As Shupai Matewa gave her Children’s Ministry report to the Irish Mission Session in Belfast last Sunday (October 6th), she could not have predicted the response of Coleraine delegate Kenny Doherty. Instead of asking a question from the floor, he shared an interesting experience.
Kenny works for a Coleraine menswear shop in Northern Ireland. One day while serving a customer, he engaged in conversation and discovered the gentleman concerned to be a retired Presbyterian clergyman. Cautious about inappropriately sharing his faith in the workplace, Kenny gently enquired if the clergyman had ever heard of Seventh-day Adventists.
"Interesting you should ask that question,", replied the clergyman, "until recently I served as the minister of the Presbyterian church in Sligo, Ireland. I know your people - they rent out our hall out every Saturday for worship. Do you know their leader Shupai Matewa? Can I tell you something? I wish she were a member of my congregation!"
Kenny and Shupai, both salt and light in their respective communities, 120 miles apart living in two different and distinct nation states, but of note in these Brexit times, one Irish Mission district! Kenny, a faithful member of the Coleriane church, born and raised in his Northern Irish town, works in the marketplace with his fellow members making a difference for Christ. Shupai, New Irish, originally from Malawi, entered Ireland in 2010 as a refugee, purpose-driven to lead a small group of worshippers in Sligo, and currently serving the wider Irish Mission as Children’s Ministries Sponsor. With joy she whispered in my ear, "Pastor - I am now a full Irish citizen." It would be easy to pass this over as irrelevant for this report, but for Shupai and for as many as 150 'New Irish', members and worshippers, this has been, and continues to be a 'refined by fire' experience.
Mission President, Pastor Dan Serb, is clear about the church he serves. His report to the Session describes a church that is "colourful, dynamic, and ever active," listing choirs, Pathfinders, Bible study groups, youth projects, family camps, fundraising events, and outreach. He sums up the last three years in three words: growth, challenges and opportunities.
Growth – membership doubled over 13 years
As Evelyn Wilson shared, responding to the former Executive Secretary’s report by Pastor Paul Lockham, "Not many Irish seem to be joining the church, but I want to thank the non-Irish people who have come to join and support the work in Ireland."The first part of Evelyn’s statement continues to be the number 1 challenge, but the second, is a wonderful signature statement of how Irish Mission members feel about their diverse church and calling.
To the 97 delegates present, former Executive Secretary Pastor Lockham reported for the 2016-2018 years, but enthusiastically couldn’t help but provide a broader picture. Headline – in the past 13 years membership has doubled! As he looked to the future he stated, "I would expect the doubling of Irish Mission membership to take less than the next 13 years. Over the past three years we have experienced 72 accessions by baptism, and 20 by profession of faith. Go back to the 1980’s, and that was nearly our total membership." He also sadly reported the deaths of 11 members, for which the delegation stopped business to take a moment of private reflection. Pastor Jacques Venter the current Executive Secretary, reported that as of 1 October 2019, Irish Mission membership is 984. Longford, once a small company in the Irish Midlands, was formally voted into the sisterhood of churches.
Unique for an Irish Mission Session was the presence of the South England Conference President, Pastor Emmanuel Osei who noted that "The number of baptisms encouraging, but I wonder if the Irish Mission is experiencing the same challenge we are experiencing in the South England Conference? What’s the demographic? It’s important to know. If we’re not making an impact on the host community, then we need to consider our strategy accordingly."
- A second church building for Dublin
- The continuing saga of charitable status in the Republic of Ireland.
- A mission strategy for regeneration of the church in Northern Ireland
Pastor Serb lists 9 priority areas for the next three years with his leadership team and the Executive Committee. For the sake of brevity in this report, we list just four:
- Complete registration with the Irish charity commission
- Complete purchase of building and church centre for Dublin
- Support Adventist Education
- Develop and implement a church growth and evangelism strategy for Northern Ireland.
- Change of status from Mission to conference
The Irish Conference?
The last priority area signals the formal opening of this conversation. British Union President, Pastor Ian Sweeney led this item, explaining the pros and cons. From Irish Mission to Irish Conference? Almost a surreal idea, but as he noted, "The conference is the highest level of self-governance available to an organisation as part of a denominational structure." He also was quick to inform that the decision to change from Mission to Conference is determined by wider bodies, the British Union Conference and the Trans-European Division.
Pastor Sweeney concluded with the following: "The purpose of a Mission is not to remain a Mission. Is the Irish Mission ready to be a conference? Membership and finances both play a very important part for the Mission to become a conference."
The result of faithful stewardship?
Irish Mission Treasurer Earl Ramharacksingh was buoyant and upbeat about the Mission finances. The headline accounts for the last three years include:
- £2,3 million tithe returned. 36% increase on previous 3 years.
- £450,000 contributed to World Mission
- £84,000 returned in gift aid to NI churches over the last 3 years.
- Continued support from the Emerald Foundation (USA) £150,000
- Financial liquidity over 100% & working capital good.
- £453,000 received from BUC in Mission support.
Delegate Questions & Observations
Questions from the floor were many as the delegates considered the reports of the Mission Sponsors. Is it wise to invest funds in a campsite (Kilnasoolagh) when there continues to be a great need for church buildings? If Irish Mission youth and young adults commit to studying for pastoral ministry, will they eventually gain Irish Mission employment? Will the administration consider setting up an Adventist School? Youth Ministries has a strong Pathfinder and teen ministry, but regarding ministry to young adults, 'there is a vacuum', said Iphitule Mhlanga from Dublin West. Can the Mission improve its overall strategy for ministry to youth, making it a priority area over the next three years? Youth ministry across the Mission needs to connect, so that isolated youth in small churches, regularly experience gatherings with the larger critical mass for fellowship and support. Linked to this was a request for a network of Adventist Professionals, made up of mainly (but not only) college graduates who’ve entered the workplace, to serve as mentors for children and youth.
In response to Youth matters, Pastor Dan Serb responded in agreement that Senior youth ministries is a critical issue, one which he is spearheading himself with the organisation of ‘The Outpost’ see full report here.
Mission & Outreach
Natasha Didkivska shared how a group of Dublin Ranelagh members have been distributing copies of the Great Controversy in the city. But they task themselves to distribute discerningly. Natasha reports that the method they use, is to engage Dubliners in conversation about spiritual matters. Once interest is apparent, a copy is given away.
Heather Keough manager of the Dublin Cuisle Centre, reported that over this last summer, a born and bred Dublin lady, has been baptised and is absolutely passionate about her new- found community of faith. Sharing some wonderful experiences of her work managing the Centre of Influence, she summarised the work there with the soaring line, "If our church were closed, we would be greatly missed in our community?"
To this observer, the Irish Mission continues to be a Mission full of promise and hope. The mood among the delegation was Spirit-filled, feeling free to share their concerns. As one delegate shared with me, "We are passionate about our church, and sometimes feelings do run high, but we are without angst."
Pastor Serb shared his overriding challenges, not least the regeneration of the church in Northern Ireland. Sure enough, there does need to be an intentional strategy, but at the end of the day, it’s members like Kenny Doherty of Coleraine and Shupai Matewar of Sligo, going about their everyday business, gently sharing their faith in the marketplace who will move the Irish Mission forward.