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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.