What the Church Can Learn from the Irish “Troubles.”

The air was stagnant, and the thick humidity caused sweat beaded across my forehead—even at midnight—as we walked the shores of Lake Michigan in downtown Chicago. Gino and I had traveled there to follow up with folks that Jamie and I had met on the As Family We Go tour with Rend Collective. I was particular excited on this specific balmy evening to reconnect with our friend Phil who, like Rend, hails from Northern Ireland.

As we caught up on life, and dreamt together for what God seemed to be doing, the conversation eventually meandered to Phil giving us a crash course on Irish history. Most of my questions gravitated around my curiosity of the “Troubles”—a difficult period of inner-dissention, turmoil, and violence in Northern Ireland. With each question, Phil would steer me away from the relative immediate instances of the Troubles and would frame the conversation in light of the historical context—often with events that occurred centuries ago. Phil explained that the whole essence of the Troubles had to be understood in light of Great Brittain invading what is now the island of Ireland and controlling, oppressing, and leeching resources from each of the indigenous groups that lived within the lush valleys. “You have to understand,” Phil explained, “that at that time, there was no ‘Ireland.’” “Ireland,” Phil clarified, “was formed over and against their experience with Great Brittain.”

I was surpised to learn that each of these independent indigenous peoples united together as the Irish people under the banner of a common quest—to free themselves from the tyranny of British control. “But these Irish peoples,” Phil continued “realized that to be united, you must have culture. What people don’t realize is that all of the history, dance, food, and language… had to be created.”

Dumbfounded, I pressed in with more questions as we walked… and sweated.

The following day, while we were meeting with a new church plant birthed from the same As Family We Go tour, the words of Phil captivated my mind. Suddenly, as this church plant’s leaders asked questions pertaining to ministry and mission, it clicked. Phil’s impromptu history lesson served as one of the most valuable lessons for not just the formation of church plants—but all ministries.

Like Ireland before, each community of faith needs two elements. One, they need to understand their sense of quest. For Ireland, it was to combat against the perceived oppression of the British. For each community of faith, the quest is not to have a slick worship service, pack the building, or complete a check-list of meaningless ministry. Instead, the quest is to make known the rule and reign of God uniquely in their own community. Secondly, to unite communally around this sense of quest, culture must be formed. This means that there must be a sense of shared language, tendencies, and activities. Like Ireland before, this does not happen overnight, but instead is slowly forged over time by listening to one another and the Holy Spirit.

I must pause to clarify that I in no way want to truncate the sense of tragedy and loss that typified a thirty-year span at the end of the twentieth century for our Northern Irish brothers and sisters simply for a missional illustration. Nor do I want to communicate anything that would suggest that I am anything but naïve with the circumstances. I simply wish to draw some connection to principles that I believe the Church has somehow lost.

That night, we concluded our walk at Phil’s apartment, drenched in sweat, grateful for friendship, and reinvigorated to discover our own community’s sense of quest and culture formation.

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