|A Teenage John Coulter|
It was on 9th January 1972 at one such mission that I became a ‘born again’ believer in the Christian faith. Life has certainly taken a few unusual twists and turns, and many, many challenges, since that Sunday evening, but my faith has been one of the stabilising factors on that spiritual journey.
That January 1972 mission was a united event between dad’s church, Clough Presbyterian near Ballymena, and one of the neighbouring congregations, Killymurris Presbyterian then pastored by the late Rev William Lamont.
Normally, traditional Presbyterian evangelical missions lasted a fortnight with nightly services, except Saturday. But this united mission lasted a full month - two weeks in Clough and two weeks in Killymurris. The evangelist was the late Rev Alan Flavelle, one of Seventies’ Presbyterianism’s leading preachers of the Gospel.
Even before these church missions, the Faith Mission movement was very active in the north east Ulster Bible Belt, and its pilgrims regularly staged tent missions in rural areas. Such pilgrims were also regular guests at the Presbyterian Manse.
The Faith Mission held a special place in our family circle’s life. My late father had become a ‘born again’ believer himself as a result of a Faith Mission event in his native Stewartstown and his early preaching was with the Faith Mission movement.
The January 1972 mission had been a tremendous evangelical success with many people becoming ‘born again’ believers.
However, as we met in the Clough Presbyterian Manse after the closing Sunday evening in late January, the talk was not of the mission’s success, but the silence of watching the TV coverage of Bloody Sunday in Londonderry. The euphoria of the clerics was replaced with an eerie silence as the horrors of that day unfolded in the news programmes.
While my late dad 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.
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’. There was certainly no asking - ‘could we sing that hymn again please as I didn’t get my sound levels right!’. 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.
This experience as a wannabe sound engineer formed the foundations which later led me into forming my own heavy metal band, The Clergy, and launching my own punk and rock label, Budj Recordings.
However, as the Christian Church has faced competition from the secular world, especially with the advent of satellite channels, the traditional mission began to fade as a principle means of evangelism, even in the north east Ulster Bible Belt.
As traditional Christian denominations - such as Presbyterianism, Methodism and the Church of Ireland - saw a slide in Sunday attendances, the missions seems pushed to the back-burners in terms of evangelical outreach.
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 placed all places of worship now on an even platform.
Christian evangelism enjoyed a massive boom during lockdown as tens of thousands tuned in to online services and Bible studies. While the churches have re-opened, they all face very strict social distancing regulations and restrictions.
The so-called ‘new normal’ - even the threat of a second wave of the virus - has now thrown severe challenges to the Christian Churches. Indeed, it may even be years before Christian worship returns to the level of physical interaction it enjoyed pre-lockdown.
Another challenge for the Church is how it can retain many of the online followers as lockdown eases. Perhaps 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. Plenty of points for church leaders to ponder here!
Listen to Dr John Coulter’s religious show, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 9.30 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM, or listen online at www.thisissunshine.com