When you walk down Main Street in the coastal town of Bangor, Co Down, you will find the church that is locally described as ‘the church with the lovely tree in front of it’.
First Presbyterian Church, Bangor is much more than this of course. Its vision is to ‘celebrate God’s love for us, to share God’s love with each other and to offer it to our community.’
There are so many ways in which the congregation seeks to fulfil this. Although First Bangor is firmly rooted in their past history, it is a congregation seeking to share the message of love, hope and life in the 21st century.
In 1623 the first Presbyterian Minister was ordained in Bangor. The Rev Robert Blair was invited by Viscount Clandeboye to be the first minister of the then ‘Parish of Bangor’. Eventually, those who followed the Presbyterian ‘Way’ were forced to separate from the Episcopal Church and First Presbyterian Church, Bangor was established.
The present church building is the fourth occupied by the congregation. Its foundation stone was laid in 1831 and the spire was added in 1880.
The congregation has over 740 families connected to it, making it one of the largest Presbyterian congregations in Ireland, and it is truly a multi-generational Christian family. The GB and BB companies have at least 150 members in each with our youth groups, which come under the name ‘BTC’ (Big Tree Collective) being very strong and active. There is a Parent & Toddler Group ‘Chattabox’, which meets on Tuesday mornings and welcomes many families from the community. The PW group meets twice a month, welcoming women of all ages into fellowship. And, if you enjoy ‘the beautiful game’ you can pop down on a Monday night for the Men’s five-a-side football. First Bangor is also known for its ‘Model Railway Club’ who organise exhibitions in May and December.
Sunday mornings see hundreds of worshippers joining together for a service which seeks to engage people of all ages. Music is a vital part of our worship experience and the congregation enjoy ‘blended worship’, understanding that there is a place for all types of music and songs for a large congregation such as theirs. The evening Service is a more reflective experience with a focus on praise and teaching.
The congregation has just trained and equipped its first ever ‘Prayer Ministry Team’ who will be available to pray with folk after both services.
Bangor is a place where people of many nations visit and increasingly a number stay. First Bangor recognised a need to help people with language skills and so a Thursday evening English class was initiated. In the last year, over 40 people have attended the class, led by volunteers trained in teaching English as a foreign language.
A new group Dorcas was set up in 2013, as a warm, welcoming place for those who knit, sew, draw, crochet-or would like to learn. Dorcas happens on Thursday mornings in The Hub, the coffee bar and is open to anyone who would appreciate some company and would enjoy the fellowship that happens.
A wonderful aspect to this new ministry is that we have welcomed ladies from the Simon Community and Women’s Aid along with ladies who have come from different countries like Peru, Bangladesh and Mexico. One lady is a Muslim and has found in First Bangor a gracious and Christian welcome, causing her to become involved in other areas of church life.
Four years ago the congregation made a courageous decision to create a warm, welcoming facility, attached to our existing church building at a cost of £1.8 million. The vision was to provide a space for those in the congregation and community, a place where we could live out our vision to share Christ’s love in many different ways and to provide facilities that the community could use.
Such a large debt has meant much fund-raising past and present. Within the next few months, the congregation will play host to a concert by one of its own members, George Jones, a craft fair on October 25 and a Festival of Christmas Trees from December 4-7. The congregation hopes that everyone will join them in these great events and everyone will be so welcome.
In August 2013 I became the new minister of First Bangor. I had previously been minister in First Ballynahinch, a congregation I had led for over 20 years. My passion is to see people know the ‘life in all its fullness’ that Jesus promises, not just make a decision to believe in Him, and to grow as His disciples.
A vital part of being a disciple is discovering our gifts and talents. So on coming to Bangor, I have encouraged my new church family with the phrase ‘All hands on deck’, a phrase that is perfect for a town that has many yachts in its marina.
I am married to the Rev David Stanfield, also a Presbyterian Minister. David currently works for the Inter-Church Youth Agency, Youth Link as the director of the Centre for Youth Ministry Ireland, based at Belfast Bible College. We have two sons, Jonathan and Daniel.
*For more information on the Church visit the website www.firstbangor.org.