Take a look at the most recent Census figures for religion in Northern Ireland, and perhaps one of the most striking features is the sheer variety of faiths that are represented within the bracket of Christianity.
While the more established denominations of the Catholic and Protestant churches are, of course, well-represented in the 2011 report, there are also significant showings for what might be considered more modern churches, names that many might associate with the ‘born again’ end of the Christian spectrum.
While figures from the last census in 2011 showed the number of Christians across the UK as a whole had fallen to 33.2 million, a 12% decrease from 37.2 million, 10 years earlier, it seems that ‘newer’ groups are doing reasonably well in attracting members, and not just in Northern Ireland.
Anthony Delaney is a retired policeman. Now aged 49, he grew up on a council estate in a rough part of Manchester and joined the Police Cadets at 16, which was “all about outdoor pursuits and the pursuit of girls”.
Today, Delaney is “above all” a Follower of Jesus: a self-proclaimed man of the people who has successfully utilised his gruff voice and engaging, measured manner to grow Manchester's Ivy Church — a community of Born Again Christians now with more than 1,000 members meeting on a weekly basis — to more than four times its size since he joined as leader five years ago. So significant today is the congregation, that events are now held several times a week at venues across the city, including Cineworld, a warehouse and even a pub.
The trick to overcoming perceptions of Christianity as irrelevant to contemporary Britain, says Delaney, is to “build a church that people who don't go to church feel comfortable in: I dress normally and talk about spiritual issues in a way normal people get ... We have children and young people galore, the only problem we have is trying to fit everyone in!”
It is all about spreading the word to the next generation, he says, and to this effect, Delaney has just produced a leaflet called ‘OMG': “The old style would be to say ‘OMG (a shortening of the expression ‘Oh my God') is blasphemy'; what I say to young people is take the word OMG, then ask yourself, ‘If he was listening, what would you ask him?'. It's a different way of engaging people for the 21st century.”
As well as reaching far beyond its geographical confines with an international mission team, The Ivy Church broadcasts regular podcasts, blogs and even Ivy Player, where sermons can be watched online. They run a kids' club and have an active youth team; they also work in prisons, schools, food banks and offer death counselling. They are never short of new recruits.
And they are not the only ones. The rise in evangelical super-churches with a predominantly black membership demonstrates the changing landscape of Christianity in the UK. (The 2011 census also found that 89% of those who called themselves Christians were born outside the UK.) According to church statistician, Peter Brierley: “The Black Majority Churches (BMC) explosion has been significant, especially in Greater London, where of the 700 new churches which began between 2005 and 2012, at least 400 were BMCs. The Redeemed Christian Church of God alone has started 296 new churches in the UK in the past five years, the largest number for any single denomination.”
A forecast of religious trends by Brierley in 2005 further predicted that the number of Pentecostal churches — which, Delaney says, “would probably, like me, identify with being Born Again” — would continue to soar, while all other churches — bar Orthodox church, which has also seen slight but steady growth in membership — would feel their numbers dwindle. To date, membership of Pentecostal churches in the UK has grown by some 200% since the 1980s.
As a result of a tireless campaign to enlist new members, fresh faces are piling in every week at Ivy — and this trend shows no signs of waning.
“When we're loving people like God said we should, often that raises a question for people: ‘Why are you doing this?' people ask. The answer is: ‘Because we believe God loves us'. It isn't that we're doing this to convert you, but it does raise questions in people's minds if we are the ones going and helping.”
Today, Delaney says, the congregation at Ivy Church includes ex-prostitutes, ex-drug addicts, ex-prisoners, not to mention nuclear scientists, authors and television producers. “There is something glorious about the mix of people we get in that makes people say ‘I think I can belong here before I necessarily believe what these people believe'. After a while, people start to believe what we are believing.”
