It’s 5.30pm on a Sunday in central Dublin. Just off O’Connell Street, tourists in T-shirts tramp past yet another of Dublin’s fine old churches without giving it a second glance. A typical scene that seems to embody the post-Christian secularity of our capital city.
Then you step inside that old church building, and your perceptions are transformed. Every one of the dark wooden pews is crammed to capacity. The balcony is overflowing. On one side of the ornate pulpit a 50-voice choir – images being projected onto a huge screen at the front – is singing in beautiful harmonies.
Over 700 worshippers, all of them adults, are listening in rapt attention. Downstairs over 200 children are engrossed in Sunday school classes. It’s hard to remember that, just yards away, open-top buses are rumbling past.
You have stumbled into one of the many manifestations of a religious revolution of which tourists, and most Irish people, are completely unaware even though it is taking place right under our noses.
This congregation is just one of dozens of Romanian Evangelical and Pentecostal churches that meet across Ireland. Some are small, but others are fast outgrowing any venue that they can rent. Recently another Romanian church, to the west of the city, was granted planning permission to construct a building to seat over 1,000 worshippers each week.
And it's not just Romanians that are meeting in this way. The Redeemed Christian Church of God, a denomination founded in Nigeria, has over 100 congregations in the Irish Republic.
You can add to that the many Filipino churches, Indian churches, Brazilian churches, Russian-speaking churches, Korean churches, Chinese churches and hundreds of other congregations that cater predominantly to the “new Irish”.
Sharing a building
Many of these new churches meet in converted warehouses. On one single industrial estate in Dublin, I counted 14 different churches meeting on a Sunday – some of them sharing a building, with one congregation meeting there in the morning and another in the afternoon.
An estate agent who specialises in commercial property said to me: “If it wasn’t for these churches I’d have been out of a job during the recession.”
It is not just the “new Irish” who are participating in this religious revolution. Certainly it is rare to encounter any Evangelical congregation that does not include at least a sprinkling of worshippers from other nations, but churches where the “new Irish” are in the minority are also experiencing significant growth.
In most Irish cities and large towns you can find congregations of several hundred, some of them holding two or three services in a row each Sunday because their buildings are far too small to accommodate their growth.
So are we likely to see Irish Evangelical megachurches? When I was studying the sociology of religion 25 years ago, the term “megachurch”, imported from the US, referred to a congregation that regularly attracted over 1,000 worshippers to a Sunday service.
Today since such churches have mushroomed to the point where they are two a penny – a megachurch is defined as a congregation of over 2,000.
I doubt whether, anytime soon, we will see churches of tens of thousands as are found in many US cities, or even gatherings of hundreds of thousands as occurs in Asia.
No one knows exactly how many Evangelicals there are in Ireland, but I personally know of at least three Pentecostal churches in the Irish Republic that attract congregations of over 1,000, and it is no longer unusual to encounter churches that number several hundred.
It certainly appears, from the experience of other countries, that increased secularisation provides an environment in which such churches thrive.
Increased diversity, and the erosion of near-monopolies of religion by institutional denominations, is good news for forms of religion that lay a large stress on personal choice and decision.
Also, such churches, having never been part of the political or cultural power structures in the State, are generally unaffected by the scandals that have disillusioned so many.
While one’s first experience of a large Evangelical or Pentecostal church in Ireland can be disorientating, we should maintain a sense of perspective. Such Christians are still a tiny minority in our country. Yet their growth, often hidden under our noses and largely undocumented, is significant, and has something to contribute to the kind of nation we are becoming.
Nick Park is executive director of Evangelical Alliance Ireland. He is also pastor of the Solid Rock Church in Drogheda, Co Louth, a congregation comprising worshippers of over 40 nationalities.