Celebrating 70/40 in Northern Ireland

Celebrating Mullartown's 40th

By: Jeanette Windle with Elizabeth Spence and Dorothy Armstrong, BCM Northern Ireland Board

May 19, 2018, marked significant events in the United Kingdom, including a royal wedding (Prince Harry and Meghan Markle) and England’s 137th Football Cup Final, the oldest national football (soccer in North America) competition in the world. But no less significant were the festivities hosted at BCM Northern Ireland’s camp and retreat centre, Mullartown House, celebrating Mullartown’s fortieth anniversary along with seventy years of BCM ministry in Northern Ireland.

Festivities included a four-course gala banquet the evening before, a men’s brunch, ladies tea, an outdoor barbecue, games and activities for children, and a joint worship service. And of course, the royal wedding couldn’t be missed, so it was broadcast throughout the day on a large screen.

“This was a great day of remembering and celebrating God’s immense faithfulness over the past years,” share Elizabeth Spence and Dorothy Armstrong. And indeed, they have much to remember, as both have been involved in BCM outreach across Northern Ireland for more than a half-century each.

Celebrating Mullartown's 40th

BCM ministry in Northern Ireland began in 1948 when a twenty-five-year-old single school teacher named Tom McKinstry from Lisburn in Northern Ireland was handed a green and pink brochure for a Christian organization called the Bible Club Movement. Passionate about reaching young people with the good news of Jesus Christ, Tom had begun holding after-school meetings for some of his students in a wooden hall at the rear of the local YWCA. But as attendance grew, it became clear a more structured program was needed.

Tom called the contact number on the brochure, which was BCM’s London office. Impressed that the Bible Club Movement had just the solid Bible teaching and creative children’s program he was looking for, he registered his own children’s meeting as Northern Ireland’s first Bible Club. Over the following years, many more Bible clubs were started across Northern Ireland. BCM ministry began in the Republic of Ireland as well. Bible clubs expanded to children’s evangelistic rallies, children’s ministry training courses, five-day summer Bible clubs, then summer camps.

Throughout these years, Tom McKinstry was also working fulltime as a school teacher. Full-time BCM missionaries from England and Scotland travelled to help out with rallies, training, camps, and other outreaches. But a strength of Tom’s ministry was recruiting countless other volunteers. And they didn’t need to be adult, as Elizabeth Spence and Dorothy Armstrong can testify.

In 1964, Elizabeth Spence and Dorothy Armstrong were barely into their teens when each received an invitation to attend a teen Bible club Tom had started in Lisburn, where both lived. Elizabeth remembers, “Tom came out seven miles every week on his old scooter. We met in the Wee Barn, which was an old Mission Hall without electricity and therefore no heat. We lit kerosene lanterns for light and oil heaters to stay warm. But being involved in Bible Clubs gave us and so many other young people in those day the opportunity to witness and evangelise in our home area and to grow in faith and serving God.  That was one of BCM’s blessings to us.”

Though Elizabeth and Dorothy attended the same school, they didn’t actually become acquainted until meeting at that Bible club. An acquaintance that would grow into a lifetime friendship and ministry with BCM.

“After just a few weeks,” Dorothy recalls. “Tom had me helping him in a children’s club known as McKeown Street.  That was a learning experience!”

Elizabeth Spence adds, “Tom would involve us in taking a quiz, teaching a memory verse, then the Bible lesson. After a few months, we were on our own, and Tom moved on to start another club.”

BCM NI Club 1949 - Elizabeth Spence back right; Inviting children to Bible Club - Dorthy Armstrong middle back
Tom & Joan McKinstry

In 1967, Tom married a young single BCM missionary from England named Joan. At that time, he left his teaching position, and Tom and Joan became Northern Ireland’s first full-time BCM missionaries. They would serve together with BCM for another forty-eight years before Tom entered God’s presence in February 2016.

By this time, many of the children in Tom’s original Bible clubs were young adults who were themselves serving as volunteers, including Elizabeth and Dorothy. Dorothy Armstrong was now a teacher while Elizabeth took on a position with the government civil service. But they continued to serve as well in BCM ministries as well as on the BCM Northern Ireland organizational committee.

