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Starting out with just 10 people back in 1957, the Whitewell Church has now increased to a capacity of 2600 and is today one of the most vibrant churches in Ireland.

The Metropolitan Tabernacle witness endured the period known as “the troubles” in Ulster during the dark days of the 1970’s and early 1980’s. The work has continued to grow ever since and today is a worldwide ministry due to the explosion of Christian television and internet broadcasting.

Following seasons in three different churches, of various sizes, it was decided that in order for growth to continue, a move from the Whitewell Road to the Shore Road was the only solution – hence the building of the opulent new sanctuary known as The Metropolitan Tabernacle.  This decision has proved to be a major success for a church which today boasts a mainly working class congregation made up of people from every religious and cultural background, yet boasts amongst its parishioners a number of local dignitaries and politicians.

You can find out more on the Tabernacle's history in the rest of this article.
 


 

The half has not been told

Unquestionably Whitewell’s finest hour came a number of years after the move to the new Tabernacle in 1994. A decision was taken to try and fill one of the biggest venues in our province – the Odyssey Arena– which ironically is situated near the Harland and Wolf Shipyard – the place where Pastor McConnell first worked as a young boy before entering the ministry. It would be in this corner of East Belfast that God would take his earliest dealings with his young servant before he entered the ministry and now almost 50 years later, Pastor McConnell was returning to his boyhood place of employment as a seasoned and prolific preacher of the gospel.

With seating for up to 10,000, no one had previously managed to fill this great auditorium for a Christian event, including renowned preachers from the United States and elsewhere. Who would have thought then, that in September 2005, a local preacher by the name of James McConnell, would not only speak to  a full house at the Odyssey, but also on a night which many still recall as one of the blackest nights in Ulster’s history. 

For those not familiar with Northern Ireland’s troubled past, just weeks previous to this event, the tenuous peace process which, had only been in existence a few years almost collapsed, allowing anarchy to once again reign on our streets. Cars and buses were stoned and petrol bombed and going out after six o’clock at night in Belfast and, in many other parts of the province, was seen as suicidal. The streets were literally deserted. There wasn’t a “sinner” to be found, at least not until a decision was taken to go ahead with the planned event and to the astonishment of virtually everyone, literally thousands of sinners flocked to the Odyssey that same evening. Sometimes the term “miracle of God” is overused, but certainly not in this context. A supernatural miracle of God is exactly what this evening turned out to be as multitudes of people were brought in from every walk of life to the Odyssey and in so doing this group sent the best possible message to the terrorists and men of violence - namely that religious bigotry was no longer welcome in our province. Peace and goodwill towards all men was the overwhelming desire of a people drained by over 35 years sectarianism and strife. Even Pastor McConnell’s message that evening was beautifully appropriate as he spoke from John chapter 14 and verse 27: “My peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you, not as the world giveth,  give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”


Notwithstanding the miraculous turn out, the occasion hardly merited a line in the local papers in the days following which was surprising to say the least, given the massive numbers that had converged on the Odyssey. It was reported that some of our buses were stoned going home and this was indeed true,  nevertheless, “the night from hell” that many had feared had turned into “a night from heaven” for hundreds who gave  their lives to Christ at the end of the rally. To witness the Odyssey Arena packed to capacity on such a dangerous and depressing evening was something to behold for all who attended and was certainly a true testament to the power of the Holy Spirit.  A spirit of fear had gripped our province that week, but those who turned up had defied such a spirit and were privileged to witness one of the greatest moves of God in our country in recent times. Hard as it was to imagine, Whitewell had actually managed to supersede the great missions held at the Kings Hall, Windsor Park and many other venues years prior to the move to the Tabernacle. Clearly the half had not yet been told and this was also true with regard to the opulent and luxurious surroundings of the new Tabernacle itself. Similar to when the Queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the Lord, the bible says she came to his temple to prove him with hard questions. These questions and more were all ably answered by Solomon and so when the Queen had seen for herself the wisdom of Solomon and the great house that he had built for God’s glory,  the meat of his table, the sitting of his servants, and the attendance of his ministers and their apparel and his cupbearers and his ascent by which he went up into the house of the Lord, we are told there was no more spirit in her causing her to make the following confession: “How be it I believed not the words, until I came and mine eyes had seen it and behold the half was not  told me, thy wisdom and prosperity has exceeded the fame which I heard.” (1 Kings chapter 10.)

