When thinking of unreached people groups, North American Christians are often drawn to the 10/40 window. Yet an entirely unreached country—in fact, the most unreached English-speaking country in the world—sits just across the Atlantic, directly east of Newfoundland, Canada.
I’m referring to the Republic of Ireland, which is surprising, given its rich Christian heritage. For 1,000 years after St. Patrick brought the gospel to modern-day Ireland, the island was a center of learning, scholarship, monasteries, and missionaries—so much so that it became known as the “land of saints and scholars.” Due to the failure of the Protestant Reformation to take hold in Ireland, this influence persisted through the Roman Catholic Church, which claimed over 95% of the population as late as 1961.
And yet, the last 60 years have produced drastic changes in this once-religious nation. In 2016, Catholics identified at an all-time low: only 78% of the population. Meanwhile, atheists, agnostics, and “nones” (no religion) now make up 10%. That’s a 700% increase in numbers since 1991. On the other hand, evangelical Christians make up less than 1% of the population. If you’re curious, a mere 0.08% are Baptist.
Even among the Catholic majority, secular ideology and morality have eclipsed traditional doctrine and practice. For example, over the past six years, the Irish population voted to legalize same-sex marriage (2015; 62%), abortion (2018; 68%), blasphemy (2018; 65%), and uncomplicated divorce (2019; 82%). Clearly, allegiance to traditional perspectives is waning. This land of saints and scholars is rapidly becoming a land of skeptics and seculars.
Several factors contribute to this national exodus from religion, each of which presents a significant barrier to gospel ministry in Ireland.
First—and perhaps most significantly—is the sad reality of religious betrayal. Multiple reports and investigations have unearthed nearly 15,000 cases of sexual abuse committed by Catholic clergy throughout the 1970–90s. These sexual abuse scandals rocked Ireland’s Roman Catholic Church. Even in the past year, new reports have portrayed the horrifying maltreatment of children in Catholic mother and baby homes. As these dark secrets have been dragged into the light, the majority-Catholic population has struggled to cope with the revelations.
As an illustration: several years ago, an Irish gentleman in his 70s or 80s told me that, after a lifetime of allegiance, he was finished with the Catholic church. “They’re nothing but perverts and hypocrites,” he said. Of course, his claim was both untrue and unfair. But his bitter disenchantment poignantly captures the shattered trust of the nation. There are still devoted Roman Catholics in Ireland. But for many, religious observance is infrequent, ceremonial, and divorced from daily life.
A second barrier to gospel ministry in Ireland is the religious tension between Catholics in the Republic and Protestants in Northern Ireland. Centuries of British rule over the island often resulted in oppression toward the Catholic way of life, culminating in the well-known conflicts in Northern Ireland in the 20th Century known as “The Troubles.” Many older Irish Catholics still bear vivid memories and scars of this deep religious conflict.
As an example: my wife’s grandfather, who passed away earlier this year, grew up as a Catholic working in the Protestant shipyards of Belfast. He was eventually forced to flee to Dublin after an attempt on his life—by Protestants! Understandably, this history presents a significant barrier to the older generation; they simply don’t want to hear from “Protestants.” For many in the already-skeptical younger generation, this history provides further evidence that organized religion is irreparably divisive, if not dangerous altogether.
A third powerful barrier stems from the religious baggage that has accumulated after centuries of life under the Roman Catholic Church. After generations of enduring moral demands devoid of gospel motivation and joy, the Irish are simply tired of being told what to do. Because of this, an escape from religion is seen as an opportunity for unprecedented freedom.
A final illustration: in the exit polls after the 2018 referendum on abortion, 84% of those who voted to legalize abortion indicated that they did so because women should have the right to choose. One Irish pastor recently expressed the challenge in this way:
Our desire for choice is driven by our lack of choice in the past. It is centered on issues where we were once told what to do; rebellion is at the heart of our yearning for choice. And this is inextricably tied to our Catholic past as a nation. The church said no to many things and choice is a throwing off of these shackles, saying no to our tainted historical morality. (Fraser Hosford, Down With This Sort of Thing, 16)
In a context of betrayal, violence, and self-expression, it’s difficult to see how the Irish could view the Christian gospel as good news.
Despite these significant barriers, believers in Ireland remain hopeful. After all, nothing—not scandals, legalism, oppression, nor even the gates of hell—will prevail against the advance of Christ and his beloved bride. Despite the challenges she faces, the Irish church continues to make disciples, plant churches, and share with her neighbors the good news of Jesus—a Savior who is gentle and tender (Matt 11:29; Heb 4:15), the Prince of Peace (Isa 9:6; Matt 5:9) who brings perfect freedom (John 8:36; 1 John 5:2–4).
Throughout the Republic of Ireland, Christians are laboring in patient faithfulness. Irish Baptist Missions supports and directs the work of church planting throughout the island and abroad. Passage Baptist constituted as a new church last month, forming the tenth independent church in the Cork/Kerry Project, a 30 year-old Baptist church-planting network in the southwest. Munster Bible College teaches and trains church members in the Munster region, while Irish Baptist College (in Northern Ireland) serves Baptists across the island. These are but a few of many examples. Moreover, this growth in recent years isn’t limited to Baptists. A recent survey by the Evangelical Alliance of Ireland showed that the majority of responding churches (57%) were less than 15 years old.
These evidences of growth are encouraging, yet the work is often slow and disheartening. One Irish worker described to me his frustration of seeing exciting reports from missionaries in other parts of the world. He said they made him feel the temptation to buff up his reports to make them more sensational. Moreover, North American missionaries moving to Ireland often assume the transition will be relatively easy, since they won’t need to learn a new language. But in reality, it takes years to understand the culture and “hit your stride.”
As in so much of post-Christian Europe, the soil is hard. There’s a great need for patient endurance, and for committed, long-term partnerships with the Irish believers who are already serving their country with such faithfulness.
Though the work in Ireland is slow, our Lord is wonderfully patient, and he delays his return as an opportunity for more to come to repentance (2 Pet 3:8–9). In this beautiful land of rolling green hills, blustery coasts, friendly villages, and countless sheep, our Shepherd King knows those sheep who are his, those who will respond in faith when they hear his voice (John 10:16).