Ireland's Evangelical Moment
Less than 20 years ago, more than eight of ten people in Ireland attended Catholic Mass at least weekly. Today, fewer than half do. The erosion of Ireland's traditional Catholic identity may be largely due to secularization, but it's an opportunity for evangelicals, whom the Irish have historically shunned as foreign.
In fact, much of evangelicalism's growth in the country is foreignbut not British. Ireland's steadily growing economy has attracted immigrants from China and Nigeria, and now about one-third of Ireland's evangelicals are immigrants. Churches have adapted with PowerPoint slides that translate Bible verses into multiple languages.
Research published in 2006 by the Evangelical Alliance Ireland (EAI) shows that the number of evangelicals tripled from 10,000 in 1980 to 30,000 in 2006. However, evangelicals still make up less than 1 percent of Ireland's population. More than 60 percent of evangelical churches have started in the last 25 years; 40 percent in the last 10. Nearly half claim no denomination.
The Irish Bible Institute (IBI) has also played a key role in the church growth. Remarkably, IBI is "the first major evangelical Bible college since the Puritans lost control of Trinity College, Dublin, in the 1630s," said former Trinity fellow Crawford Gribben.
"A number of former and current IBI students, teachers, and adjunct faculty are engaged in church planting across different denominations," said Patrick Mitchel, IBI director of studies. "In the 'pioneer days' of the 1970s and 1980s, church planters tended to be mostly missionaries from the United States or Northern Ireland."
For centuries, evangelicals failed to penetrate Ireland. Evangelistic efforts in the 1800s were thwarted by a pervasive Catholic influence. Protestantism threatened Ireland's national identity, wrapped up in centuries of conflict with nearby England. The Irish Constitution in 1937 recognized the "special position" of the Roman Catholic Church. Influential Irish bishops regarded evangelicals as cultic.
However, Gribben said that Catholic charismatic renewal in the 1970s marked a turning point. Many former members of the movement have joined evangelical churches. In addition, Ireland's Catholic church sustained numerous sexual abuse scandals involving priests in the 1990s. As the church's moral authority declined, Irish society grew increasingly tolerant of other religious groups.
"In general, the deep Catholic-Protestant divisions that shaped recent Irish history have become less important in an increasingly secular, post-Christendom, consumerist society," Mitchel said. "The virtual collapse of old Ireland has given much more space. Everyone has a voice and a place, and this is a good time to be an evangelical in Ireland."
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