Many first time visitors to our sanctuary have admitted to having a similar experience to the great Queen of Sheba from that opening day at the Tabernacle in 1994. They are left mesmerised, not only by the lavish surroundings and by the prosperity of the Tabernacle, but also by the meat that is served up week after week from the bread of life by pastor McConnell and his dedicated pastors. The striking thing for most first time visitors is the acknowledgment that here is a house with a true vision to see men and women brought out of darkness and transferred in the glorious light of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Queen of Sheba came critical to Solomon’s house, almost unbelieving, yet went away satisfied. That has also been the encounter of many first time visitors to our sanctuary, particularly those from overseas. They have heard of the fame of the Tabernacle and like the Queen of Sheba, they leave saying: “It was a true report that I heard in my own land of thy acts and thy wisdom.” (1 Kings 10:6.)

For example, despite the many wonderful blessings which this church experienced during the first 37 years of Whitewell’s history, the next phase, which included that wonderful night at the Odyssey, has proved to be even more fruitful. 

Following the historic move to the new Tabernacle in 1994 crowds actually increased to weekly services and continued to flock to our church. More importantly souls have constantly been saved, just like in the previous churches of Whitewell, while the work at the Tabernacle has today enveloped into a worldwide ministry.  This is due in part, of course, to the arrival of Christian television and radio and the dramatic increase of the audio and television ministry in general, which has enabled Whitewell to reach almost every part the world today, including places as far away as North Korea.

It is also the fulfilling of one of the earliest prophecies given by the spirit of God in the very first church back in 1957 when the spirit said:  -" You will remember this day. It is the beginning of months of tears, hardships and difficulties - but if you are faithful I will breathe upon you by my Spirit and give you a people that will touch this land. This church will become a reaping church and will benefit the community. I will bring into your midst hundreds of young people and many visitors will come to you by plane and by ship to see what the Lord has accomplished among you".

How those words have truly come to pass. Years of trials and tribulations were endured by the resilient flock at Whitewell during the darkest period of Northern Ireland’s history known as - “the troubles.”  Yet despite those adversities, our church has still multiplied in terms of numbers and blessings alike. God has given beauty for ashes and what has taken place at Whitewell since 1994 has been nothing short of remarkable, with outreaches all across the province witnessing to literally thousands of people, from every background, and seeing them come to know the Jesus Christ as their personal saviour.  This winning of souls has even stretched beyond our own community to the entire United Kingdom and further afield where many visitors make the journey weekly to attend Sunday services at the Tabernacle and further churches have been established.

It all began in that first year at the Tabernacle with the organising of a gospel tent crusade holding 650 people at King George Fifth playing fields at Mersey Street East Belfast. It became a yearly event and ran for six years, but after the numbers had grown to 2,000 it was clear that a bigger venue would be required if the mission was to grow further. Immediately Belfast’s Ormeau Park was chosen, a place close to pastor McConnell’s heart, given that as a boy he had often prayed in this park, calling upon God for help in his life as an orphan and in his ministry as a young preacher. This tent would be larger with a capacity to hold over 3,000 people. It was filled every night as people came to hear the gospel from all parts of the divide. Even the literature that was handed out specified that this gospel was, as Paul the apostle put it, not partial. It was for the “Whosoever will”, for both Greek and Jew, black or white, Protestant or Catholic, Muslim, Hindu or any other religious person willing to embrace God’s lovely Son and his offer of salvation. It was a momentous time in our history as literally thousands flocked to hear the gospel in what became known as: “the big tent” where thousands witnessed some of the most memorable evangelistic preaching of Pastor McConnell’s long and distinguished career. No wonder our church suddenly found the faith to do the seemingly impossible and fill the Odyssey Arena just a few years later.

During this time also, further ministries were established by Whitewell in Dublin, Romania, Ethiopia and Kenya and several outreaches were held in at the prestigious Dublin Mansion House and Ravenhill Rugby ground in 2010.

