Finding Wholeness in the Emerald Isle

On May 28, 300 kids from five Northern Ireland clubs gathered to mark the year’s end. Kids from the clubs of Ballycrochan, West, Ballygrainey, Lisnabreen and Craigavon were together singing, laughing, dancing, witnessing a friend getting coated with whipped cream and Skittles, and listening to an age-old story that unites them. A total of 300 kids — on a Saturday night — that’s remarkable. But it’s not the number of kids that was astounding. It was the diversity. Leaving behind their various school identities and the uniforms that mark them, in Young Life club they also left behind the divisions of a violent past. And in coming together, Catholic and Protestant, these children of “The Troubles” found truth and meaning in what so many their age saw as the source of disunity and violence.

Ireland, once claimed for Christ by the fifth-century bishop St. Patrick, is fast becoming an island of “nones” — a demographic who when asked about their religious affiliation, respond “none.” To the south, in the Republic of Ireland, surveys report religion is declining faster than in almost every other country in the world.

And to the north? That’s even more complicated. Northern Ireland was created in 1921 by British Parliament amid the Irish war of independence. The tension between Northern Ireland’s population of Roman Catholics and the Protestant descendants of Ireland’s original colonists, erupted into violence in the 1960s.

In a country at war with itself for the next 30 years during a time called “The Troubles,” 3,500 citizens died and another 50,000 were wounded. The conflict was political, social and religious. Physical barriers called “Peace Walls” further separated communities already divided along religious lines. In Northern Ireland, the movement toward greater integration in schools is a religious (and political) matter, not a racial one. Add to this backdrop of religious prejudice and mistrust, recent revelations of church clergy abuses. No wonder, when asked, almost 70 percent of today’s Irish students say they do not believe religion makes the world a better place.


Craig Mawhinney, Young Life’s Northern Ireland director, understands why kids are rejecting religion. And he’s actually heartened by the current state of affairs. Far from grieving the death of Christendom, he believes this is the best opportunity in hundreds of years to proclaim the full gospel. According to Mawhinney, “Kids have been given just enough of an incomplete gospel to make them immune to the real thing.” This is precisely where Young Life enters the conversation asking for a fair hearing about the Jesus kids have never met. “If you’re going to reject Jesus,” said Mawhinney, “at least reject Jesus of the Bible. Let us tell you the real story.”

The first chance to do that in a camp setting was in 2011 at Young Life’s camp in Kidderminster, England, amidst the sheep and the cows. Mawhinney took five kids and two leaders to camp that year. Two of the five campers were family members, his son and a niece. Fast forward to summer 2016 when over a three-week period, a total of 227 kids and leaders from both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland attended Young Life or WyldLife camps at Cairn Brae, Young Life’s new camp in Crieff, Scotland. The pictures of summer camp have changed a lot in five years, none more striking, though, than this mental picture of Mawhinney’s: two girls huddled together on the club room floor weeping after the story of Jesus’s death. They couldn’t understand how such a good man could die. The girls had never heard the story before, and they were shattered by it. Later that week they would hear that in the final chapter, Jesus, the Christ, lives.

Relationships, Not Religion

Mawhinney, an ordained minister, previously worked with kids as the youth ministry training officer for the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. He knows firsthand about The Troubles. Years ago, he attended an evening church meeting. Ten minutes after Mawhinney and the others had left the church, an explosion leveled it, shattering the windows of buildings nearby.

The terrorist act didn’t deter him or his wife, Sonia (a youth and children’s pastor herself), from ministry. He loves the church dearly, but believes all too often, “the church does not go. It waits.” And Mawhinney and his wife are “go to” people. Long before coming on Young Life staff they hosted small groups of kids in their home in friendship and for Bible study.

Some years after that incident Mawhinney met up with his dear friend from seminary named Keith McCrory, now a Dublin pastor. When McCrory said he was also serving as Young Life’s committee chair in the Republic of Ireland, Mawhinney replied, “Young Life? That American thing? I didn’t even know Young Life was in Ireland.” McCrory described for him Young Life’s methods and work in the country. Mawhinney then explained to McCrory he had one year left on his current contract and no plans yet for the future. Mawhinney laughed when the friend asked if he would like to join Young Life. But the next day, as Mawhinney recalls, he “rang his friend and said, ‘We need to talk, don’t we?’”

After that talk Mawhinney realized “for 30 years I’d been doing Young Life. I just didn’t know to call it that.” He believes there are others just like him waiting to be found — adults who love kids enough to show them that knowing Jesus is far different than knowing about Him; adults who know that while religion cannot make the world a better place, Jesus can. Lee Corder, senior vice president of Young Life’s International Initiatives, has said, “In countries where acceptance or hatred are determined by labels — Catholic or Protestant — Young Life is both and neither, firmly rooted in the church of Jesus Christ with all believers.”

For now, Mawhinney is grateful for the ripple effect of transformed lives. A Bangor club that began in 2010 with 18 kids now hosts 300. Another 150 would be added to that number if every kid whom they meet with were to show up. And these changed lives are impacting friends, classmates, siblings and parents in ministry hubs and beyond. Tom Hammon, who oversaw Young Life’s growing presence in the U.K. and Ireland, isn’t surprised. “Northern Ireland was made for Young Life and Young Life was made for Northern Ireland! Irish kids don’t know a stranger, they love to laugh and sing and they are so personable, so relational. This is a work of the Lord, His kingdom breaking in. It is the fruit of hearts prepared to hear the gospel as witnessed by changed lives everywhere in that beautiful country.” In a place once known as the land of scholars and saints, there is every hope that, united in faith, it will be so again.