Keith Mitchell: 'I believe Heaven will be wonderful. No pain, no suffering and Jesus will be there... beyond that, I'm hoping there will still be football and good curries'
In conversation with Keith Mitchell
Keith Mitchell, from Castlereagh, is co-founder of Crown Jesus Ministries. He has been married to Amanda for 19 years and they have two children, Noah (14) and Megan (11).
Q. Can you tell us something about your background?
A. I am 46 and co-founder/evangelist with Crown Jesus Ministries, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.
It was formed in 1999 by three Bible college students and currently reaches over 100,000 people in Ireland each year. It has networks across all denominations and works in around 200 schools. The ministry is supported by 16 staff and 13 academy students. Its headquarters are in Belfast and there in a mission centre in Monaghan.
I have been married to my wife, Amanda, for 19 years and we have two children, Noah and Megan. I have written my life story, entitled Snatched from the Fire, published by Inter-Varsity Press.
I grew up in Castlereagh, where I have been living in the same home for the past 42 years.
My father, Gerry, was originally from Cavan and moved to Belfast at a young age. In Belfast, he later met my mother, Marion, and they married and settled in Castlereagh.
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I'm deeply and forever thankful for my wonderful parents.
Sadly, my dad died when I was just 13 and my mum when I was 25. I am blessed to have my two fabulous older brothers, Colin and Philip. We are a very close family.
My dad was an electrician by trade and, through his example, he taught me the significance of hard work and the importance of saving. When it came to family holidays, or the car needed an upgrade, he was working "homers" to save up. He taught me the Lord's Prayer and modelled a healthy balance of work, family and leisure time.
Q. What about your education and early career?
A. I went to Leadhill Primary School, then Lisnasharragh High School and afterwards to Castlereagh College, to study electronic engineering. I was no fan of school, but I still remember having some wonderful teachers, to whom I am forever grateful.
Before entering the Christian ministry full-time in 2011, I was a fitness instructor, a leisure attendant and a full-time firefighter for 16 years. I served five years in Springfield and 11 years in Knock fire stations.
Q. How did you come to faith?
A. My faith journey began at a young age through attending Sunday school, but after the death of my dad, Church took a back seat in my life and teenage kicks were very much alive. I wasn't the worst teenager, but there were plenty of bad choices, usually mixed with alcohol, or drugs.
At 19 I was unemployed, but happy, though not complete. I was searching for the next big fix, but was never satisfied.
On October 5, 1992, I went to hear my brother Philip and Stephen Baxter, the Crusaders FC manager, share their story at an outreach in Albertbridge Road Congregational Church.
Philip was playing football for Distillery, having previously played for Ards, Linfield, Ipswich Town and Portadown.
Roger Carswell was preaching that night and, afterwards, I took home a little booklet called The Journey into Life by Norman Warren. It was in the quietness of my own room that I prayed to make Jesus Christ my personal Lord and Saviour.
I began to inform friends and family of my decision and, to my surprise, everyone was supportive - even my non-Christian friends.
Later, I was asked to give my story at a youth fellowship evening. It was then that I really felt God was with me and using me to help share his message with others.
Q. Have you ever had a crisis of faith, or a gnawing doubt about your faith?
A. My faith is strong, but there have been challenging times, in particular the first two years when I would have, perhaps, questioned why God did not stop a tragedy, or answer a prayer. However, the more I began to read God's word, pray and get to know the person and work of the Holy Spirit, the more my faith and trust grew in Jesus. I've never had a faith crisis. I have had it tested many times, but just like a muscle under pressure, it grows.
Q. Do you ever get criticised for your faith? And are you able to live with that criticism?
A. When you are pioneering and involved in frontline evangelism, criticism is part of the package. Over the last five years and particularly during my studies for an MA in theology, I've learned to understand and process criticism better. For example, I ask myself how is the other person feeling? What is their culture? Have they misunderstood the objective? Is it merited? And what do I need to do to process this? And what do I need to filter out and release?
Q. Are you ever ashamed of your own Church, or denomination?
A. No. I was a member of Orangefield Presbyterian Church until six years ago, when we moved to the Christian Fellowship Church in Belfast for family reasons. I currently work closely with Newtownbreda Baptist Church. I love all these churches and the hundreds more that I have worked with through Crown Jesus Ministries. Like people, no Church is perfect, but they offer a rich diversity, which is a wonderful thing.
Q. Do you believe in a resurrection? And, if so, what will it be like?
A. I believe Heaven will be a wonderful place. No pain, no suffering, no sin. Jesus will be there. Beyond that, it's a bit of a mystery, but I'm hoping there will still be football and good curries (I know I'll get criticism for that comment).
Q. Would you be comfortable in stepping out from your own faith and trying to learn something from other people?
A. I am always open to the opportunity to experience different cultures and faiths. I fully believe you learn much more living in the culture than reading about it. One of the great tragedies of the Northern Ireland conflict is not understanding our different cultures and history.
I have experienced a diversity of cultures travelling to many places, including eastern Europe, India, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, but there is no place like home.
Q. Do you think that the Churches here are fulfilling their mission?
A. I think the report on home mission would be similar to my Lisnasharragh High School reports: "Keith could do better if he wasn't so easily distracted." If you are an ageing congregation of 40 members, with limited resources and isolated from the community, it is going to be very hard to turn that around. My advice is that people can still fulfil their mission in simple ways, like loving their neighbour.
Q. Why are so many people turning their back on organised religion?
A. Because it's exactly that. Organised religion. Christianity was never intended to become an organised religion. The Church is a missional movement and not a stationary institution. Once you try to box in a movement, you limit it. We need to get Church out of the box.
Q. Has religion helped, or hindered, the people of Northern Ireland?
A. Both at the same time. We have had some absolute superstars in the peace process: Fr Gerry Reynolds, Fr Alex Reid, the Very Rev Ken Newall, Pastor Jack McKee, the late Derick Bingham, to name a few.
Additionally, many Churches have become beacons of hope and home for the hurting.
Sadly, I believe the Church has lost much of its voice in the post-peace process and left a vacuum we desperately need to fill.
Too many people are suffering from mental health issues, addiction and suicidal thoughts.
We offer a message of hope and are constantly striving to find ways to tell the world that Jesus is still the way, the truth and the life.
Q. What is your favourite film, book and music, and why?
A. My favourite film, Forest Gump, is cinematic genius, with so many layers of love, hope and fun. One of my favourite books is Mere Christianity by CS Lewis. My favourite music is Charles Wesley's hymn And Can It Be That I Should Gain?
Q. Where do you feel closest to God?
A. Alone in the Mourne mountains, alone in my study, alone on my bike. Always alone.
Q. Have you any regrets?
A. I wish I had never sold my Africa Twin motorbike. And I wish, as a teenager, I had spoken kinder words to my mum.