Upwards of 100 people from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland interested in church planting gathered in Dundalk, County Louth recently for the Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s (PCI) conference ‘A time to plant’.
Organised by PCI’s Council for Mission in Ireland, which has specific responsibility for developing PCI’s strategic priorities in all-age mission across Ireland, and new church development, was seeking to build on the denomination’s long and rich history of planting new churches.
Rev Dr Marty McNeely, minister of Ballykeel Presbyterian Church, Ballymena, is co-convener of PCI’s Church Planting Panel and was one of the speakers at Saturday’s conference. “This one day conference was open to all within PCI who are interested in church planting. For me, and I hope everyone who attended, it was a really inspiring and encouraging day. I am personally really excited about how God might use the event, prayerfully hoping that new expressions of church and Christian witness may take root as a result and those recently established by Presbyterians will flourish.”
During the conference those attending heard from Presbyterians who are currently building new communities of faith. These include Balbriggan in County Dublin, which began its weekly services in 2020, Central in Belfast, which opened its doors in 2016, and another expression of Christian witness in West Belfast, Grace and Hope Community Church. Those involved spoke about their experiences, sense of call, the challenges and the joys of being part of something new.
They also heard from keynote speaker Scotty Smith, author and founding pastor of Christ Community Church in Franklin, Tennessee. Mr Smith pastored the church for 26 years, from which grew five ‘daughter churches’ and 10 subsequent ‘granddaughter churches’.
Dr McNeely, whose own church, Ballykeel, was planted in the early 1970s, continued, “It is a fact that over the years, society north and south has changed, becoming more secular with fewer people attending church. Having said that, the biblical mandate to make disciples of all nations, which includes our own, has not gone away. People still need to hear the Good News of the Gospel.
“Across the world Christ’s Church is growing and there is a genuine desire within PCI to expand and grow too, reaching those in new ways who have yet to hear the Gospel. I hope that Saturday’s conference inspired those who have this call upon their lives to build new expressions of church, and so introduce new people in new places to a new life in Christ,” Dr McNeely said.
Keynote speaker Scotty Smith, who has written and spoken extensively about church planting, is part of the leadership team of West End Community Church in Nashville, Tennessee. He is also partnering with Liberty Church in Dublin and its work in the capital’s inner city.
Reflecting on the conference Mr Smith said, “I loved the title of the conference, ‘A time to plant’, because that phrase covers the entire history of redemption. Many times we are slow to realise here is the joy of our Heavenly Father, who before the formation of the world, determined to shape people in terms of a universal family, focussing them in local communities of the church.”
Mr Smith continued, “Today we were looking at the Apostle Paul who is a consummate church planter. We saw his heart for the Gospel, his heart for the fullness of history that is our Father’s commitment to one day fill the earth with His glory and to use the local church as a primary ‘show and tell’ of that great story. That’s what we were kind of looking at today, blasting our hearts with the Gospel, the story of God and the centrality of the church.”
Thanking Mr Smith for his inspiring contribution the Convener of the Council for Mission in Ireland, Very Rev Frank Sellar DL, said “’A time to plant’ was one of the most enjoyable and worthwhile events I’ve been at for a very long time. I’m certain its benefits are yet to be seen.”
Having spoken at the Annual Conference of Presbyterian Women in Belfast earlier in the day, Presbyterian Moderator, Right Reverend Dr David Bruce, travelled to Dundalk and gave a closing address to inspire those present about God’s heart for church planting.
Speaking afterwards Dr Bruce said, “I was tremendously encouraged by what I heard and saw today. I came away with a very positive sense that God was leading us to do more of this and confident that He would lead us to new places and new people where we can make new connections.”
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