Many Beacon Lights readers need little introduction to the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church that meets in Ballymena, Northern Ireland, being familiar with our congregation through reading our pastor’s regular newsletters, visiting our website, and/or seeing us in person. Reformed believers have been meeting in some form in this country for over 25 years. The two men who now serve as our church elders were among those who first met and made contact with the Protestant Reformed Churches of America. Rev. Ronald Hanko of the PRCA was called to serve here as missionary from 1993–2000, and our current pastor, Rev. Angus Stewart, raised in Northern Ireland, was trained at the PRC seminary and became the minister here in 2001. The congregation has gained many members over the years, and others have left, but it has continued in its current form since 2006, when it was re-established as a self-sufficient church after having existed as a “fellowship” for a few years. In 2010, we completed and moved in to our new church building, which has provided an ideal meeting place for all our church functions and also helps to establish a permanent presence in the community. Besides the two services on the Lord’s Day, our pastor leads two weekly Bible studies at church, and some ladies and men meet less formally for study groups.
Our official current membership consists of 35 confessing members plus 12 baptized members, children of 4 different families. Some new members are expected to be added soon, and there are a number of people who worship regularly with us who are not actual members. Several members are often unable to make it to church services because of chronic health issues, although live webcasting provides an opportunity for some to listen in. Many members do not live in the town of Ballymena itself, the majority driving from various other towns, some over half an hour’s drive away. Quite a few members are of the older generation and many were converted as adults, so are first-generation Christians. One family consists of three generations. Two more babies are expected to be added to the congregation soon; church growth through baptism is a cause of special rejoicing in a smaller congregation.
Some additional church social activities include “teas” held occasionally after the evening service; invitations to gatherings at the church manse several times a year, such as barbeques in summer which often attract some friends from around the country who maintain contact with our church but are not members; and a yearly congregational dinner, usually scheduled for the time when the delegated church visitors come from the PRCA.
Also, every other summer, the British Reformed Fellowship, an organization founded over 25 years ago and now chaired by our pastor and unofficially associated with our church, plans a week-long family conference, inviting Protestant Reformed professors and ministers as speakers. These weeks of fellowship, attended by Reformed believers from across the UK and many other countries, have been a blessing to hundreds young and old over the years, and have even led to a few international marriages!
For a small congregation, our church represents an amazing international outreach, especially though the information published on the church’s website, which is run by our pastor and his wife, who serves as full-time secretary and bookstore manager. They have organized about 2,000 translations of our denominational creeds and other Reformed articles and book excerpts, in over a hundred languages, accessible online, and they distribute many other written publications through the website and bookstore. This work has blessed countless Christians across the world and has brought a few individuals to join our church, such as Marco Barone from Italy, who is currently living in Ballymena while taking doctorate level classes.
Beyond the website and busy bookstore which sells and ships Reformed publications, our church and particularly pastor are responsible for other evangelistic outreach, including regular lectures in Wales, Ballymena, and occasionally other towns in Northern Ireland, broadcasting the Reformed Witness Hour in this country, and even writing letters to newspapers to advertise church events or to challenge current wicked trends in society. The sermons, lectures and some Bible studies are recorded for downloading online as well as on CD/DVD. This audio-visual editing and publishing requires many hours of labor each week, ably carried out by one of our church members, Stephen Murray. Many of these ongoing labors go unnoticed, yet all of the Protestant Reformed churches should be grateful to God for our pastor and his wife’s great work in establishing and maintaining these ministries that represent our stance for truth in the world.
The political situation in Northern Ireland is quite complicated, since opposing parties are supposed to work together in a power-sharing government, although they do not share common goals, with the Irish Nationalist/Republican parties wishing to unite Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland to the south, while the British Unionist parties want to remain united to mainland Great Britain. The population of Northern Ireland still has a nominal Protestant majority, although it is marginal. Ballymena and the area around it have strong Presbyterian roots, dating back to settlers from Scotland four centuries ago, and many conservative values remain. Schools have traditionally been divided into state-maintained Protestant schools and Roman Catholic schools, although in recent decades some integrated schools have been created. Religious education is a standard subject offered to all schoolchildren, and most people in this country are aware of basic biblical principles, although the younger generations are increasingly secular. Many politicians who hold more conservative values continue to strive to protect religious freedom in this country. Recent legal proceedings have managed to uphold laws that make abortion and same-sex marriage illegal in Northern Ireland, although these wrongs are allowed in the rest of the United Kingdom and are constantly being pushed here. As in the rest of the Western world, we can see signs of future persecution for our faith especially as we speak out against sin.
So what would we ask of our sister churches to pray for regarding our congregation? Many of our prayer requests would be similar to that of most churches: for growth, first of all spiritually, as individuals and as a body; and for numerical growth through God’s drawing his people to us from the unsaved or departing churches in our community and beyond. We pray to be preserved in the truth of the Reformed faith in this wicked world. We can be thankful for the sacrificial labors of our pastor, and pray for continued blessings on the outreach of the website and other evangelistic efforts.
The fact that our small congregation includes people with a wide range of ages and interests, spread out geographically, represents one of our greatest challenges: church unity and sharing in each other’s daily lives. It is particularly difficult for the children of the church to build friendships with fellow believers when they have little opportunity to interact beyond church services and catechism classes. Apart from preschoolers and the youngest catechism class, there are very few children around the same age in our congregation. So one of our greatest concerns and prayers is that our church’s youth will be preserved in the truth as they grow older and face challenges to their faith without a strong peer group for encouragement.
We are thankful for the continued prayers of our Reformed brothers and sisters in other countries. If you are ever able to visit this green, rainy isle, the opportunity to fellowship with fellow saints from sister congregations is a mutual blessing.
*Susan is a member of the CPRC in Northern Ireland