There has been a burgeoning of evangelical churches in the Republic of Ireland during the last thirty years. From less than one hundred and fifty such churches in 1980, there are now more than four hundred, resulting in an overall membership increase of two hundred percent. However, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) has planted only two churches in the whole island during the last fifteen years – both of them founded by full-time personnel.
Furthermore, between 1960 and 1995, the new churches that were planted by PCI simply followed demographic change in terms of Presbyterian population migration. For example, of the twenty-one presbyteries in existence when the latest history of Irish Presbyterians, Kirkpatrick’s Presbyterians in Ireland, was published in 2006, seven had no new church planted within their bounds since the nineteenth century, while four others had seen only one new church founded in the twentieth century- often after a gap of more than one hundred years.
In fact, if one looks at the geographical distribution of the twenty-six churches planted throughout the country between 1960 and 2000, it is significant that all of these have been the result of population movement, rather than missional strategy, or a desire to break into new territory with the message of the Gospel. The vast majority of these plants occurred during the 1970s when civil strife was at its peak in Northern Ireland. During that time the new churches simply followed the migrating Presbyterians away from the inner city – or “flashpoint” areas – to the suburbs and new housing schemes on the outskirts of Belfast, or to the traditional Protestant heartland towns of Ballymena, Carrickfergus, Lisburn, Antrim, Bangor, and Newtownards.
One can actually follow the progress of the demographic change by inspecting the order in which the various churches were planted, with six of the seven Belfast plants taking place before 1972, the three Ballymena plants happening between 1971-4, the three Coleraine plants occurring between 1973-7, and the two Carrickfergus congregations being planted in 1977. It is also instructive that once this migration settled down, so too did the creation of new congregations, with only three churches planted between 1980 and 2000.
In contrast to the northern situation, by the year 2000 the last PCI church planted in the Republic of Ireland was Arklow in 1913. This twentieth century moratorium on new churches, brought about by the political, social, and constitutional divisions that typified that century, stands in marked contrast to the evangelistic and church planting endeavors of the 1800s. In 1875 there were five Presbyteries covering the three southern provinces of Connaught, Leinster, and Munster, and consisting of sixty-nine congregations, rising to seventy-three in 1900. That same geographical area today holds only thirty-eight churches, totaling less than five thousand members which, until 2009, were under one single presbytery.
In the twenty-six counties of the Republic of Ireland, there are now six counties with no permanent Presbyterian witness, and nine with only one. In total, twenty of the twenty-six counties have less than one hundred Presbyterian families. Kirkpatrickwrites:
“All statistics indicate that the Presbyterian Church in Ireland is in serious decline: in the last half of the 20th century, total membership has dropped by 22%, baptisms have dropped by 68%, new communicants have dropped by 51%. In fact the problem is accelerating. Total PCI membership has dropped by 33% in the past 35 years, baptisms have dropped by 71%, new communicants have dropped by 49% and numbers of children… by 58%. These are shocking statistics by any standard and it is clear that if these trends continue it is a mathematical certainty that some congregations will close.”
This raises serious questions. How does such a context reflect the mindset of a denomination? Is it even possible for the PCI once again to engage in missionally-motivated church planting without a radical shift in its culture and thinking?
David Bruce, the director of the denomination’s Board of Mission in Ireland, believes that the numerical decline and geographical concentration in the north and east is a matter of both history and theology:
“Some have argued that, as a plantation church, our self-understanding has always been missionally diffident. That our plantation history has bred an attitude of chaplaincy among us – that our missional theology is more a theology of the plantation bawn or rampart than the door or gate. That our first concern has been to look after our own;… maybe after four centuries we need to come out from behind the bawn.
“If anything, [statistics] suggest we are becoming a suburban people. During the last century our story as a people has been a massive trek northwards and eastwards. Speaking personally, I would have much more confidence in our future as a missional people on this island, if our pattern had been to move in the other direction – south and west. Such a move would have demonstrated where our hearts lay. What prospect is there for us to reach Ireland for Christ if we, by default, choose to set up home within the bawn, next to our own? We have been running in only one direction as a people for 100 years. What are we running away from?”
Kirkpatrick notes the “curious fact that although there are more Irish Presbyterian congregations today than in 1840 when the General Assembly was formed, church membership has fallen by about 50% in the same period.” It would appear, therefore, that of greater significance than the total number of congregations is the location, spread, and effectiveness of those congregations.
It is possible that in order to be missionally effective and ensure that Presbyterianism is not a ghettoized faith, but rather one that can make a positive contribution to the social and religious landscape of the whole island, the overall number of churches may not initially need to alter significantly. Instead, the denomination would do well to make sure that duplication is eradicated in areas where multiple congregations are doing the work that one combined church could do more effectively, thereby releasing resources so that churches could be planted in the many areas of the island where none currently exist.
Since 2000, there has been a small but interesting development. The PCI has planted two churches, both in the Republic of Ireland. Maynooth, in County Kildare, began out of the Lucan congregation in 2001, while Donabate, in County Dublin, sprang from Malahide in 2010. The opportunities for planting more reformed churches, especially in the Republic of Ireland, are self-evident.
However, the church planting model employed by the PCI has always involved the appointment of a full-time, ordained, salaried planter. This is an expensive and slow process. If the population of the island continues to rise, the PCI continues to decline at current rates, and the denomination only engages in church planting with full-time personnel, then its future will be increasingly insecure, as the resources will not exist to sustain the current church-planting model. In addition, the denomination will be ill-equipped to meet the missiological challenges of twenty-first century Ireland.
Tim Chester gives a stark example of this, and although more extreme than any PCI example, he makes the same point:
“[We] know of a church planted by a large evangelical congregation that brought certain assumptions with them. They created a staff team with a minister, assistant minister, student worker, pastoral workers and an administrator. They bought a church building and a home for the minister. As a result they had an annual budget of around £250,000 excluding start-up costs… If every church shares those assumptions then most are not going to plant.”
“Tentmaking,” or working for a salary outside of the church while simultaneously engaging in church planting and evangelism, is a common feature of mission in third world contexts. In fact, in some countries it is a missiological necessity. It is not as common, however, in Western contexts where the prevalent model is to appoint a fully salaried planter. This is particularly true among the reformed churches. There appear to be few examples of tentmaking church planters within the western reformed tradition, and this is confirmed when one begins to examine the church planting literature.