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Arsonists torched our church. But God turned it for good

Places of worship across Northern Ireland have been subject to nearly 450 recorded attacks over the last three years, prompting calls for immediate action to protect churches and other religious buildings. Dr Alistair McCracken, Clerk of Session at Saintfield Road Presbyterian Church explains how despite his church being broken into and set ablaze, God has turned the situation for good 

Our church sits in the middle of Belfast suburbia beside a busy arterial road in and out of the city. On the night of Thursday 21st July 2016 the building was broken into and a fire started in the kitchen. 

Fortunately the Fire Service was quickly on the scene, the fire was contained and relatively little damage was done. The church buildings were made ready for the start of a Scripture Union children’s mission starting on the Monday. However, early on the following Sunday morning the church was attacked again and two fires started, one in the hall and the second in the sanctuary. The fire damage was significant and the smoke damage extensive.

The immediate reaction of members of the congregation was one of shock and anger. It was difficult to understand why someone would want to attack our church building which was used by all sections of our local community during the week. There was also a sense of vulnerability. What had been a safe space for many people had been attacked and violated. There was a real sense of sadness as a group of church members gathered on the steps outside the church on the Sunday afternoon to pray.

It was difficult to understand why someone would want to attack our church building which was used by all sections of our local community during the week

We were greatly strengthened and encouraged by the support and help of the surrounding community. The local Church of Ireland parish church changed the time of their Sunday morning service to allow us to use their building for Sunday morning worship for a few weeks. Then the local primary school, allowed us the use of their buildings for the best part of a year. We received help and encouragement from all sides of the community and local politicians. We were also determined that our work with children and young people would remain throughout this time, and we continued to offer a broad range of youth and children's programmes to our community.

And so the rebuilding process began. Having got over the initial shock we, as a local congregation, started thinking about the future and about what sort of church God wanted us to be.

We took the opportunity to completely redesign the interior of the sanctuary to make it more community orientated and turning it around 180 degrees to make an open, welcoming, flexible and contemporary space. The building work was completed and the building re-opened in May last year, though with an additional cost of £300K over the insurance costs.

In the past year as well as having Sunday worship we have had Café Church, Messy Church, a Community Fun Day, musical events and this spring, the local primary school used Saintfield Road Presbyterian Church buildings to put on several performances of The Lion King.

God used the fires to act as a catalyst to help us to think about how best we could serve a world in need

When Joseph confronted his brother who had sold him into slavery he said, “As far as I am concerned, God turned into good what was meant for evil.” (Genesis 50:20, NLT). There is a real sense among the members of Saintfield Road Presbyterian Church that God has turned into good what others obviously intended for evil.

We do not want to be defined by the arson attacks, but God used the fires to act as a catalyst to help us to think about how best we could serve a world in need. Following the fires we launched our Vision 2020 which has three aspects, Worship; Sending; Serving. We strive to be a welcoming church where we can help people meet Jesus Christ through our worship and Bible teaching. We are committed to mission both locally and overseas and we want to serve our local community in whatever way we can.

Alistair McCracken is clerk of session at Saintfield Road Presbyterian Church in Belfast, Northern Ireland 

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