Northern Ireland

Ballymena church with big ambitions

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Media captionThe church, at Galgorm outside Ballymena, has a congregation of about 900

Everything about Green Pastures is big - it has a big church building and a big congregation of around 1,000.

It has a packed weekly programme and runs, among other things, a food bank, a home for vulnerable women and a factory where the unemployed can learn new skills.

The independent evangelical church started in 2007 with around 100 members and it has grown quickly.

It is currently sited directly beside the Ballymena bus manufacturer Wrightbus - the church's pastor is a member of the family behind the company and was once a director.

But with offices, a three-storey soft play area for children and a gym to accommodate, even its present building is not big enough. That's one reason why the church bought a 97-acre site to the south of Ballymena for £4m.

It wants to build housing, a hotel and a supermarket on the site to help pay for a new church building, housing for vulnerable adults and a nursing home that would also be built on the site at Ballee.

'Flock'

The church's pastor, Jeff Wright says his charismatic, evangelical church has grown fast because people see something they like.

"Success and what it is, is a good question. Some people have it and some people lack it but when a church has it then everyone realises it and people flock to it, I guess I would attribute it really down to the presence of God," he said.

Karen Kernohan is one of around 30 staff who work at the church's large silver office-like premises in Galgorm.

Image caption The Green Pastures Church was founded in 2007 by Jeff Wright

"We've found every time we have made space it's been filled and we believe God has filled that. We've knocked down walls, we've created more services and every time we've done that it's filled up," she said.

The retail aspect of the scheme has proved controversial, independent retailers fear it could damage Ballymena's town centre by offering more 'out of town' shopping.

Some have also complained about developing land that is currently green space. Pastor Jeff, as he is known, says they want to add to what Ballymena can offer.

"We're not this great big developer that is there to maybe cause devastation, we're here for the town," he said.

Project Nehemiah

"We're going to be creating parks and areas to walk, nicer than what we have at the minute."

The church's plans for the site are called Project Nehemiah, named after the Old Testament figure who rebuilt Jerusalem.

Jeff Wright explained the thinking behind that name.

"Nehemiah was a guy who had a passion for his city and he got together with a group of people and they started to bring social, economic and a spiritual restoration to that city and they revived that city and I guess that's the idea behind it, we want to do good things for our town and for our people," he said.

He is keen to emphasise that the help they hope to offer to elderly and vulnerable adults is not given on the basis of church attendance or an expression of faith. He refers to the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Image caption The Green Pastures development site on the outskirts of Ballymena

Plans

"The guy on the Jericho Road didn't ask where the guy (in need) came from or ask him to fill in a questionnaire, he just helped him. As far as we are concerned we are here to help people, but we also have a message about Jesus Christ that we want to get across to people, so it is an open door for everybody," he said.

Green Pastures hopes to move into its new church building in 2017, if planning approval is given.

The site will most likely become known as The Gateway, but Jeff Wright dismisses any suggestion that it will become a gated community.

"It's for the town and will be for the town, not just for church people," he said.

"The Moravian Church did this 250 years ago and it's only two miles from here. They had a girls home just the same as us, they had housing for people, they trained people in how to look after their fields and plant crops, so they were social, but economic at the same time, but at the very centre of that was God in the midst of his people."

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