by John Hewitt, with Stephen Rogers
John and Stephen are involved in their local assemblies’ outreach work.
If anyone knows anything about Ireland, they will know about the conflict and sectarianism, and the huge divide between Protestant and Catholic, or rather Unionist and Nationalist. Our land is split in two: Northern Ireland that is part of the United Kingdom and Southern Ireland, an independent state. Some people desire the whole of Ireland to be an independent state apart from the UK, while others want to stay as we are. Therefore, in the last 50 years we have gone through what has been called ‘the troubles’, in which we have seen the loss of over 2,500 lives in an armed conflict. This has created two communities with similar, yet very different cultures. Unfortunately, there is a resentment, fear and bias that has fed into the church, which is predominantly Unionist. This has regrettably made us hesitant to reach out to the other side.
During my time working in Woodford Hall, Armagh, we ran several outreach teams, organising kids’ clubs and reaching into the local community. The first year we reached out to our ‘back door’, which is the east and more Protestant side of the city. The team found this difficult, with a lack of clear-cut opportunities and contacts. The next year, we ran a team in west, or Nationalist, Armagh. The difference was amazing. There was an openness and desire for the things of God we had not seen in the east. Following this, the Lord had been impressing upon me about ‘casting nets’. I was truly stirred when my wife and I heard the words ‘Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some’ (Jn 21:6) at a conference we attended. On hearing this, I wrote in my notes, ‘Maybe we are fishing on the wrong side of the city’, the Protestant side. At that moment, Ashleigh, my wife, whispered in my ear, ‘Maybe we are fishing on the wrong side of the city.’ Therefore, we set ourselves to go.
During the next few months, the Lord brought me to repentance for not going to so many lost people. He clearly took me out of responsibilities in Woodford and opened the door to the west. I will give you just two examples. Our youth fellowship, which we headed alongside two ladies, needed a strong male leader, so I prayed for God to bring us one. He brought two! From nowhere, two young men, both called Timothy, joined our church and the youth fellowship team. Secondly, we needed a Bible teacher and so we prayed. Again out of nowhere, two families joined us, and God gave us two Bible teachers. He is very good! So, we went in faith, knowing that the Lord was directing us.
Reaching Across the Divide
How do you begin to break down the barriers of the great divide? We needed to show people in the west that we were not trying to make them Unionists, we were not after their money and we were not paedophiles. This may sound extreme, but it is a genuine concern, and rightly so among the Catholic community, given the historical abuse that has taken place in Catholic churches. We didn’t know how to start, but we had been given advice to begin with kids’ work, take an interest in the community and do everything for free. So that’s what we did.
We started a children’s work in a highly Nationalist estate called Drumarg. The Lord gave us real favour, and started to naturally break down walls and open doors! This was a work we could not do without one of the couples the Lord brought to Woodford, Mark and Hazel. Hazel grew up in the south of Ireland and speaks Irish fluently! This has been a real blessing as around a third of the children go through Irish-medium schools, where all their schooling is in Irish. Ashleigh started a Mums and Tots work, which allows us to meet women and children in the community and show that we love them. As a GP, Ashleigh has taken a post in the community and is increasingly known and trusted. We are praying for divine appointments.
A while ago, I felt I should join a little social group for older men who get together to do woodwork, called The Men’s Shed. This has been brilliant for getting to know people and sharing the gospel. One of the men whom I met, J, showed a clear interest. I started meeting with him to go through Mark’s Gospel and he recently told me he has become a Christian. This seems to be the pattern so far: befriend, share the gospel, start a Bible study followed, hopefully, by salvation and discipleship. I am praying for the next person who is searching to come across my path.
This seems to be the pattern so far: befriend, share the gospel, start a Bible study followed, hopefully, by salvation and discipleship.
Good News for Armagh
We are conscious that we don’t want to do activities just to be doing ‘something’, because that is how the disciples in John 21 caught nothing. We need to be led by the Lord’s voice and so, as Hudson Taylor said, ‘We go forward on our knees.’ This has been the tenor of the work so far: we don’t do anything until we hear from God!
The kids’ club in Drumarg has been a real boon in being accepted into the community, so we started one in a different estate, Callanbridge, and now a third Nationalist estate has asked us to hold one. Our prayer is that over the years we will build up relationships that will lead to Bible studies and people coming to know the Lord.
In the next eight years, I would like to see kids’ clubs running in all the major estates in West Armagh. In light of Covid-19, we started making three-minute gospel videos for Facebook and YouTube under the banner of ‘Good News for Armagh’.1
I have been taking the Irish language more seriously by attending an official Irish language course in the town, both to learn the language and to get to know local people. My aim is to be able to teach a children’s Bible lesson in Irish, to show local people that the gospel doesn’t remove culture but redeems it. We are praying for God to lead us to 5,000 people in Armagh. We are eager to see what a truly Christian Nationalist community looks like. To teach the principles of what a church is according to the New Testament and see how a Nationalist culture takes that and runs with it. To see what tunes they might sing hymns to. To see a community come to know God and to truly worship Jesus Christ.
In these two different communities, we cannot do the same thing in one and expect it to work in the other. We have the same gospel, that should never change. Paul said, ‘to the Jew I became a Jew in order to win Jews…I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some’ (1 Cor. 9:20-22). There is a difference in the approach, not in the message. We are throwing out our nets west, to create an interest where God may bring people from the ‘other side’ to Himself.
- for wisdom for the future: particularly amid Covid-19, in restarting the children’s work and being in the community while taking sensible precautions
- for Ashleigh, that she will have ‘divine appointments’
- for those who are watching the gospel videos on social media
- that God will work – we cannot save, it must be Him.
1 Search ‘Good News for Armagh’ on Facebook and YouTube.
A Breath of Fresh Air
‘Our church in Belfast has been trying to reach our local community for many years and we haven’t got very far. A few years ago we ran a Christianity Explored course and invited all the locals, but none of them came. To our surprise, some folks came from the ‘other side’ of town, people we hadn’t even aimed our advertising towards. Their spiritual interest was a breath of fresh air. The Lord has been slowly teaching us and leading us to the other side of town. It is outside our comfort zone, we have had to learn how to pronounce and spell Irish names, but God is encouraging our efforts.’