Telling the Story of Pentecostals and Charismatics in Northern Ireland: Tomorrow on Radio Ulster

life churchTomorrow at 1.30 pm BBC Radio Ulster will air a documentary, “Tongues of Fire: How Pentecostals are Changing the Church.” Presented by Robbie Meredith, the programme is framed around investigating the steady growth of Pentecostal and charismatic churches in Northern Ireland, focusing on their expressive worship and – increasingly notable among Christian denominations – ability to attract young people.

“Tongues of Fire,” the title of which plays on the Pentecostal/charismatic practice of speaking in tongues, promises to feature snapshots from various congregations in Northern Ireland, including Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in North Belfast, Exchange Church in East Belfast, Vineyard in South Belfast, Life Church in Belfast, and Green Pastures Church outside Ballymena.

As Meredith describes:

The word ‘charismatic’ derives from the Greek for ‘gift’, and these churches all share a common belief in a post-conversion experience where believers are “filled with the Holy Spirit”, receiving spiritual gifts like speaking in tongues, prophecy or the ability to pray for God’s healing.

Pentecostals and charismatics can be found in independent congregations or in denominations like the Assemblies of God or Elim Pentecostal Church, as well as within “traditional” or “mainline” denominations like the Catholic Church, Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist churches.

As a sociologist of religion, I provided Meredith with some data and background information on Pentecostal/charismatic Christianity in Northern Ireland, some of which is quoted in a BBC article promoting the programme.

Using census figures, their numbers have grown from 11,986; .75% (1991) to 13,476; .78% (2001) to 15,457; .85% (2011). (Thanks to Chris Morris for helping me isolate the 2011 figures.) These figures almost certainly contain very few Catholics who would identify as charismatic, as they are based largely on denominations known to be charismatic. While these denominations/congregations often prefer to think of themselves as Christian rather than Catholic or Protestant, most people in them come from Protestant backgrounds. These figures also under-count Protestants in other denominations who may consider themselves charismatic or who may have experienced some ‘gifts of the spirit.’

So the ‘growth’ in Northern Ireland is not astronomical, especially compared to its growth in other parts of the world. It also should be pointed out that some of these new churches seem to have a younger demographic so growth is likely a combination both of people leaving other denominations and of people in these new churches ‘dying off’ less quickly.

Worldwide, it is estimated that Pentecostal/charismatic groups combined make up 584 million worldwide, or 26 percent of all Christians. (Research by World Christian Database). If we date the birth of the modern movement to the Asuza Street Revival in Los Angeles around 1905, as most scholars do, that’s pretty impressive growth in just over a century.

I think part of the reason for such impressive growth is the ability of these churches to adapt so well to their local contexts. Their reliance on the leading of the Holy Spirit rather than ‘old’ church traditions or structures gives them a great deal of flexibility.

I look forward to Meredith’s programme to provide some insight on how that’s happening in Northern Ireland.

(The programme will also be broadcast on Thursday 4 July at 7.30 pm)

(Image from BBC website)

4 thoughts on “Telling the Story of Pentecostals and Charismatics in Northern Ireland: Tomorrow on Radio Ulster”

  1. Hi Gladys,

    I’m new to your site, and I found this post interesting & informative.

    I’ve been a Christian for over thirty years, and I’m more convinced now than ever that the Church, to a very large degree, has departed from the purposes and plans that God has for her, and this includes the charismatic segment.

    Instead of being what it was created to be… a living, organic EXPRESSION of the very life & nature of Christ Himself… it has devolved into programs, projects and people primarily pursuing their own wants & agendas, just as their unbelieving neighbors do.

    I believe that’s why the church has become powerless & ineffective… almost irrelevant in our world today.

  2. we worship a supernatural God. Christ Jesus had a supernatural conception and birth. in His compassion towards suffering humanity He worked in the supernatural. The church was birth in the upper room by a supernatural experience. the church, today, largely denies the upper natural. the church today would deny the emotional expression of charismatic worship. how oes one express worship, and love to God, without emotion. how can a man or woman express their love for one another without showing emotion. how much more towards our saviour.

  3. Well said Derek. Showing emotion should be embraced when expressing your love for God. Who else can you that to other than Our God Almighty. I find it interesting and confusing at the same time when we try and hold our emotions back when it comes to expressing our love for God in Church. I believe the experiences one has in their lives should lead one to be able to express emotions to God even during a services. I am not promoting unorganised noise here but am simply saying one should be allowed to express themselves when in Praise and Worship being led by the words being sung in the service. The dispensation we are in requires one to truly connect with God. This I believe engages one to have a closer relationship with God in a more personal way. The church yes was birthed at Pentecost where the Bible clearly states that believers were encouraged to wait in order to receive power. Yes it happened and when one believes in this Supernatural they should be able to express it the way they feel. Amen.

  4. Strange how there was much including of Independant charismatic churches in this article but not any mention of the Apostolic Church denomination which has 5 churches within Northern Ireland. Was the research not as extensive as it should be?

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