As I come to the end of 8 years working in an official capacity with Christian Unions (as staff worker, team leader and then part-time project manager for Christian Unions Ireland), and 12 in CU ministry of one sort or another (including my uni years and Relay internship), I’ve been deeply impacted and changed over this period. Doubtless for the worse in some ways, but hopefully for the better in far more. Although the EQUIP festival (now largely online) for hundreds of Irish students was a final ‘hurrah’ for me which left me busy till the last day of contracted working hours, I have been acutely aware over the last few months of a need to reflect on these years, to learn from them, and to give thanks to God for all He has done, both in me, through the student-led mission teams on campus (CUs) and also through my weak and fragile witness.
Doubtless, even for my own reflection, I may well write a few blog posts to help me process some of these years as what would have been known as a ‘travelling secretary’, and to amplify stories of God’s grace that may not have been heard in a remarkable era for the Irish Church. [To those who are here for only travel reflections, I apologise for the short detour – but perhaps it will give you a flavour of what God is doing in another part of the world]
To be around during these years in Munster and Connacht, has been a privilege that I don’t think I’ll fully comprehend. In the early days, any time I came home frustrated, weary or in tears and phoned my parents (without whose support I could not have done this job), I was reminded of the big picture – not only the big eternal picture of the gospel, but the big picture of where God has taken Ireland from in recent history.
Perhaps only 45-50 years ago, when Mum lived in Munster, a gathering of all the self-identifying evangelical (Bible believing) Christians in Munster may have only filled one hall of a church in Cork (albeit of course there are many who believe outside of those who self-identify as this). Now, in the same city, the several thousand who worship week by week in evangelical churches are constantly hunting new premises in the city as they overflow in number on a regular basis, and grow in depth and maturity. And that’s not to mention across the region.
Of course more gloomy pictures could be painted. Numbers do not mean true Biblical, deep, historical belief, and many have been burnt by the immaturity of the young and rapidly growing church scene we see today. As well, the Ireland of today that is steeped in Judaeo-Christian ethics and framework (albeit some of it horrendously applied in ways that we are glad to move on from), is rapidly trying to recover from some of that abusive ‘Christian’ past and seems to lack foundation for where to go. The effects of this on the days to come will be harrowing and deep, depending on what directions are taken. But at the moment it does not look promising.
In addition, one senior figure on the university campuses (an academic) would instead say that this is a wearying time of moving heavy stones off the fields, before any sowing (of God’s Word) is possible (humanly speaking). Doubtless both perspectives have great truth in them. As a culture departs from the good rhythms that God has set up for the world to flourish, there will be painful days of reaping consequences. And as that non-Judaeo-Christian system embeds itself into the fabric of society and into the air we breathe, there will be far more to “undo” before humanly speaking there is any chance of reciprocity of the good news of Jesus.
Holding gospel tensions may be one thing during my staff years that I have learnt is essential to the Christian walk. For two things may at first appear contradictory, but yet still be completely possible to both be completely true.
And that’s the way I came to what I have been privileged to call my “job”. I hesitantly stated in my early years of working, holding that tension in this way – I thought Ireland was ripe for the gospel for a short window of opportunity, perhaps a decade or two (humanly speaking), before a stoic-pagan fusion (or whatever follows – most definitely different to the secular trajectory of other neighbouring European countries) took over more fully.
You can decide whether such an outlook was accurate or whether such optimism was naïve (perhaps reading far too much into the years I would be around serving) but I would hesitate to rebuke my younger self completely for such analysis now (perhaps I have repeated it too many times to myself!). The power of God to use the vacuum in Irish society post-Catholicism to His glory was not to be underestimated. The temporary nature of thousands coming to know Him, will be proved true or false in due course, but may already be somewhat evident in the slowing of such a church growth rate (amongst native Irish) in Dublin, where faster shifting from a Judaeo-Christian framework has taken place (than outside of Dublin). For although God is of course free to work outside of human constraints and circumstance (and delights in doing so at times), the regular pattern in history seems to be of Him using such human circumstances by His Spirit.
Regardless of analysis (for which we can spend hours debating and which will doubtless be affected by our eschatology and personality amongst other things), it was those early days that in my first article for the CUI Irish Prayer News, I wrote of a desire to reflect God’s heartbeat for all peoples, that the CUs would soon be in a place where every student could get a chance to hear and respond to the gospel of the Lord Jesus, faithfully spoken and lived out by their fellow students. That prayer got people chuckling when I first arrived in Cork. “Who does this guy think he is? He’ll soon find out how far off that reality we are” some were heard to quietly say. Yet thankfully the same voices often were the ones who joined me in praying bold prayers for the campuses – our God can do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine.
Of course, for this to happen, it would need far more than a quick evangelism lesson and weekly splurge on campus. Convictions deep inside of us would need changed. A full-bodied ‘good news’ would need to take shape in far more than just our evangelistic zeal. Our hearts, often so comparatively cold to the love that God has for the world, would need warmed by His love until a flickering reflection was visible in every area of life – academic study (9am lectures!), social life (midnight mischief!) and church community (including being sent on to campus to reach out) – to mention just a few. Particularly, a young, restless and arrogant staffworker, would need humbled and reminded that God was not in the job of using supposed ‘heroes’ who happened to be in the right place at the right time.
The stories and thoughts that follow (in future blog posts) will echo some of how I’ve seen God to be more kind in answering that prayer of early days, than I could imagine. But will sadly also tell of one (writing) who learnt the hard way that God does not need any individual to be a hero, but blesses ordinary people and calls them to enjoy glimpsing His hand at work in the world through His Church.
All things written of course should be held lightly, given how limited my perspective is, and how much history will tell whether seeds sown bear long-term fruit that lasts when Jesus returns. But none-the-less, I do want to share a perspective to tell of His goodness, that the Church may rejoice all the more in our God of the gospel.
It seems appropriate to end this first reflection with the words of one student who asked me a question:
“Peter, why do you think God seems to be doing so little in Cork and on campus these days?”
To which I could only smile, knowing that they were only one of numerous students to have come to faith that term (a few years ago now) on that one campus, and knowing how God had used such young believers to go on to reach hundreds, if not thousands of other students with the good news of Jesus through their leadership of the Christian Union. Not to mention the comparatively recent explosion of the Irish church in size.
That spiritual hunger in the heart of that student (and many others) to see the glory of God, manifested in people responding to the person of Jesus as He walks off the pages of the Scriptures, by the power of the Spirit, was one I would never want to quench. And that hunger I hope informs these stories too – no matter what imperfect analysis of the past I do, I pray that it will not quench a great expectancy for more as we look ahead and are brought to our knees to pray for God’s people in Munster (and Connacht), both those who follow Him now, those who will follow Him, and those that will be One with Him and each other because of the latter’s witness too.
(Spending 5 years opening John’s eyewitness acount of Jesus’ life on a regular basis with students and staff, made passages like John 17 an even richer feast to enjoy!)