On a stage surrounded by lights, in front of 10 massive LED screens beaming scripture, a teenage girl sways from side to side, palms held skyward. Her head is flung back, her eyes shut tight. “Who can stop the Lord Almighty?” she belts. Accompanying her are the rest of the worship team: a bearded man with an acoustic guitar and a sign-language interpreter. “He has defeated Hell,” they sing. The congregation around them, in a massive auditorium, burst into applause. Their hands are stretched towards the heavens too. They are swaying. It’s a scene that wouldn’t look out of place in America’s deep south. But we are not in Alabama. We are in Ballymena, a small town outside Belfast, and the capital of Northern Ireland’s own Bible Belt.
Green Pastures is an evangelical megachurch situated on a sprawling 97-acre plot just off the motorway outside Ballymena. First opened on a smaller site in 2007, it now boasts more than 1,000 members. It was founded by Jeff Wright, scion of a bus manufacturing family (his father and grandfather founded Wrightbus in 1946). He told The Irish Times that he awoke one day to discover God had a question for him: “Do you love me more than these buses?” The answer was yes.
In 2013, Wright revealed plans for “The Gateway”, the compound that now functions as Green Pastures’ campus-style church, described as a project of both spiritual and social regeneration for the area. Initial plans for the site included social housing, a hotel, supermarket, car showroom, nursing home, an all-weather football pitch and a wedding chapel. But in May last year, Northern Ireland’s Charity Commission launched an investigation into “internal governance concerns” at the church, after eight members of its executive committee stood down. (The Charity Commission told me the case is ongoing and that it’s working with Green Pastures to address the issues. Green Pastures said it had co-operated fully with the inquiry and “expects a positive outcome”.)
On the Sunday I visit the church, Pastor Wright is not in attendance. “He’s away tanning himself,” says one of the preachers, a young woman in cargo pants and Converse trainers, as we all sit down. There is scattered laughter. (Green Pastures told me Wright was “most deserving of that short vacation” and that it was his first for some time.) It’s the week after Easter, usually the point in the liturgical calendar when churches empty out after an obligatory show of attendance. But the crowd here is easily a hundred strong, despite it being the kind of Northern Irish Sunday morning that makes you want to stay in bed: rainy, cold, grey and, thanks to strict Sunday trading laws (for the Lord), coffee shops don’t open until 1pm.
From a distance, Green Pastures looks more like a leisure centre than a church. The edges of the compound are littered with mounds of gravel, steel fencing and unused cranes, the signs of Wright’s ambition, temporarily stalled. The church told me the site “has always been a work in progress” and that contractors are currently active on weekdays. Unfinished sites are not uncommon in Northern Ireland’s capricious boom-and-bust real estate development market. After the 2008 crash, they were ubiquitous on the outskirts of Belfast, graveyards of neighbourhoods that never came to be. Some of Wright’s vision has been achieved. Inside there’s the capacious auditorium, a coffee shop, fitness studio, wall-mounted declarations of faith (“acceptance is our disposition, multiplication is our mission”), a “kids’ church” area and a clock counting down to the start of the service as though it’s a Taylor Swift concert.
I arrive early, my trainers coated in the mud of the building site, and find the car park packed. Families emerge from Audis and Mercedes wearing blazers and blue skinny jeans, gilets and brown brogues. Everyone seems to know each other, and guests are greeted warmly. Multiplication is the mission. The vibe, like the site itself, is an incongruous blend of modernity and tradition. The slate-grey, brutalist structure at the side of a dual carriageway is flanked by farmers’ houses and the smell of manure. A huge billboard faces the road — “FOR I WAS A STRANGER AND YOU TOOK ME IN” — with grazing horses in the background. Americana on the A26.
Northern Ireland is defined by its duality. It’s part of the island of Ireland and the United Kingdom. It’s religious and it’s secular. It’s provincial and it’s international. Nowhere is this duality clearer than in Ballymena, the so-called drugs capital of the north, an area notorious for sectarianism during the Troubles, a grey industrial town surrounded by rolling countryside, a place where you can go from silage to Starbucks in less than 15 minutes. And while Green Pastures’ bombastic evangelism might seem out of place in rural Northern Ireland, culturally it tracks. In the early 1990s, local Democratic Unionist party councillors banned a performance by the Electric Light Orchestra and tried to extend it to a live music ban on Sundays, saying the band would draw to Ballymena “the four Ds: drink, drugs, devil and debauchery”. In 2005, the council prevented a screening of Brokeback Mountain. This is a place that honours the Traditional Unionist Voice, the party formed in 2007 to protest against what they call the “unrepentant terrorists at the heart of government and who feel betrayed by those who ushered them in”; a place where you can refuse to make a wedding cake for a gay couple; a place where theology is literal, where faith healers still thrive.