Since 1994 the Tabernacle has grown in reputation, both at home and abroad. We have been visited by such renowned preachers as Tommy Tenney, Bayless Conley, Neil Rhodes, John Francis and Robert Gass to name but a few.  Great artists have also performed here over the past 15 years – musical talents like John Starnes, the Gaithers, Tony Gore and Majesty, the Ruppes, Robin Mark, Hillsong United, Michael W Smith, Third Day, Casting Crowns, Ernie Hass, Greater Vision, Selah and the list goes on.

 


 

 

 

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History of the Tabernacle

"Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, But unto thy name give glory, for thy mercy, and for thy truth's sake."

Opened in February 1994, our present building it is correctly called - The Metropolitan Tabernacle, Belfast. Just as London under that Precious Servant of God, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, had the Metropolitan Tabernacle, so we trust this province of Northern Ireland will have it's own Metropolitan Tabernacle. The purpose of the building of such a magnificent sanctuary as the Tabernacle at Whitewell, is none other than to preach the glorious gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and the edification and preparation of God's people for the greatest event in history - namely the visible, physical, literal second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, back to this earth and the ushering in of his Kingdom.

The house is one for all classes, for all creeds, for all political persuasions. Our motto is found in the words of Paul to the Corinthians, when he says in: 1 Corinthians 2:v2.

For I determined not to know anything among you save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified."

The Cradle

" And this will be a sign to you: You will find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger".

It wasn't quite the stable of Bethlehem, but the humble beginnings of the Metropolitan Church Whitewell were no less obscure. That first morning on the 23rd February, 1957 it was snowing. The old Orange Hall which was rented, was still reeking with beer smells from the night before and a young man, together with a fellow worker brushed up the cigarette ends and opened the windows to let in some fresh air.

At just 19 years old James McConnell - an orphan boy from Spring Street, East Belfast was clearing the debris in time for his opening service. He had already served about 2 years as assistant to a Godly Minister in West Belfast and had also conducted some fine evangelistic campaigns in Ireland and England. Yet despite the offer of an attractive tour of Europe and the United States he realised that for him, the centre of God's will, was in the building of a church in North Belfast.

The first service began with just 10 People, plus 12 visitors making a grand total of 22 persons. One man recollecting the occasion, spoke with a smile as he recalled the young skinny preacher, announcing in revolutionary language about a great work that was going to start in Whitewell.

Indeed a prophecy followed which said - " You will remember this day. It is the beginning of months of tears, hardships and difficulties - but if you are faithful I will breathe upon you by my Spirit and give you a people that will touch this land. This church will become a reaping church and will benefit the community. I will bring into your midst hundreds of young people and many visitors will come to you by aeroplane and by ship to see what the Lord has accomplished among you". Thus saith the Lord. Here was confirmation that no matter what the circumstances or obstacles - God was anointing His servant for the task ahead.

The first twelve years:

Except for the story of His coming to the temple in Jerusalem, very little is known about the first twelve years of the life of Jesus. The Gospel though tells us that, "He grew and became strong in spirit filled with wisdom and the grace of God was upon him". (Luke 2:40)

Equally Whitewell as a church was of no reputation in its embryonic form yet, unknown to our flock then, the leader was also a man blessed with a strong spirit and filled with an abundance of wisdom well beyond his years. Some-what inevitably perhaps, that same year James McConnell moved from his home in East Belfast to the Whitewell area, and thus began a romance which has lasted more than 39 years.

However, the initial grounding was by no means easy. In fact a lack of funds, and no congregation was hardly an ideal start to a pastorship - but as James McConnell would eventually prove, he was no ordinary Pastor and this was no ordinary calling. Day after day, from dawn to dusk, his main priority was to knock doors, and ask people to come and hear him preach. The main mode of travel was walking, as resources in the small church were so scarce he couldn't afford transport. Yet with God's help somehow, bills were always paid and people always attended.

Assisted ably by his wife Margaret whom he married in April 1959, the work quickly grew and like the great boy preacher of the eighteen hundreds, Charles Spurgeon, it wasn't long before people recognised his single - minded devotion to the cause of Christ and the conversion of sinners that resulted from his preaching. It was like a breath of fresh air for the people of Whitewell who marvelled at his youthful, but remarkably robust Pastor, who made no distinction between Protestant, Catholic, Jew or agnostic - as he saw them they were all precious souls in need of a Saviour.

