John Coulter: Churches should bring back traditional revivalist missions to reignite people's interest in the Christian faith

​The current covid inquiry in Northern Ireland, irrespective of the outcome, has thrown down a major spiritual challenge to the Christian churches - the need for a campaign of revivalist missions to re-assert the churches’ roles in community life.
A return of traditional evangelical missions could help churches reassert themselves in their communitiesA return of traditional evangelical missions could help churches reassert themselves in their communities
A return of traditional evangelical missions could help churches reassert themselves in their communities

​As a Presbyterian minister’s son, one of my happiest memories of church life were the great evangelical missions of the 20th century.

So I’m posing the question, nay, I’m throwing down a gauntlet to anyone who calls themselves Christian in Ireland - do revivalist missions still have a significant role in the churches of the “new normal”?

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For generations, perhaps centuries, there were two important buildings in any community whether rural or urban - the place of education, and the place of worship.

Dr John Coulter has been a journalist since 1978Dr John Coulter has been a journalist since 1978
Dr John Coulter has been a journalist since 1978

Over the decades we have witnessed many schools close or merge. In post pandemic 2024, many Christian denominations are witnessing a fall in numbers in the pews, especially at Sunday worship. How can this decline be realistically addressed?

Simple solution - the churches need to re-assert themselves as integral parts of the communities they serve. In short, they must be seen to be active in those communities if their relevance is to be guaranteed in a seemingly increasingly secular society.

The post Covid church must not become a holy huddle limited to activities in the pews. It must become an active voice in the community, and one strategy is to develop a return of the traditional revivalist missions.

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While life as a preacher’s kid got increasingly tough for me as I progressed through my teens in Irish Presbyterianism, there was one element of that life in the north east Ulster Bible Belt which I relished the most - those traditional evangelical missions.

Normally, traditional Presbyterian evangelical missions lasted a fortnight with nightly services, except Saturday. But some united missions lasted a full month - two weeks in one congregation with another two weeks in a neighbouring church.

While my late dad - Rev Dr Robert Coulter MBE - may have been better remembered throughout Northern Ireland as an Ulster Unionist politician, former mayor of Ballymena, or leading chaplain in the loyal orders, his first love was preaching the Gospel.

Each year, he would undertake at least a couple of Presbyterian-style, two-week evangelical missions. Meeting folk in the wider Presbyterian community was one of the joys of being a minister’s son - especially the delicious after-service suppers.

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For me, too, such missions were the opening door to my later career in the music recording business. After becoming a ‘born again’ believer, I was put in charge of dad’s tape ministry. Each night of the mission, the service would be recorded live. I used a portable mixing desk with eight channels and microphones placed around the church building. There was no room for error - it all had to be recorded in the first “take”. And, of course, not every Presbyterian Church or mission hall was built with the acoustics of sound recordings in mind!

The master tape of the entire live service - including the welcome to worship, singing, testimonies of how people became “born again” believers, soloists, the prayers, Bible readings, and of course, dad’s sermon - would be recorded on a reel-to-reel machine. Then, during the day time, cassette copies - usually lasting 90 minutes (the older readers will remember them as C90s) - would be produced and brought to the church the following evening.

This was an era when there was no internet, live streaming, or even satellite TV. For many in the north east Ulster Bible Belt, the entertainment would be listening to the services over again. The tape ministry was especially important for people with illnesses or disabilities who physically could not attend the missions. Such tape ministries were perhaps a fore runner of the online religious worships which tens of thousands of people tuned into during the Covid-19 lockdown.

As traditional Christian denominations - such as Presbyterianism, Methodism and the Church of Ireland - saw a slide in Sunday attendances, the missions seemed pushed to the back-burners in terms of evangelical outreach.

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With the turn of the new millennium, the north east Ulster Bible Belt witnessed a growth in the Pentecostal movement which could boast a more lively style of worship compared to the conservative hymns and psalms of the mainstream denominations.

The Pentecostal movement placed its emphasis on regular Sunday worship, rather than a specific time-framed evangelical mission. To such pastors, every Sunday was a mission service.

Young people, especially, were attracted to Pentecostalism by the lively music. While the mainstream denominations and mission halls focused on worship accompanied by the piano or organ, the Pentecostalists focused on building worship bands with drums, and electric guitars.

But the coronavirus pandemic and the closure of churches during the lockdown has put all places of worship now on an even platform – indeed, it may even be years before Christian worship returns to the level of physical interaction it enjoyed pre-lockdown.

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Another challenge for the church is how it can retain many of the online followers.

Put bluntly, the time has now come for the Christian denominations, congregations and fellowships to see a return of the traditional evangelical mission as a means of keeping folk interested in the life and work of the Christian faith.

It would also be a fitting tribute to the great evangelists of the seventies if their legacy was a return to those tremendous missions as the main form of Christian witness.

Dr John Coulter has been a journalist since 1978

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