Elizabeth sums up: “BCM to us was weekly Bible clubs, camp, children’s tent missions, five-day open-air clubs, sports days, rallies, inter-club quizzes, workers fellowship meetings, committee meetings—and more. There did have to be some adjustments, such as stopping inter-Bible Club events during the “Troubles” in the 70’s and 80’s to avoid risk for the children in travelling at night.”

The “Troubles”, as commonly termed, was a thirty-year violent conflict from the late 60’s to late 90’s between nationalist elements who wanted Northern Ireland to become part of the Republic of Ireland and unionist elements wanting to remain part of Britain. Paramilitaries on both sides engaged in bombings, targeted killings, and political unrest.

“The Troubles were part of life,” Elizabeth goes on to explain. “One summer during camp, a bomb went off in the town, a little too close for comfort as some of the boys were camping outside that night.  Several years later, sadly, some children were at camp when the terrible news of their father’s death at the hand of terrorists came through. Thankfully, our own BCM Centre in Lisburn suffered no damage when a nearby bomb damaged the surrounding property. In the midst of all this, our BCM Bible clubs and camps provided a safe haven for children.”

Early Camp - Mullartown
Mullartown House

Having a central, safe location where summer camps as well as other ministry events could be held was one motivation that prompted the BCM Northern Ireland committee to begin searching for a suitable property of their own. When Mullartown House came on the market, they knew this was God’s answer to their prayers.

“Those of us on the committee were in basic jobs or unsalaried,” Elizabeth remembers now. “Our camp fund stood at just £2000, and here we were, committing to buy a property for £48,000. Tom and Joan McKinstry led us in the amazing experience of trusting God to supply BCM’s needs. In this fortieth anniversary year we acknowledge how utterly faithful is our God. Not just in the provision of funds, but also personnel.”

Listing all the long-term volunteers would fill its own book, including Harry and Christine Dowds, Nigel Mullholland, Judith McKinney, Marcus and Jennifer Suarez, Davy and Heather Morrow, Keith and Ruth Henderson, Carl and Ruth Somerville, Keith and Sharon Parker, Jack Hill, the four Anderson brothers, Ruth and Robert Wishart, and so many more. Added to that are countless numbers who opened their homes for Bible clubs, who taught, who held sword drills, quizzes, choruses, ferried children back and forth, or just sat with the children.

A team for which Scott and Joanna Widman, BCM missionaries since 1990 from the United States, express special thanks. The Widmans arrived at Mullartown House in 2000 just as Tom McKinstry, now in his late seventies, and his wife Joan were retiring (if continuing as active and eager volunteers counts as retirement!), leaving once again only Scott and Joanna as full-time BCM missionaries in Northern Ireland. While many volunteers and interns have filled the gap over the years, the Widmans prayed for more full-time help. And God answered.

When Gemma Hill became a full-time BCM missionary in 2012, serving with the Widmans at Mullartown House was not a new venture for her. Gemma remembers attending her first summer camp at Mullartown when she was just seven years old. Her own mother grew up attending Bible clubs and camps under Tom and Joan McKinstry.

Since her first camp, Gemma has yet to miss a single summer at Mullartown. She accepted Christ as Saviour at camp when she was twelve. At sixteen, she became a dorm leader, then counsellor. She served as director of senior teens for ten years and in 2010 became a BCM intern.  In 2013, Gemma married Jason Hill, whose great-uncle Jack Hill helped with the founding of Mullartown House. They now have two children.

A graphic designer, Jason had already been volunteering his services to BCM Northern Ireland. In 2015, he joined BCM as a full-time missionary. In 2016, when Scott Widman took on a new role of Ministry Director for Northern Ireland, Jason and Gemma stepped in as directors of Mullartown House. Three more full-time missionaries have since been added to the team, Nate and Rachael Heater, from the United States, and Zak Nicholls from Northern Ireland.