Expansion

It soon became evident, that as a church, Whitewell would have to purchase a spiritual home of its own. Certainly if Roman Catholics were to be brought in under the sound of the Gospel this was imperative, as the by-laws of that original Orange Hall stated Roman Catholics were not allowed on the premises.

With ground purchased and plans passed, all our brethren, both young and old began working on that first sanctuary, but they soon ran into problems. It was late 1966 and the cost of designing a new retaining wall was estimated at over £2,500 - a small fortune in those days, especially for a total congregation which was still only in the region of 70. In fact when the project hit financial problems and major objections, that congregation was cut to 40 as roughly half made excuses and left.Just as Gideon was reduced from 10,000 men to 300, Pastor McConnell was praying that his depleted troops would rally round and defeat the Midianites of the modern era. Yet in those 40 faithful servants, God was already at work with the answers, as they laboured endlessly under the supervision of brother John McAllister. The giving and sacrifice of those 40 warriors was outstanding. They were determined by the grace of God to build a house totally sanctified to His service. As for Pastor McConnell he continued to lead the line by extreme example. People knew he was a Pastor, who could preach but they were amazed then, as they are now at his willingness to go the extra mile. Each day for over 2 years he would be seen at that site digging, mixing cement, carrying bricks and negotiating with sub contractors to get the best price. It was work that paid off as he and his loyal band of Godly men and women, not forgetting children, finally completed the project and moved into a beautiful new building (not far from the Orange Hall) on April 5th 1969.

What had seemed impossible had come to pass and remarkably with something to spare, as together they had raised above church expenses £30,000. Having spent the previous 12 years in a rented hall, that new facility was like a cathedral. Complete with a small balcony it seated nearly 450 people and was a marvellous expression of God's faithfulness to those who are faithful to him.

Throughout those cradle years, the Lord had taught Pastor James McConnell and his committed congregation what Christ Himself had said to the Ephesian Church in Revelation 2:2 'I know thy labour'. This labour was just beginning - as was the success of the Metropolitan Church Whitewell.

The Cross

The year 1969 signalled more than just the beginning of our first spiritual home. Sadly it marked the start of the troubles in Ulster, which have affected almost everyone living in the province - and the Whitewell witness has been no exception.

Those early years were fraught with danger as we were situated in the centre of a mixed community. There were times when you could cut the atmosphere with a knife. In fact on two occasions there were gun battles outside the church between terrorists and the army, leaving bullets imbedded in the ceiling of that sanctuary. The faith of many during this time was certainly tested as sectarian violence, bloodshed and bombing escalated to unprecedented levels. Various members living in flashpoint areas were frightened to come out as buses were being hi-jacked and set on fire. Indeed this was how the Whitewell bus ministry began, proving God adaptable to every situation.

With the province plummeting to an all time low and the church powerless to bring an end to the sectarian slaughter, a wave of discontentment came over Pastor James McConnell, who had proved in every other facet of his faith to be a man of action. Something just had to be done and against the advice of certain members, James McConnell rejuvenated his old habit of walking, praying and knocking doors regardless of political or religious background. Indeed the next two and a half years saw a period of constant witnessing not to mention prayer meetings 6 days per week. At times it was frustrating as the work seemed void of reward however a change was coming that would shape the destiny of the church for the next 20 years. Pastor McConnell and his followers were about to take literally what Jesus commanded in Matthew 16:24 "If any man desires to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me".

Divinely Led

During the month of September 1973, while locked in the church on his own, Pastor McConnell suddenly became aware of a mighty presence. Initially afraid, his fear quickly disappeared as he recognised it as the same light that had visited him twice during his youth. Out of that mighty presence came the knowledge that souls were to be saved every week, and each time Whitewell would endeavour to do something with the Gospel, God in his grace, would confirm his word. This was followed by a prophecy which said "Have you love? Prepare to receive those from the dunghill: the off scouring of society. Love and receive them as I have you".

Almost immediately an influx of terrorists, alcoholics, prostitutes, divorcees, drug addicts, and homosexuals - both Catholic and Protestant, began to converge on Whitewell. People in distress, debt or desperation came and the Lord Jesus became a Captain over them.

