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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.