I came to the people of Ireland to preach the Gospel, and to suffer insult from the unbelievers…and many persecutions…I am prepared to give my life without hesitation and most gladly for his name.
—Patrick, Missionary to Ireland
March 17th is celebrated around the world and especially in Ireland—with Ginger Beards, Green Guinness and good old Irish Craic. But the legacy of the man who brought the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a pagan land is mostly forgotton. Even in Ireland.
The Irish diaspora of the 1800’s carried abroad the legend of Saint Patrick. But while the name of Ireland’s patron saint has endured like the island’s craggy coastlines, his spiritual influence has eroded. Ireland is in need of more Patricks!
Patrick’s ministry began around 440 A.D. and led to the conversion of thousands to Christianity, including the sons and daughters of Irish Kings. The fruit of his preaching remained for generations through established churches, trained ministers, and foreign missionaries sent to dark places of heathen Europe.
Rejection of Religion
More than a thousand years later, the much needed Reformation found resistance among the Celtic Church of Ireland that viewed it as bound up with European imperialist powers. British rule over Ireland for hundreds of years finally led to the Emerald Isle’s north-south division nearly 100 years ago. The much larger South chose independence and became the Republic of Ireland.
…the Republic of Ireland has one of the lowest evangelical populations in all of Europe—around 0.5 percent.
The Catholic Church maintained moral authority in Southern Ireland over the centuries, but its influence has not survived modern times. Like too many people in the Western world, the Irish have traded their Christian heritage for secularism and atheism.
The Republic of Ireland has cast off the constraints of religion. People now accept same-sex marriage and transgenderism in the name of equality and make aggressive demands to repeal the ban on abortion. As Irish atheist Michael Nugent observed, “So the population moves on. It skips the stage of trying to change things by law, and people move with their feet.”
Times of Refreshing
Northern Ireland has a high percentage of evangelicals, but the Republic of Ireland has one of the lowest evangelical populations in all of Europe—around 0.5 percent. The southern realm is also the least evangelized nation in Europe. Yet times of revival have come.
The 1970’s brought the Catholic Charismatic renewal, and the 80’s included the influx of missionaries from both the United States and Northern Ireland. These influences led people to read the Bible and seek personal intimacy with Christ instead of relying on religious traditions. In the 90’s, disillusionment with the established church further increased as sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic church revealed cover-ups by high-ranking church leaders.
Those factors contributed to the establishment and growth of gospel-centered churches scattered throughout the Republic of Ireland. Today there are over 240 evangelical churches with an average attendance of about 80 people.
By God’s grace, my area of Ireland, the southernmost county of Cork, has seen a portion of church growth. Proudly known as the “Rebel County,” Cork has some new rebels who bravely choose faith in Christ and join Bible-believing churches. But Christian outreach in this climate of religious hostility is difficult.
Highly Relational People
Thirty years ago, Cork Baptist Church, with the support of Baptist Missions Ireland, began a church planting initiative known as the Cork/Kerry project. Today we see the fruits of this effort that includes seven Baptist churches united with an aim to “partner together so that churches are planted where there is not yet a gospel witness.”
One man involved in the alliance, Shane, says Christian work in Ireland requires perseverance: “People initially don’t trust you, then they begin to trust you but don’t believe you. And once they believe they don’t want to count the cost of following our Saviour.” He observes that church planting here takes workers who are “willing to preach the gospel to a people not willing to hear…. willing to be patient with others, just as God was patient with us.”
Craig and Heather meet those requirements. In 2008, the married couple moved their family to the historic and picturesque port-town of Kinsale. Through different outreach events, they made contacts in a concerted effort to plant a church. They’ve experienced a hard slog of helping people come to faith. The couple testifies, “it takes a long time before the ‘natives’ notice these strange new Christians, acknowledge and accept them, and wonder and ask about their faith.”
Relationships are essential to the Irish, and they only form after years of building trust within the community. You can organise the worlds best speaker or offer the latest evangelistic course and people still won’t come. But sit down for a drink with these highly relational people and you will have someone’s ear. This takes time, but the Irish have lots of it!
More recently, two other churches in the Cork/Kerry project each sent a family to help with the Kinsale church, which began meeting formally in January of 2015. Their contributions include a kids club, music nights, and annual Christmas carolling. These all serve as opportunities for sharing Christ. And the workers have begun to see fruit as the gospel takes effect in people’s lives.
Reviving Patrick’s Legacy
Ireland has 72 towns with populations of more than 5000 that remain without any gospel-centered church. With so many places in need of a witness, our local Baptist churches also partnered with Southern Baptist Theological Seminary to form Munster Bible College. Through visiting lecturers provided by SBTS, we seek to train and equip a future generation of leaders who can oversee the planting of many more churches.
But we don’t want to stop there. Just as Patrick brought the Gospel to Ireland and raised up a church that reached beyond its shores, we want to be obedient to the Great Commission and see people equipped to plant churches where Christ is not yet known.
By God’s grace, our small church with few resources has supported a servant of God from Mongolia who ministers in a closed and hostile country. More recently, we’ve connected with a like-minded church in the United Kingdom to help support one of their church-planting initiatives in Eastern Europe.
Many parts of Ireland, Europe and the world remain in spiritual drought. To drench these lands with the Gospel will require workers with the fervor of Saint Patrick.
[The Gospel Coalition partners with The Cork/Kerry Project by providing solid, biblical resources and books for vocational and lay church leaders, through its International Outreach effort in Theological Famine Relief.]