Situated in Catholic West Belfast, the Andersonstown Leisure Centre isn’t the venue you would expect for a Christian rally featuring the charismatic Pastor James McConnell of the Metropolitan Tabernacle, known by some as a pastor to Iris Robinson.
The event is called ‘Hope: Now and Forever’, and will feature ‘a message of hope by Pastor James McConnell,’ a worship band, choir, and drama team.
McConnell’s last rally, held in September at the Ravenhill Rugby Grounds, attracted 12,000 people.
Rallies are a hallmark of Protestant evangelicalism, popularised by American evangelist Billy Graham. In rural areas of Ulster, it has long been an evangelical tradition to set up large tents during the summer months to host itinerant gospel preachers.
I grew up in an evangelical Protestant tradition, so these events seem normal to me. They don’t necessarily seem normal to Catholics, as evidenced in a 1999 publication called ‘The Great White Tent’ from Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI, now the Centre for Contemporary Christianity). In this volume, nationalists were invited to reflect on their perceptions of unionist identity and many wrote of their puzzlement at those large gospel tents.
Even as a child I understood that one of the main reasons why these rallies are held is to convince people to become converted or ‘born again.’ This was one of the main ways people from my tradition became Christians. Before his Ravenhill rally, Pastor McConnell told the Belfast Telegraph that he hoped the rally would convert at least 1,000 souls.
I reckon that it is usually people from Protestant backgrounds who attend McConnell’s rallies, like the one in Ravenhill. Critics might say that the Andersonstown event is an attempt at ‘sheep stealing,’ trying to lure Catholics to a different form of Christianity. But the title of the event, ‘Hope: Now and Forever’ could be a generic (even ecumenical) Christian one.
Whatever Pastor McConnell’s motivation, it is a bold step that, more than his events in other parts of the city, risks being met with hostility or indifference.
‘Hope: Now and Forever’ is scheduled for Thursday 27 January at 7.45 pm in the Andersonstown Leisure Centre.