One of the major success stories coming out of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s General Assembly has been the planting of a new church in Belfast city centre.
Father and son John and David Dickinson have been instrumental in establishing the vibrant Central Church at the location of once-mighty May Street Presbyterian Church.
The old May Street Church congregation was “closed down” (to use the official term) in December due to dwindling numbers. It has now been reborn under the new name.
John, 65, minister at Carnmoney Presbyterian, said: “There was a Presbyterian Church in May Street since 1829. It was built to bring (Irish Presbyterian leader) Henry Cooke to Belfast. Over the years it declined, people moved out of the city, numbers fell.
“Meanwhile in Carnmoney we’d started to think how we could reach a new generation through our Alpha courses.”
His son David had been working for Alpha UK, leading a course at various locations in the Cathedral Quarter.
With the remit of planting a church in Belfast, the 34-year-old came to the church full time and the journey began with Wednesday evening worship in the MAC.
David said: “We first gathered in the MAC in October 2016, then my wife had our first child in November 2016 which is just about the world’s biggest disaster when it comes to doing anything new.
“None of us have ever planted a church before, there hasn’t been a great deal of church planting in established denominations in Northern Ireland. We were feeling this out as we went.
“One of the statements about Belfast is people are moving away from God. Over that five years running Alpha there were around 350 people who came on the course, mostly young, from both Protestant and Catholic backgrounds. About 60% expressed no faith or nominal faith. We knew people were interested.”
In April 2017 David and his team started to talk about finding a permanent venue. At first they found a home at the renovated mall of Assembly buildings before being offered the chance to move into May Street Church as the congregation was going to close.
John said: “Initially we were really reluctant. It’s £1 million grade A listed building in the centre of Belfast, we thought, ‘this could sink us’.”
David said: “I was more optimistic about it than dad. I knew the building was an incredible space but it needed extensive renovation.”
He continued: “The biggest group in our church are young families, but you couldn’t cross aisles because of the box pews. The pews are gone, we carpeted the place to make it a bit softer. It’s a much more open and inviting space now, with flexible seating, sofas at the back, a coffee machine.
“We’ve installed a top quality audio visual system. We think it has the potential to become a real hub of life and host more than just worship.”
Central – which had its first service at the beginning of April – could be viewed as a devolved church of Carnmoney Presbyterian.
John said: “We had to give away some of our best people to make it happen, but it’s proved to be an incredible encouragement for us and we’re now looking at the possibility of doing something similar in Ballyduff which is a large loyalist estate just beside us in Newtownabbey. We’ve already established a pop-up church in the community centre there.”
David said: “My generation can’t understand why the churches seems to be ‘vacating the premises’ from Belfast – the place which is the centre of life in Northern Ireland.
“We started with nine people. We’ve now got between 60 and 100 people, lots of young families with their children.
“For us it has represented confirmation that Jesus hasn’t given up on the city. There are people looking for a church in the heart of the city that will impact and engage.
“We have to be bold, make mistakes. At the end of the day we don’t really know what we’re doing but thankfully Jesus does.”