Why Ireland?

I originally posted this in July of last year, but I’m reposting it in honor of St. Patrick’s day today…

I have always loved St. Patrick’s day. What child wouldn’t love a special holiday marking the day before her birthday? Somewhere along the line, I discovered that green is my favorite color—adding appeal to our very Americanized Irish holiday. And before God intervened in my life, I enjoyed the excuse to dress tacky, listen to festive music, and drink far too much beer. Oddly enough, for years I even longed for a big mane of curly, red hair. (Secretly, I still do.) For all that, I never really thought much about Ireland or her people.

When I was a young adult, I learned that I had a modest dose of Irish blood in me (I wonder if there is anyone in the US who doesn’t?) and I became interested in visiting the Emerald Isle.  When the US Army plunked our family down in Europe, my dear husband took the opportunity to treat me to a five day excursion to that lovely green rock.

He was a little worried that my interest might be overly nostalgic—if I didn’t hear fiddle reels floating through the air and see red-headed children merrily frolicking through the lush, green grass, I might be terribly disillusioned. What if Ireland was no different than any other place, barring the accents, of course?

As it turns out, it exceeded our expectations. It wasn’t at its greenest in late February, but it was wild and beautiful. It wasn’t especially heavy on the frolicking children either, but the stereotype of friendly, sociable people had far more merit than we would have thought. It wasn’t at all uncommon for perfect strangers to wave hello as we drove down rural roads. Folks routinely struck up pleasant conversations with us in grocery store lines and at restaurants. In spite of the biting wind, the freak giant hailstorm, and the near mishaps from getting used to driving on the left side of the road, we were smitten with the land and its people.

About a year later, my husband and I took a missions class together. For our final project, we were required to research an overseas mission field and present our findings to the class. Early in the planning stages, hubby and I were both surprised to discover that the other was considering a subculture in Ireland for the research topic. For the sake of class interest, my husband graciously yielded Ireland to me.

In the following weeks, our hearts were broken. After reading articles, analyzing statistics, watching documentaries, and conducting email interviews with Irish pastors, I was incredulous that the ratio of Christian workers to need was so imbalanced. I am not given to dramatics, especially when I am in front of people, but I had to swallow the lump in my throat and blink back the tears when I shared what I had learned with the class.  Ever since, missions work in Ireland has been the dream.

When people ask us what we see ourselves doing in the future, and we tell them we’d love to be missionaries to Ireland, a common response is a cock of the head and the question, “Why Ireland?”

As is the case in many European countries, people in Ireland are disillusioned with institutionalized religion (among other things). The difference is that a high percentage of young people in Ireland still express great interest and openness to discovering spiritual truth outside of that context.  According to statistics, Ireland has the smallest percentage of people who have embraced a saving relationship with Jesus of any English-speaking country in the world—an estimated one percent of the population! That is comparable to the number of believers in closed, Islamic nations, but Ireland is wide open! The fields are truly ready; there are simply too few workers.

But, isn’t Ireland a Catholic nation? Don’t people already know the gospel? Not really, no. Some ninety percent of the population still claims Catholicism, but many never attend mass.  For others, church attendance is simply a way to fully participate in family and community, not an opportunity to encounter and worship the God of the Bible. In a country that was once a missions sending center for the world, the gospel has largely slipped through the cracks.

There are many indicators of the disillusionment and hunger that categorize the spiritual climate of this country. Islam and Paganism are rapidly growing. The teen suicide rate in Ireland is one of the highest in the world. People need Jesus.

The church in Ireland is growing, but there is still a great need for church planters and leaders who can disciple and train others to do the same.

Without an unexpected, radical change of direction and a miracle, we won’t be going there any time soon—and maybe we never will. There are plenty of needs here and we are very content to stay and serve people in our own country. No doubt Ireland could still use the extra prayers. If we remain here, there is nothing to stop us from being a support to Irish pastors and missionaries who are there. Still, with a sense of urgency, we look to Ireland and say “Here we are Lord, send us!”

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