Inside the evangelical church linked to Wrightbus
Just 10 years old, Co Antrim’s Green Pastures church is growing fast. What’s its secret?
Jeff Wright, who is the lead pastor at the Green Pastures Church in Ballymena, Co Antrim. Photograph: Stephen Davison
The new Jerusalem is currently under construction, on a 97 acre site close to Ballymena in Co Antrim. “The Gateway”, described as a spiritual and social regeneration project, is the initiative of an ambitious evangelical church called Green Pastures.
The Gateway is essentially a self-contained holy village. The plan includes social housing, a hotel, supermarket, car show-room, riverside restaurants, an outdoor pursuits centre, a training and education centre, student accommodation, a nursing home, an all-weather football pitch and a wedding chapel.
The present church is situated alongside the Wrightbus factory, famous for its red double-decker London buses, and is led by Pastor Jeff Wright, son of Wrightbus founder William Wright. Established in 2007, Green Pastures – “the church that helps you fall in love with Jesus” – has grown rapidly in size and reach.
Now Pastor Wright and his team are looking forward to leading their flock to a state-of-the-art super-church, complete with restaurant, gym, dance and recording studios, and the capacity for thousands of worshippers. The foundation stone of the new Green Pastures building has been laid, and the church will stand at the centre of the Gateway complex.
Project Nehemiah, the original title for the Gateway, was named after the Old Testament figure who rebuilt the city of Jerusalem, which gives some sense of the enormous scope of Green Pastures’ ambition.
They certainly like to think big. Their slogan, “Loving Jesus, transforming communities, inspiring a nation”, is also a clue. These are pastors turned multi-million pound property developers, but they are adamant that their money-making vision is all in the service of God and the local community.
So how did Green Pastures, in just over a decade, turn a small, obscure church into one of the biggest developments in the North?
Jeff Wright is the charismatic preacher at the heart of it all. A former footballer, now aged 54, he strides through his church, full of energy, greeting everyone with great warmth and joviality, liberally dispensing hugs and handshakes and big slaps on the back. Christian soft rock music plays in the background and there is a strong scent of coffee in the air.
Over super-sized muffins and traybakes – even the baked goods are on an inflated scale – Pastor Jeff, as everyone calls him, explains how it all began.
“I failed all my exams, and I grew up with that stigma of failure, which a lot of guys can do,” Wright says. He has a soft, persuasive voice with a Ballymena burr. “I had been tailor made to take over the family business [Wrightbus], but I didn’t think I had the wisdom to do it. It came to a point one night, I fell on my knees beside my bed, just cried literally to God, ‘look, if you’ll help me, guide me to run this, I would give you this business’. I really felt I had an encounter with the living God that night.”
From that point on, faith was Jeff Wright’s driving force. “We made God a shareholder in the business – 26 per cent of Wrights is owned by an evangelical trust – in order to make sure He was central in everything the Wrights company does.”
Then he felt that God had a new question for him. “Do you love me more than these buses?’ I said, ‘yeah, I do’. So God said ‘I want you to feed my lambs and take care of my sheep’.”
Wright interpreted this as a direct vocational call, and sought guidance from Pastor James McConnell, of Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in Belfast.
But it was a decisive encounter with a stricken child that gave Wright the final push to establish his own church. Driving home one night, he saw a little girl collapse in the street. “I remember just picking this wee girl up, her wee eyes rolling in head, she had taken some kind of drug. And that was the final challenge – ok, I’m going to leave work, and go to help. That was the moment. I’ll never forget those brown eyes.”
“I’m one of those Christians that believes that Jesus wants to be at centre of community,” declares Wright. “In all issues of society, church has a responsibility. Jesus wants to be a restorer of streets to dwell in. That’s what drives us. It does change what church looks like.”
It certainly does. There are no prim hats, sedate hymns or stiffly-arranged flowers at Green Pastures. Jeans, trainers and the odd tattoo seem to be the de facto dress code, and Sunday services are led by a youthful rock band, streamed live on the Green Pastures website.
But despite the free-wheeling informality, you get the impression that their beliefs are every bit as literal and fundamental as traditional evangelical churches. That perception is reinforced when I ask one of the assistant pastors, Jason Kennedy, about the church’s position on issues like abortion and marriage equality. He responds: “We are a life-giving, evangelical, charismatic church. We hold a Biblical worldview on all matters.”
Jeff Wright set up Green Pastures beside the Wrightbus compound. But he says he knew from the start that they weren’t staying there: “I was always looking for another piece of ground.”
In 2012, Green Pastures put in a bid of £4 million and one pound for the 97 acre plot of government-owned land at Ballee, near Ballymena, which was previously valued at £75 million.
Quite a bargain, wasn’t it? “Well, that was the asking price,” says Pastor Jeff, a little defensively.
“We were able to put a deposit down because we were able to sell the (original) church, and now we rent it. Wrights will take this place over; they need the space. That’s the reason how we were able to get the land.”
There was fairly fierce opposition to the Gateway project from local traders, who feared the development would take business away from Ballymena town centre, and there was also an online campaign by locals who resented having a popular dog-walking area removed. But Green Pastures prevailed.
Did they get any political help along the way? “All of the obstacles we encountered in terms of planning were in relation to the retail aspect on the site that we applied for permission for,” explains Jason Kennedy. “We had cross-party support for all of the ministry/church aspects of the Gateway Project.”
He mentions two DUP members: “Ian Paisley Jr MP spoke in favour of the retail aspect at the Planning Committee meeting, but Paul Frew MLA spoke against the retail aspect at the same meeting – so we’ve had no ‘official’ political support from any party but have had support from individual politicians.”
For all that he renounced the family firm, it’s clear that Jeff Wright’s business acumen is central to Green Pastures’ big plans, with the retail part of the Gateway project intended to provide finance for the church’s ongoing ministry.
One of the first buildings on the new site is the Dream Centre, which is a training, support and mentoring organisation for the disadvantaged and long-term unemployed. Close by is a row of 18 brand-new houses, all ready for trainees to move into, with support staff living on-site.
All of this, and more, is financed by a group of social enterprise companies, Advanced Engineering, which supplies parts to Wrightbus, also provides training and work placements. According to Advanced Engineering general manager Alistair Patton, a former bank manager, turnover last year was just under £3 million.
Wright, his team of pastors and his vast army of smiling volunteers – there are 600 of them in total – seem propelled by a profound, unwavering sense of belief in the social good they are seeking to do.
But what happens if somebody desperately needs help, yet doesn’t want to be part of their church? “People come here without the experience of God,” says Wright, “and that’s ok for us. We just trust that as time goes on, at some point, people will have that encounter with Jesus for the first time, and submit to God’s will.” “In traditional churches, you have to believe to belong,” adds Jason Kennedy. “Here, you can belong before you believe.”
And then Pastor Jeff is off again, followed by his people, striding through the mud of the Ballymena building site with all the conviction of an Old Testament prophet.