Green Pastures is about as far away from my religious DNA as you can get, though, in geographical terms, the distance is 29 miles. Belfast’s Falls Road had a faith demographic Vatican City might envy. Catholicism was omnipresent. When I was a child, my mum told me that if I watched the altar during mass and stayed silent for the entire hour, I’d see Jesus. I believed her. I had an extravagant first communion. I chose my confirmation name — Veronica — with great reverence. While Saint Veronica is not named in the gospels, the legend of her wiping Jesus’s face on his way to be crucified is one of the 14 stages in the Stations of the Cross, a series of images that adorns many Catholic churches, including my own. Veronica’s relic, an imprint of the Messiah’s face miraculously left on her washcloth, came to signify an ability to recognise pain in others and help them on their journeys. As an adult, I am, perhaps unsurprisingly, a people-pleaser.
Once I was old enough to stop believing that I would see Jesus hanging out at the altar on Sundays, Catholicism bored and repelled me in equal measure. I tried to escape mass by stealing missals — the booklet given to the congregation which lists each week’s prayers, songs and announcements — and leaving them lying around at home where my mum could see them, date facing up. When she got wise to this, I became a tediously outspoken teenage atheist. I made Protestant friends. I made born-again Christian friends. I made Catholic-convert-born-again friends. I briefly went with them to evangelical Christian worship sessions held on the outskirts of town, but the experience embarrassed me even more than incense and communion wafers. Not only was it bizarrely fundamentalist when many of our group were already at this point openly queer but, on a purely aesthetic level, it felt unreal and trippy. It was carpeted rooms and drum kits and boot cut jeans and speaking in tongues. It was all so American.
The Catholic church’s worldwide sexual abuse scandal unfolded over my childhood and adolescence and, during that time, my dad stopped going to mass. I didn’t want to go either. My parents would have stifled arguments about it; my mum thought the bad apples shouldn’t stop her from speaking to God, my dad thought that it was more of a rotten bushel situation. It didn’t help that Archbishop Brendan Smyth, a convicted paedophile, committed some of his early crimes within our parish. I disliked the ritualistic glamour of our local churches throughout it all, the way they flourished in areas that repeatedly topped the region’s and the country’s deprivation lists. Our house was always damp and I shared a bedroom with my two sisters, yet once a week we came to sit in mahogany pews and stare in reverence at stained glass windows, vast marble pillars and an altar centred around a gilt tabernacle.
My dad refused to donate to what he said was merely a top-up to the priests’ salaries. I glared at people offering money when the gold plate went around.
In 2019, Wrightbus went into administration. Its parent company had donated millions of pounds to Green Pastures in the preceding years. Some 500 workers who had been laid off protested outside the church, holding placards that read “Money is the root of all evil”. (Wrightbus was rescued by JCB heir Jo Bamford later that year.) On the day I visit, ushers circle the room with purple plastic buckets for donations. If you don’t have cash, don’t worry, they say. You can scan the QR code on the envelope. You can donate using an app.
If you’ve never been to Ballymena before, on first impressions there might be nothing to distinguish the place that gave the world both Liam Neeson and Ian Paisley. In many ways, it’s just another small town, population 67,000, with a God’s-waiting-room demographic. The predominant architectural style is grey pebble-dash. There are empty retail units, vape shops, Brazilian ju-jitsu schools, more vape shops, bored teenagers, deserted shopping malls, several comically large butcher’s shops and still more vape shops. There’s also a Christian bookshop selling guides to praying your way out of everything from clerical abuse to anorexia. The hotel I’m staying at, an ex-masonic lodge in the centre of town, lists four churches in the “useful contact numbers” section of its guest information pack, right between taxis and emergency medical services. (While one of these is Catholic, Ballymena itself is a staunchly and overwhelmingly Protestant town. None of the recommended churches are Green Pastures.)
On the high street, a group of street preachers gathers every Saturday, handing out leaflets which promise to save souls between the hours of 10.30am and 1pm. “Jesus loves you — we believe he can heal you,” the leaflet says. “Everyone is welcome! There is no cost.” The small print adds: “If you are on any medication STAY on it. Under NO circumstances should you stop doing anything a medical professional or counsellor has advised.” When I speak to them, they are laying hands on a man in a mobility scooter. I ask what church they’re a part of and they gesticulate brightly. “All over really!” I ask if Green Pastures is one of those churches and the cheer fades to caginess. “I used to be,” one of the healers tells me, “but I left. I go to a church up in Coleraine now.” Trying to push through the reticence, I say I thought Green Pastures was relatively new. “Oh no,” he says, “It’s been going [for] years now.”
