ANYONE driving into the Co Antrim town of Ballymena from the Larne road will not fail to see the large Moy Park development, retail park and supermarket, situated on the town’s south side.
Behind this and on the Crebilly Road right up towards the Braid Valley, is Ballykeel, a four-fold estate made up of private and public housing. In the heart of the area itself, sits Ballykeel Presbyterian Church, one of the newer congregations of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.
The church’s central position has always defined its mission.
Ballykeel is a congregation comprising 160 mainly local families, though with a substantial minority driving in from the outlying district.
The church itself began over 40 years when some members of Harryville Presbyterian noticed the construction of Ballykeel 1 estate on the green field edge of Ballymena.
It was a time of post war optimism with government investment in ‘new towns’ across Great Britain.
In Northern Ireland, this included Craigavon, new estates in Antrim, Lisburn, and elsewhere.
In Ballymena new estates were built in Ballykeel, Ballyloughan and Ballee.
Accompanying the homes, came the hope of industrial development in factories like Michelin and firms opening up in Pennybridge Industrial Estate.
Ballykeel was initially populated by families drawn from outlying rural areas. Many came from traditional homes with strong roots in local churches, schools, bands and sports teams.
When the foundation stone was laid in Ballykeel Church, it was natural that a number of people would form the core of this new “Church Extension” as it was known.
The initially ministry, shared with Ballyloughan and Ballee, began with the Rev Joseph Fell, then for nearly 30 years, the Rev Brian Savage.
The church itself started with a varnished wood floor hall, with plans for a church building to be erected beside this hall.
The membership never increased to merit this. However, the original hall has been adapted and extended, providing good flexibility for activities. The Manse was added in the 1980s, behind the current meeting hall.
Without any fixed pews, much light through the high hall windows and simple square design, Ballykeel Church has always had a capacity to change.
Sunday worship would give way to indoor soccer or youth work during the week. It was a bustling, family friendly congregation with evangelical character and teaching.
The early optimism in Ballykeel gave way during the 1980s to well documented social problems impacting the quality of life.
Family break up, drug use, sectarian violence and over population were all identified as issues which led to people moving away from the area. Inevitably this impacted the congregation, not to mention the reputation of the area as a whole.
It was during the early 1990s, however, that many seeds were sown which have led to subsequent blessing.
As a result of determined work, Ballykeel members joining with other stakeholders, supported new business units, a residential home and a brand new primary school. Moreover, subsequent DSD investment and reduction in housing stock has led to significant change in the social geography of the area.
I moved to the church almost exactly six years ago.and from the outset recognised the unique position of the building in the centre of the estate. We sought to build a direct link between the original faithful core of the church, numbering 90 people on a Sunday, with the wider population around.
This led to links being strengthened with the community groups, sports teams, cultural groups, community PSNI, Ballykeel primary school, senior citizens groups and many other local individuals.
Special family services have been organised and many invitations given to outreach meetings such as Christianity Explored. As a result, interest in Ballykeel Church has grown to around 150 on a Sunday morning with a strong number of young people – over a quarter under the age of 18, including a number of infants due to a recent baby boom!