Launching UniChurch: An interview with Dave Jensen

Originally from Sydney, Dave Jensen is currently serving as an assistant minister at All Saints’ Anglican Church in Belfast. Dave has been involved in the recent launch of UniChurch Belfast—a new initiative of All Saints’ Church in the university quarter of Belfast. Here he shares a little of this new initiative and what its been like so far.

Dave, you’re from Sydney originally—how did you come to be connected to Northern Ireland and end up working at All Saints’ Belfast?

I have a very close family connection with Ireland and over the years have visited here many times, both as a non-Christian and then later as a Christian. In some of my later visits I made some connections with people connected with All Saints’ Church, and was then asked to speak at their weekend away a few years ago. A few years after that, they advertised for an assistant minister focusing on evangelism. I had been working at MBM Rooty Hill as the Mission Pastor and loved it, but I always had a desire to work in Ireland or Northern Ireland if the opportunity arose. We applied for the position—and got it! My wife Sammy and I (plus our kids!) moved over in January 2018.

What’s been your experience of life and ministry in Northern Ireland? How does it compare to Sydney?

We love living in Northern Ireland: it’s a beautiful country and the people are incredibly warm and friendly—especially towards outsiders. We’ve been struck by the genuine affection we’ve been shown not just by our church family, but also by our neighbours and other new friends. Belfast is a small city and feels more like a village. You’re always bumping into people you know. In that sense, it’s very different to Sydney! The weather is… well, it’s not Sydney! But we haven’t struggled with it as much as we feared we might.

Ministry here has some strong similarities with Sydney, and some distinct differences. The gospel is the gospel, sin is sin, and the solution to sin is the gospel no matter where you are! So whether in evangelism or general church ministry, we have that same mission to see lives transformed through Christ.

Although on a surface level Australia and Northern Ireland are culturally similar, beneath the surface they are completely different. Northern Ireland has a long history of political and religious tension between Protestants—who are mainly British Unionists (monarchists)—and Roman Catholics, who are mainly Irish Nationalists (republicans).

The Northern Irish Protestant community has an incredibly high rate of church attendance—far higher than the rest of the UK and Ireland. Most people in the Protestant community would consider themselves ‘Christian’. There is still Christian teaching in public schools, and same-sex marriage and abortion are still illegal. Whilst there are obvious benefits to this, there is also an extremely strong culture of nominal evangelicalism, which is a new challenge for us, as we have to try and get people to understand they’re not a Christian, before they can become one. Also, many churches have been able to depend on full pews (like Australia pre-1950s) and so haven’t had to think through evangelism and ministry in a disinterested and increasingly hostile culture—even though this is likely to become the reality for Northern Ireland eventually (as it has been in most Western countries).

Within the Roman Catholic community, in addition to all the usual difficulties in evangelising Catholics, it’s necessary to dispel the idea that becoming a Christian (Protestant) means you automatically become a Unionist. Indeed, even the word ‘Protestant’ here can be off-putting, and so you often need to avoid that word in order to share the gospel effectively. Being an Aussie here has advantages. I’ve found I am viewed as separate to the political scene here and this has presented more open doors.

Our church is located in an area that was once mainly Protestant, then became Catholic, and is now a mix of refugees, students, a lot of Catholics and some Protestants. It’s a great place to do ministry!

Where did the idea to start UniChurch come from? What was its aim?

All Saints’ Church is an evangelical Anglican church located right next to Queen’s University Belfast, the largest university in the country. We have a morning service of around 150 people. Up until last year, we also had an evening service that averaged around 60 people a week.

We had the idea to revitalise and grow our evening service. Although we’re located right next to 10,000 students and other young adult residents, our evening service wasn’t really reaching them effectively. Most of the people who attended the evening service were ‘twicers’ (people who attend church morning and evening) or non-committed Christians who floated around various evening services.  

The aim was to revitalise our current evening service by moving even closer to the university campus, and implementing a new structure, focus and style in our service, in order to effectively reach the community with the gospel of Jesus. 

When and how did you launch it?

We spent around six months planning and preparing for the launch, from April last year. We gathered together the core team of those currently attending the evening service, and surveyed them about what would make them both love church and want to invite others along. In addition, we spent that time talking to other people outside of All Saints’ Church who might like to join us in our vision.

We gathered a leadership team, and put together our thoughts. We wanted to be a community of believers, with Christ at the centre, actively involved in the Great Commission.

We came up with a name, found a new location, and began having monthly mid-week training nights, focusing on what the Bible says about church, mission and Christian maturity to train and equip our core team and inform interested outsiders.

Our plan was to launch in mid-September in correlation with the start of the university year. However, in August the people who’d offered us use of their building for our services changed their mind. But we made the decision to keep going and make use of the All Saints’ Church building instead. Thankfully, God’s plans are always better than ours, and this has proven to be a wonderful development.

What have the challenges been so far?

There have been several challenges. Having the offer of the building we believed would be perfect for our church withdrawn at the last minute nearly took the wind out of our sails. We’ve had several people commit and then later say they didn’t like the direction the church was taking, which is always difficult to hear.

Our new structure (called the 5Ms back in Australia) has a high reliance on lay leadership and endeavours to get all members actively involved in serving Christ’s church. Traditionally, this has not been common within Northern Irish churches, where there tends to be reliance on the clergy and a small number of key volunteers doing most of the work. So convincing everyone of their need to be involved beyond weekly attendance is a work in progress.

Part of our model involved introducing weekly Bible study groups. In Northern Ireland, like much of the UK, this is not the norm—fortnightly groups (or no groups!) would be what’s considered normal. In addition, we have a very strong and influential Christian Union on campus at Queen’s who run their own nightly Bible Study groups and those timings often clash with ours, so ensuring we don’t cause division or undermine an existing para-church ministry has been something we’ve had to be aware of.

What have been the highlights and joys?

In God’s kindness, the response to UniChurch Belfast has been overwhelming. We’ve seen enormous growth in numbers compared to our former evening service and, most importantly, gospel growth. Being able to witness many people become Christians through our evangelistic pathways and efforts has been a real highlight.

In addition to this, we’ve seen significant ‘buy in’ from people who had probably never been that committed before. We now ask our people to be heavily involved in four ways: Sunday gathering, mid-week small group, weekly serving and evangelistic partnership. The response to this has been so encouraging. A personal joy is to witness people who this time last year were not even Christians now being heavily involved in Bible study, welcoming newcomers and inviting people to church. Whereas last year we had no Bible study groups at our evening service, very few people serving and hardly any (if any) conversions, we now have seven Bible study groups meeting weekly across the city, over 70% of our church is serving, and we have seen a bunch of people converted. We’re looking forward to the future and hoping to see God continue to grow us in faithfulness and fruitfulness.