At first glance, he admits, the new generation can be sceptical. “I recently went to speak at a ‘Come and discuss religion'-type day for sixth-formers. I was the Christianity guy and basically kids could decide which stall to go to — Islam, Buddhism, Scientology. None came to Christianity, because the kids think they know what that is — the one where the blokes wear frocks, it's like Songs of Praise ... Actually, I think that is where more traditional churches that are like that will end up with no young people coming along, because they are not trying to answer the questions young people are asking, or to say ‘That's a good question, I don't know the answer'.”
As part of their programme of all-encompassing acceptance, Delaney insists Born Agains — the name taken from a biblical reference by Jesus, in John, Chapter 3, about the need of a good man to be “born again” in order to be a true follower — have “excellent relations” with people of other faiths.
“For example, after Lee Rigby (the soldier) was killed, the first thing I did was I went to the local mosque and met the imam and talked with him. In the same way I wouldn't want people who bomb abortion clinics to represent me, those people (who killed Rigby, in May 2013) weren't in any way representative of Islam.”
So what is his position on abortion? “I have ...” For the first time in our conversation, there is a long pause. “I think it's a terrible position that often women finds themselves in. I find it a difficult issue to speak into because I'm a man not a woman, therefore my grounds for an opinion on it would have to come from an authority outside of my own experience ... the Bible. There it talks about a God who loves us with an unconditional and huge love for all people. He feels compassion for the women in a position of confusion, difficulty and pain, but he also says he has plans for us and children that extend before the womb. So when does life begin for God?
“Every life is precious and special,” Delaney concludes. “I've had women come to me in
difficult circumstances talk to me about abortion and I've given them counsel to encourage them to think very hard about what the consequences would be of having an abortion, as well as the consequences of not having one. I've encouraged people who have ended up not having an abortion, and there are lot of people who want to adopt.” While he claims many of his congregation adopt and foster babies and children, he says they do not arrange private adoptions.
There are women involved at “every level of leadership” in the Ivy Church, Delaney adds: “I like to think of it in terms of the quote by William Booth from the Salvation Army who said, ‘Some of my best men are women'; because of the urgency of the work they were doing, it was all hands on deck. For me, on the birthday of the Church, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on to people, as it says in the New Testament, it was on the flesh of all people. That was the day when God decided who he would use for doing work in the world — anyone who was willing to do his work.”
That apparently applies to homosexuals, too, at least in the first instance. “We have homosexual people who are fully part of Ivy and who come to the church — it's not for us to ask people's sexuality as a first-order issue ... We want people to come into our services and feel loved by God and by us and from that people read the Bible, and there are all sorts of life changes people might go through as a result of reading it.
“I've always been good with words, I like writing and speaking and I think I'm good at it — it's one of the reasons why our church grows. But there is a danger of a subtle kind of pride that can creep in. I've always got to remember that if it wasn't for the change Jesus Christ brought in my life I would be a waster; somebody who spent too much money on drink and got in lot of trouble and didn't have a family around him any more; a person without self-control. There is a verse in the Bible that says ‘apart from me you can do nothing'. I want to remember that.
“I still say it isn't a matter of this huge ...” At this point, Delaney pauses to gather his thoughts. “It's not that I always believe everything really strongly. There have been times in the middle of a sermon when I've thought ‘What am I doing? I've left the police and I'm telling people about Jesus, what am I doing?' But moments of doubt doesn't mean I've become an unbeliever, it's just that I'm still wrestling with the implications.
“You know what the answer is? The answer for what I'm doing isn't because it feels nice or because it makes me a happier person. It's because I believe a man died and rose again — there's some history and some facts that can be looked at which show there was a man who claimed to be the Son of God, and then he proved it by rising from the dead.”
For members of the Ivy Church, at least, that is all the answer they need.”
Hannah Bettany (24, pictured left), prison outreach worker
}I became a Christian at two years old. I remember sitting in the back of my mum's car listening to a cheesy Christian tape that went ‘Born again ... born agaiiiiiiin, born again'. I asked my sister what it meant to be ‘born again'. She explained it meant being best friends with Jesus and not being on my own. I said I wanted to be best friends with Jesus, so we prayed, while my mum sat in the front seat crying with delight as she heard her daughters praying this beautiful prayer together. People say children can't know Jesus, but in the Bible he said let them, the children, come to him.
