsmanship of building churches that last. His first priority is a foundation in Jesus Christ. Obvious, right? But we have met many “Christians” in the West of Ireland whose foundations are shaky. They have been evangelised but never discipled. Their Christian lives are built on semi-Christian internet teachings rather than solid biblical principles.
So we encourage everyone we meet to open the Bible so they can meet Jesus there. We start as soon as they can read: on Tuesdays at Kids’ Club we work through Colossians together. At Thursday evening Bible study we’ve worked through Romans verse by verse. Over time we have seen people losing their taste for spiritual junk food and starting to feed from God’s Word. On a wider scale, we have monthly meetings for preachers to encourage each other, and Saturday “EQUIP” where we spend a morning digging deeper into a particular issue.
The right building blocks
Once the foundation is laid, it is time to think about laying the blocks. But, in the West of Ireland, we suffer from a lack of “living stones”. That’s what 1 Peter calls ordinary Christians who are built into God’s spiritual house: regular people who work 9-5, turn up at Bible study, share the gospel haltingly with their friends and invite them to church. Maybe I’m describing you, and you think you’re nothing special. Yet without you churches can’t grow.
People like you are embedded in the community, living everyday life for Christ in front of local people. But people like you are scarce in our fledgling churches. Conversion and discipleship here are slow, and it takes a long time for local people to get to this point. Some of our congregations are more than 50% missionaries, none of our churches has yet appointed a non-missionary elder and, here in Castlebar, only two of our church members are not full-time Christian workers.
It could be you!
To switch biblical metaphors, if church is a body, we have too many mouths and too few of every other body part. This paints an unbalanced picture of the normal Christian life. Practically the only role models young people see are full-time Christian workers. We need “ordinary” Christians to be role models and “non-missionary missionaries” in workplaces and at school gates. Perhaps what we need is you?
Historically, Irish churches have benefitted greatly from career missionaries from the USA. Yet that door may be closing due to new immigration restrictions. So I finish with a challenge to the UK church: it’s over to you now.
We share so much in terms of language and culture. Brexit notwithstanding, it is still easier to relocate to Ireland than anywhere else. British accents are common here, yet the number of British Christians who intentionally relocate to support Irish churches is tiny. Our churches need young professionals, growing families, retirees, and yes, even some more missionaries (to initiate work in towns without churches).
Would you prayerfully consider “embracing the Wild Atlantic Way of life” and relocating for the gospel?
Interested in a short term ministry training placement in Castlebar from September 2019?
Check out UFM’s new i:Witness scheme!