The Critics

Of course a move like this is not without its critics - even Jesus himself angered the scribes and the Pharisees. However, it was sad to note that most of the denunciations came from other denominations. Taunts were levelled against Whitewell as to the type of people that were being brought to the church. Yet the Whitewell people, who have always sought the inspiration of scripture were only doing what our Lord had taught the multitudes in Matthew 25:35-36

"For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was a stranger and you took me in; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me"

Christ didn't form a glorified social club nor a fur coat brigade. He said in Matthew 28:19

"Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things which I have commanded you".

Yet here was a new phase for Whitewell too - which itself was a little conventional Pentecostal church with neither the machinery nor the facilities to cope with the fish that were being caught in the net. It was a period of trial and error. Not all the conversions were lasting ones, indeed only about one in four grew to maturity. However, as it says in Mark 4:14-20 "The precious seed falls on four kinds of ground: the wayside, the stony, the thorny, and the good." One in four was not a bad return.

Another New House

The increasing numbers inevitably led to Whitewell's second major building project, which began in 1978. Once again,together with his colleagues and congregation Pastor McConnell was digging foundations and mixing cement. Sometimes he and his close friend Bertie Blake were so stuck in the mud and rain, they were left standing in their sock soles! The fellowship and comradeship never waned and in just 3 years by a miracle of God the new house was erected. Ironically the move came after 12 years - the same amount of time which was spent in he old Orange Hall.

During this time 2 more men came into full time service and the highly successful bus fleet was increased. Missionary endeavours soared too as Whitewell entered an exciting new era. Filling a church which had a capacity of 1,500 people wasn't easy as the current congregation then totalled 750 and the sight of an empty gallery didn't help matters. So the house closed for prayer repairs. A series of prayer meetings on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and also Fridays were implemented, as people were invited, willed or compelled to attend.

To the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ almost £300,000 of debt was settled in just 3 years and a significant increase in congregation was also noticed. Both Lord's day morning and evening services began to be packed and many of those who attended Whitewell see it as a miracle that since the Angel of the Lord spoke back in 1973 not one unfruitful Sunday has passed without souls being saved.

 


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A Decade Of Publicity

Pastor James McConnell's reputation as a great preacher soon began to spread far and wide and by Christmas 1983 the church was being besieged by a deluge of journalists wanting to know why so many Roman Catholics and terrorists were getting saved and joining the church. Indeed four times over the next year the Whitewell ministry was featured on national television while also making the headlines in local and international newspapers.

Just like the Messiah, who was questioned vigorously by many religious authorities, Whitewell also underwent huge examination from established laymen and media alike. Yet, it has to be said that this publicity had no adverse effect on he Whitewell congregation. They remained a faithful, humble people and are, to this day, the same regardless of a greater swell in attendance.

God was truly working, demonstrated by the fact that no less than 66 people came to Christ after one particular Sunday night service. That marked the beginning of an awesome period of soul winning, where the Holy Spirit threw down all kinds of challenges to the people of Whitewell.

Out of darkness God had brought light and unity to a land which for so long had known nothing but division,

"And that he might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity". (Ephesians 2:16)

Despite adversity, God had built a church truly of Jesus "without spot or wrinkle, or any such thing" a church that had felt the human sins of the world. One thing since its earliest days had known nothing else but the Bible, he Blood and the blessed Hope.

 


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The Crown

As the scripture says "Prophecy is to be judged" and if it comes to pass then it is of the Lord. That first prophecy back in the Old Orange Hall was itself about to be fulfilled in the most spectacular way. After all, months and years of difficulties had been endured for the sake of the cross.

Just like he promised, the Spirit had come and made Whitewell the reaping church that was predicted.In fact, having now taken the Gospel to every town and city across the province, Whitewell had become arguably the largest church in the United Kingdom. Remember the words, "I will bring into your midst hundreds of young people and many visitors will come to you by aeroplane and ship to see what the Lord has accomplished among you".

These words had been realised even before the building of Whitewell's largest development so far, a seven million pound Tabernacle, directly beside the shores of Belfast Lough. Like Elisha the Lord visited his faithful servant James McConnell telling him to build again. "Do not subdue the land - take it with all thy might" - saith the Lord