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May 08, 2013

Ireland: Rethinking Religion

Financial woes and growing secularism are creating fresh opportunities for faith and church movements in Ireland.

  • Revival

    Like most European countries, Ireland was hit hard by the recent economic recession. This area of downtown Dublin has seen a revival, led in part by Third Space cafe.

  • Open Doors

    The Irish have drifted away from the Catholic church. The door is now open for places like this cafe converted from an old Protestant Mission Hall to reach people with the truth of Christ.

In the early 2000s, Ireland’s roaring economy was bringing swagger to an island long accustomed to struggling in the shadow of its European neighbors.

In 2008, the good times crashed to a halt as Ireland became the first country on the continent to plunge into the Great Recession.

If there is a silver lining for Ireland, it may be that the financial uncertainty is opening new doors for the Gospel in a culture that has drifted further and further away from its traditional Catholic roots.

“There’s been a very severe economic implosion in the last five years, and that’s caused a lot of people to re-think everything,” said Sean Mullen, who owns Third Space, a café near downtown Dublin designed to be a source of hope in the community.

“We were hollowed out during the economic boon years. We thought that all we needed was a bit more money, and then we discovered that wasn’t all we needed, that we needed more than that,” Mullen said.

As Mullen sees it, that realization is creating opportunities to connect Irish people with Jesus as they question their faith and try to find new ways of living that work for them.

“We’re in a time of grace and openness when people are open for discussing new ideas,” Mullen said. “There is a sense that this is an opportunity for people to think again about a message that they may have already thought they knew and understood.”

Mullen’s idea is that Jesus can be presented with a focus on how he lived his life in a loving, respectful, and community-minded way. “I think there’s an enormous possibility for us to present the Jesus message as a way of living,” he said.

Ireland has undergone enormous social, cultural, and religious change in the past 20 years. According to the 2011 census, more than 80 percent of the population identify themselves as Catholic, but many don’t attend Mass on a regular basis as the church is seen as outdated and divided. Many Irish Catholics have lost confidence in church leadership after recent sex abuse scandals involving priests and believe that the church is out of touch with society on issues like contraception, women priests, and cohabitation before marriage.

“It moved from being a very conservative, traditional, religious country to being a very liberal, not at all traditional, and much more secular country than it used to be,” Mullen said. “By and large, this current generation has given up on the idea of organized religion.”

Mullen believes Ireland’s economic and political climate is not only an opportunity for the Gospel, but for launching new church movements and faith communities.

And there may be no better ignition point than Dublin.

“Dublin is the place where ideas within Ireland are formed and shaped, by in large, and as Dublin goes, Ireland goes,” Mullen said. He works with various ministries throughout the city, some in economically depressed areas, some working with urban young professionals who have no church background, and some working on projects that address justice and mercy issues.

“There is opportunity for people who are really committed to the Jesus message to find new ways of proclaiming it, new ways of communicating it to people, and new ways of living that out in the city.”

-Written by Lisa H. Renninger
-Photographed by Robert Johnson