Jason and Gemma Hill
Song time at Bible camp;
Camp slip and slide

In 2018 after fifty-four years of service, Elizabeth Spence and Dorothy Armstrong have officially retired as Chairman and Secretary respectively of the BCM Northern Ireland Board, if not as volunteers for camp and other ministries. They too express joy at seeing a new generation of both full-time missionaries and volunteers taking up the baton of BCM ministry in Northern Ireland. They estimate that since its inauguration forty years ago Mullartown House has hosted approximately three hundred weeks of BCM camps along with hundreds camp reunions, church retreats, women’s events, and other Christian outreaches. Tens of thousands have participated in BCM children’s ministries and camps over the last seven decades. Countless former campers and Bible clubbers are today pastors, missionaries in many different countries, church and civic leaders, even city mayors.

Elizabeth sums up, “It is impossible to quantify the impact of BCM in individual lives, within the local church, on the mission field, or just in local life here. Northern Ireland is a small place, so often when you are talking to someone and Mullartown is mentioned, the other person has been there themselves or knows of some connection.  For example, recently Dorothy’s car salesman told her he had been to camp there as a child!”

Nate and Rachael Heater, who have now completed eighteen months with BCM Northern Ireland, add, “Probably the most incredible thing we’ve experienced since coming here is simply running into people all over Northern who may not even know BCM, but either attended Mullartown House as a child or have had their kids go there, and they are still walking with the Lord today.”

BCMNI director Scott Widman adds, “As BCM enters its seventieth year in Northern Ireland, it would be difficult to count the number of lives reached for the Lord Jesus. And now from Joanna and I being the only full-time workers, our numbers have grown to seven, praise God! There is still so much of Northern Ireland that BCM is not reaching. Our vision for the future also includes new workers to reach into these areas. Sound impossible? It would be if I were trusting in my own strength. But we can do all things through Christ, who gives us his strength.”

The new generation of BCM Northern Ireland missionaries express their own vision for the future. “Our goal for every person who comes through the gates of Mullartown is that they feel valued and be drawn to Christ,” expresses Mullartown House director Gemma Hill. “One thing we’ve learned here is to never make any excuses for the Gospel. Whether a local football group using our new sports hall or some other community event, we want to see glory brought to God, so there will be prayer, a devotional, some other Christian message that points to God.”

Jason Hill adds, “This is about building a legacy for the next generation to carry forward. My great-uncle worked here at Mullartown beside Tom and Joan McKinstry and others. Now I want to pour into the next generation of children what my elders did for me. It would be lovely to come back in another forty years and see this ministry four times its current size.”

Nate and Racheal Heater are working directly with Northern Ireland churches with a goal of expanding existing BCM ministries for children, youth, adults, and teacher training into new areas. They share, “Our long-term vision is to have a self-reproducing year-round youth and young adult discipleship ministry, partially as follow-up to camp, but primarily as a resource to churches throughout Northern Ireland. We would especially love to see young people coming up through BCM ministries, whether summer camps or others, equipped and passionate to continue reaching out to their peers, families and communities with the gospel.”

Heroes of Faith camp theme

Elizabeth and Dorothy admit that Northern Ireland has seen many changes since their early days with BCM, including a drop-off in church and church-related activities, a curbing of Bible teaching in schools, new legislations that place more restrictions on evangelistic outreach. At the same time, BCM ministries and camps are now reaching a greater range of children, including among more disadvantaged families, foster children, immigrants, and non-Christian backgrounds, who are in great need of the gospel message.

“This has not taken God by surprise,” Elizabeth and Dorothy affirm together. “And we can be confident he will continue the good work he has begun here in Northern Ireland. Two things that encapsulate our vision for Bible Centred Ministries here in Northern Ireland for the years ahead are stated right in the mission’s name—that however we must adapt to find new ways to reach young people with the gospel, the Bible will always remain the centre and focus of all we do.”

Worship time in new sports hall

Missionaries of BCM Northern Ireland

Scott & Joanna Widman

Scott & Joanna Widman

Director

Jason and Gemma Hill

Jason and Gemma Hill

Nate & Rachel Heater

Nate & Rachel Heater

Zak Nicholls

Zak Nicholls