Ireland is about to experience an explosion of online evangelists with a mass preaching of the Christian Gospel not seen on the island since the glory days of the 1859 Spiritual Revival which swept across North East Ulster, effectively creating the foundation of today’s modern day Irish Bible Belt.
While American-style tele-evangelism has made its presence felt in Ireland for decades, the island was more noted for the so-called street evangelists.
These may not necessarily be full-time clergy, but ‘born again’ believers, equipped with the King James Version of the Bible, a megaphone or public address system - and a very loud voice, of course - enabling them to set up anywhere they could garner a crowd so that they could deliver a Hell-fire sermon complete with graphic interpretations of what eternal damnation would consist of.
Such street preachers would be a common sight along the traditional parade routes of Twelfth Orange Order demonstrations, and especially at the equally traditional 13th July Sham Fight at Scarva when upwards of 60,000 people would pack the streets of the little village for the event organised by the Royal Black Institution.
More often than not, these mobile street evangelists would be bedecked in their hi-vis jackets with key theologically Salvationist verses of Scripture emblazoned upon them; their megaphones turned up to full volume as they boomed out their sermons of a Heaven to gain and a Hell to shun.
But in this past decade as Ireland became an increasingly secular society and the ‘fluffy bunny’ theology began to pollute many of our churches - namely, don’t preach anything which offends people and rocks the boat - the ageing street preachers slowly began to fade from the street corners.
Liberalism within the Christian faith began to gain ground in Ireland, steadily backing evangelicals and fundamentalists into a tactical corner. Preaching about Hell’s fiery damnation, the lake of everlasting fire, Judgement Day, and God’s punishment for the ‘unsaved’ became heavily frowned upon by society.
Some traditions from that Super Sixties and Seventies still exist, such as the Children’s Special Service Mission (CSSM) which still conducts many popular beach missions at well known coastal locations such as Portrush, Portstewart and Portballintrae (I attended the latter for many years during the annual family summer holidays).
However, it seemed only a matter of time before the so-called ‘sermon police’ would be visiting churches to ensure clerics were not preaching anything which could be deemed offensive. But then Covid-19 struct and we are now in lockdown until early May at the earliest - and that includes the closure of places of worship.
With people told to stay at home, the virtual church took off even though a number of churches already live-streamed their services prior to the virus pandemic hitting Ireland.
A pastor can now sit in his study and use social media to deliver his weekly Sunday sermons or provide online Bible studies. Gospel singers provide online concerts of Christian songs from their living rooms.
Such evangelical outreach was taking place in every nation in lockdown and with a significant Christian population. And because the internet is global, Christians could tune into pastors and services from any nation.
While the Christian Church will have to take full advantage of this outreach, especially in a post lockdown society, the current lockdown has provided many opportunities for people who yearned to be Gospel preachers to ‘give it a go’.
Maybe it has even got the theological juices running and some solo evangelists are considering setting up their own one-person virtual churches.
Its almost a carbon-copy of the development of so-called citizen journalists; people who had not enrolled in a recognised journalist training course, but just simply woke up one morning and designated themselves as ‘journalists’ without having completed any training in legal and ethical codes and conventions.
For many years, as a young Christian, I had always believed that God would lead me to follow in my dad’s footsteps and become a Presbyterian minister. But after the intense persecution I suffered simply for being a minister’s son from people in the congregation (never my parents), I abandoned the idea in favour of a career in journalism.
Decades later, I am a Presbyterian minister’s son married to a Baptist pastor’s daughter and am now a communicant member of an Elim Pentecostal church following a brief flirtation with the Baptists and Methodists! Work that one out theologically!
From time to time, and especially during the lockdown, I’ve had time to ponder what might have been if I’d faced down my persecutors in Presbyterianism and determinately trained for the ministry.
With so many clerics being forced to either deliver their sermons from their living rooms, studies, kitchens and even standing alone in the pulpits of their churches with no congregation because of the social distancing and closed church rules, I wonder how many Christians - like myself - are pondering the concept of the one-person, online church?
In spite of being a life-long journalist by career, I have completed a number of sermon-training courses and even a term at Bible College. One of the best courses was the Handling The Word programme, run by the Presbyterian Church.
Operating from my man shed, maybe the time has come to formally launch my own Abundant Mercies Baptist Church with regular sermons and Bible studies, all broadcast online from the solitary comfort of that man shed?
As part of the lockdown, it may also well be that many clerics are finding that more people are tuning into their weekly online Sunday sermons than are actually in the pre-virus pews on the Sabbath before lockdown!
However, the danger is that - just as with American tele-evangelism - online preachers begin competing for viewers; and without proper theological training, we start to hear some pretty weird views expressed which have no basis in Scripture.
The real danger comes when these online self-appointed preachers begin copying the American tele-evangelists and start making appeals for donations.
Almost certainly, the post virus society will see an increasing interest in online services, but the key questions Christians will have to ask is - how can we distinguish the wolves in sheeps' clothing from the genuine evangelists?