“Oh really? Jesus,” I say, and then have to apologise for taking the Lord’s name in vain. He says it’s OK. God forgives all.
When I ask the hotel’s receptionist to call me a taxi to the church, she asks: “Do they know you’re coming?” Kind of, I tell her. Green Pastures is initially hard to pin down. I email the address on their website to say I’m a journalist writing about religion and am interested in their mission. They don’t reply. I call the general phone number and explain to the woman who picks up that I plan to visit the church and would like to interview Jeff Wright or another church leader. I never hear back. It is only after my visit, when I email again to give Wright and the church a chance to comment, that I finally receive a response.
Before I attend a service, I speak to the journalist Susan McKay, who spent time at the church several years ago for her book Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground. When McKay visited Green Pastures, she witnessed Wright’s sometimes apocalyptic ministry first hand. “Bring a friend,” she advises. “It’s weird.” In 2019, according to the Northern Irish newspaper Sunday Life, Wright gave a sermon describing the EU as a “vast economic, one-world system of nations, coming together in opposition to God”. In another, he told congregants: “We are living in the last of last days, are you ready? Have you got your clothes ready?” A spokesperson for Green Pastures said, “We are indeed living in the last of the last days,” and that the phrase “Have you got your clothes ready?” refers to the concept that those who are “spiritually clothed” will be saved.
In person the church feels more WeWork outpost than Jonestown. The minimalistic and millennial branding makes sense: the congregation is overwhelmingly young. Shot glasses are handed out for communion, we’re invited to drink from them and thank Jesus for his blood. In the absence of its superstar pastor, Green Pastures has produced a younger alternative who gives a painfully long sermon. He covers everything from 9/11 to the Queen’s death and CS Lewis. The LED screens read “WHAT ON EARTH IS GOING ON”, all caps. The pastor only gets emotional once. “If the global church has hurt you, I am sorry,” he says, voice breaking. “If the local church has hurt you, I am sorry. If a Christian has hurt you, I am sorry.”
In Northern Ireland and across the world, the pastor’s apology holds weight: church leaders have hurt people. In the past, the church was the centre of the community, especially in a place like this, where religion and the state were often one and the same. But people are more secular now, more suspicious of spiritual authority. Younger people, research keeps telling us, don’t need the church, don’t go to church. Three-quarters of young Britons identify as having no religion.
At Green Pastures, though, there are teens and kids and babies everywhere. In Northern Protestants, McKay quotes religious leaders who lament their empty pews but notes that Green Pastures is thriving. “The theological message was conservative, if somewhat incoherent,” she wrote of the church. She watched Pastor Wright tell his congregation that “God was the CEO”, before listing all the ways they could donate to the church. “The prayer teams would stand by people ‘whatever you are going through,’” McKay wrote, before they moved on to “‘all the different ways you can give’. These included ‘filling out the wee form’ and ‘ticking the wee box’.” (Green Pastures said this description was “disingenuous”, noting that churches worldwide are funded by donations and that “all acts of benefit to the congregation . . . are given freely and without charge”.)
Spirituality, or at least the performance of spirituality, is out in force on the day I visit. Even old men are standing and swaying with their hands in the air, dancing slowly in Northern Ireland’s equivalent of the little town from Footloose. Watching them, I realise nobody is here out of obligation or tradition. They’re here to worship. They’re here, as the pastor says, to share their “testimony stories”. They need the church.
At Christmas this year, I did something that tedious-goth-atheist-me would never have predicted. I went to midnight mass. Partly it was curiosity, but it was also something else. I felt lonely and lost, and I wanted to find meaning in something bigger than myself. The church was smaller and less ostentatious than I was used to, but all of the trappings — incense, prayers, standing and sitting down again ad nauseam — felt familiar and comforting. The sermon, which was about community and forgiving yourself for your mistakes, was deeply moving. A young priest spoke about how people are fallible, how they can find a home in the church. I still don’t believe in God, but the experience transcended that. I had felt alone and then I felt I belonged somewhere, even if just for an hour.
“Jesus reveals himself to the lonely,” says Green Pastures’ worship team as we prepare to finish Sunday service. “Jesus understands our despair and disappointment.” I look around the room. Faces are illuminated by roving spotlights. They are nodding. Their eyes are closed. I am not moved, but they are. I am not saved, but they are. The Green Pastures team wear T-shirts that read “WELCOME HOME”.
Róisín Lanigan is a writer based in London
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