“You’re mad!” my friends exclaimed when I told them I was considering taking on the role of director for the Celebration of Hope With Franklin Graham in Belfast. “Where will you ever get the time?” they asked, and, “Do we really need that kind of event?”
For every question they had, I had more. But the decision came down to this: The Evangelical Alliance in Northern Ireland had worked hard to encourage evangelicals to work together. If I was going to turn down this request to help a new partnership, I would need a very good reason. The time was right for Northern Ireland.
Surprising and long-awaited political developments have given rise to a new spirit of hope in the country. Northern Ireland had become almost a by-word for hatred and division, and whilst we had at least moved from the dark days of regular murders and terrorist attacks, we were still haunted by verbal violence, suspicion and sectarianism. But we were starting to move forward with a new power-sharing local government where those who previously seemed to be intractable enemies were agreeing to work together–something many of us thought we would never live to see.
We are still taking small steps toward a better future, but now there is the hope that we will never go back. So, what better time for the Church to hold out the message of hope that the Gospel of Jesus Christ can bring! As people look forward with political and economic hope, we want to celebrate an even greater hope, one that could make an impact on our community in a lasting way.
But this isn’t just about highlighting hope. The Church in Northern Ireland is facing a crucial challenge. Peace has brought many benefits to us, but a notable effect of political progress is that church is becoming increasingly irrelevant for many people. Whilst the “Troubles” were raging, many found their identity and security within their faith communities. But we’re now experiencing a dramatic leak away from church. Younger generations are leaving in droves, seeing no place for it.
Not that churches here have become detached from the community; both independent and government research reveal that a huge majority of community, children’s and youth work is done by the church. As a result, we have become much better at building bridges with those outside the church. But some Christians find that when they cross the bridge from church to community they don’t know what to say to those they meet. This is another reason the time is right for the Celebration of Hope and why the momentum is so obviously building. Many see it as an opportunity to at last be better equipped to share the heart of their faith and as an exceptional way to expose friends and relatives to the message of the Gospel.
Around Christmas, we were wondering how we were going to fill an 8,000-seat auditorium. Now we’re wondering how we are going to cope with what almost certainly will be an overflow. Never in our wildest dreams did we think that nearly 5,000 people, representing more than 300 churches, would attend Christian Life and Witness evangelism training classes. We decided at the outset that we wouldn’t ask the churches for money and that we would not take offerings at the actual event. This was quite a commitment since we would need to raise almost $1 million locally. With the help of local Christian businesspeople and generous support from BGEA UK–and with only a few weeks to go–we have raised close to 85 percent of the budget.
Regularly along this journey we have come to crucial moments and we have found that God has used each of them to confirm to us that this is the right thing. He has provided people, resources, solutions and answers at exactly the right time. Never in my experience has such a range of Northern Irish evangelicals united behind something the way they have here, and never before have I been involved in a partnership like this that has received less opposition, something we tend to be experts at here!
Of course it hasn’t been easy, but we have faced our challenges together, Irish and Americans, united behind the vision that drives us. As I put that all together, it reinforces what I hear so many people say: “This is our moment.” God is in this and something amazing is going to happen. We have followed His leading and responded to what we believe He has asked us to do, and now we look to Him to do what we could never imagine.
For more information on the April 4-6 Celebration of Hope in Belfast, go to grahamfestival.org/belfast/.