Over the years, I've had times when I've thought, ‘I could go off and take drugs, drink and sleep around, knowing God will forgive me'. But if on any day in my life you'd stopped me and said ‘Do you love Jesus?' I'd have without hesitation said 'Yes'.
At 17, I was miraculously healed of a degenerative disc disease. The moment of healing was just between me and God. I'd been at an event where I'd seen a couple of people who had been healed and I said, ‘Okay God, if you could do that to them, you can do that to me'. So I bent down to touch my toes — which my physio had always said I shouldn't do because the discs in my back would compress — and when I stood up I had no pain. This confirmed for me that God is all he says he is. I really need to thank Jesus for all he did for me all those years ago, after all nobody else has ever died for me.
At 18, I started working in prisons and watched robbers, murderers, drug dealers who had tried to find satisfaction in every other place, come to find it in my Jesus. I have had the privilege of watching hundreds of people come to accept Jesus, just as innocently as I did at two years old.
Laurence Bettany (27, pictured right), charity worker, and husband of Hannah
}There were seven of us in my family; I was number six. I got good grades at school. In my teens there were years of self-indulgence, experimenting with drugs and everything that goes with it. My lung collapsed twice in the space of a year. My lifestyle was chaotic and even after receiving serious key-hole surgery and my weight dropping to nine stone, I still wanted to trip the light fantastic. In the summer of 2007, I went to Glastonbury Festival, and then Benicàssim in Spain, continuing to sniff my way through the pain. Then something changed. The breakdown of a four-year relationship resulted in me turning to drugs even more; there were panic-induced anxiety attacks, which veered towards psychotic episodes.
In the middle of all this mess, I met my God on my university bedroom floor at 2am. I had an acute sense of a darkness that had taken hold of me. Then in a moment of desperation, I turned to a Bible that I had been given years before and opened it to find words from a loved one, quoting a passage they believed to be about me in Psalm 41 — ‘The Lord will protect him and preserve his Life'. I turned to Psalm 41 and read it all.
Almost instantly the darkness faded and light shot through my mind. I knew that I was being offered a choice. I could choose to accept Jesus into my life and be restored from my bed of sickness. Or I could continue down the dark path, filling my life with anything that would satisfy it momentarily.
I chose Jesus. I called up my Dad, who had been praying for me for years. We prayed together. All the poor choices I had made, all the people I had hurt, all the stress and anxiety was taken from me. I was shown grace in abundance, and my life changed course forever. Six years on, I am still walking the path of faith and trust in Jesus Christ. He has never let me down.
Laura Nicholson (36), hairdresser
}Two and a half years ago I knew my life really needed to change. I'd been a heroin addict for 17 years, on methadone for 13 and on all sort of anti-depressants and anti-psychotic drugs. I was taking uppers to wake up, downers to go to sleep and other stuff to get through the day. Things got so bad that I was in a mental hospital with drug-induced psychosis, and my parents were told I would spend the rest of my life in there.
I was in and out of violent relationships and involved in all sorts of crime and theft to feed my drug habit. On top of all this, I'd lost my son when he was 16 months old because I couldn't cope with being a mother at that point. Basically, my life was a mess. I got to the point where I got to thinking I only had three options — either kill myself, kill somebody else, or be killed.
But it all changed one night — the night I heard about Jesus. I was at a Victory Outreach rally in Scotland and was hearing all these testimonies about how he had changed people's lives. That night I made up my mind. I went to the front and said, ‘If you can do it for these people, then please do it for me because I can't live like this any more'.
Within 12 hours I was on the Victory Outreach recovery programme — a rehab programme — where I spent the next 18 months getting my life sorted out. God has given me everything back that the Devil stole from me. He's set me free from drugs, healed me several times over and reconciled me with my family. I've now got a good relationship with my parents and I'm starting to get to know my son.”