On a dark Wednesday evening around half seven, a surge of young people swarm through the entrance of St. Mark’s Church, which sits tranquilly opposite the Science Gallery. Clutching shopping bags and waving to familiar faces, these clusters of young people lead the way into a large, dimly lit open room.
Justin Bieber blares from the speakers. The space is dominated by a large stage, filled with electric guitars and microphone stands. Three large screens hover above the crowd. The atmosphere resembles that of a battle of the bands event and the mood is jubilant and eager as people embrace or sip a coffee purchased from a small stall at the back of the room.
As the chatter rises to be heard over an upbeat remix of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” I have to remind myself that I am about to attend a religious service.
This is “Chapel,” a Christian youth group that meets every two weeks in this same location. An impromptu dance-off breaks out in front of the stage as I find a place to perch. As the screen announces a Hunger Games-esque countdown to the beginning of proceedings, an almost palpable aura of anticipation fills the large space.
It is evident a new chapter in youth religious participation has begun in Dublin and each of the two hundred young people present in the church are eager to spread the word.
Chapel’s aim is clear – it wants to make religion funky, cool, and relevant again. The young members all beam warmly at me as I wander in and everyone I ask to speak to is extremely open about their faith. The young girl beside me informs me it’s her first time attending Chapel.
Her excitement is tangible as she informs me that such groups are “growing more and more common in Dublin”. Often they turn the question back to me, querying about my faith but no one seems phased by my lack of religious participation.
The speakers that first take to the stage to begin proceedings make quips about Boojum and the bible app in one breath, as well as using a chat-up line referencing the Book of Numbers which causes the assembled masses to erupt into laughter.
There is also an announcement of an engagement of two of the members and I am later informed it is far from the first that the group has had. One girl, brandishing an iPhone, gives some quick-fire tips on how to make more time with God happen, one of the main nuggets of advice being “turn off Netflix earlier”.
Every now and then, a rapturous “amen” echoes from the audience in agreement of what has just been said.
A band takes to the stage and begin a song that is evidently a crowd favourite. The audience immediately starts to sing along unaccompanied. Hands rise and eyes close. Applause begins and the congregation is urged to shout out.
Two friends in the row ahead of me exchange a glance, one shaking his head in disbelief while the other can only laugh. Words on the screen assist the newcomers and I am taken back by the sheer force of the many voices gathering as one. A fist is raised akin to the final scene of the Breakfast Club and we hear “freedom!” A young man clad in all black clutches a microphone and exclaims “we believe in the presence of Jesus in this place”.
This man is called Daniel Malone and he is the Chapel Pastor. He was part of a group that started Chapel “four and a half years ago” as he was studying Social Work in UCD. The aim was to “start a university group for people who were interested in faith”. He estimates that there are 300 members that “call Chapel home”.
The Christian group was established in a small room inside the church with only six student members. Malone speaks passionately about the aim of Chapel: “Jesus has a plan and purpose for everybody, He loves everybody and gave His life for everybody.”
He continues: “It’s not about the group, it’s about Jesus, and about God and then your life starts to change and transform.” Malone says that such a gathering provides a sense of purpose: “I want to be very clear on this, stuff that hurts or the stuff that they’re going through, it’s not that it goes away but they find meaning in life.” He references the high rates of depression and suicide, particularly among young men between 18 and 24: “We believe there is an answer.”
When asked how the group begins to entice young people to attend Chapel, he eschews the idea of organising events to draw them in, instead explain that the “biggest expression of faith is somebody’s life that has been changed”. He is candid about the future of the group: “We would love to see it expand. By nature, we do want people to experience life with Jesus and naturally we want to grow.”
A running theme of the service is the near constant calls from Dan, from the band and from other speakers to “give your life to Jesus”. “Life can be tough,” we are told. “The answer is Jesus.” This is often followed with nods, “amens” or raised hands. A young man by the name of Mark takes to the stage to cover the biblical element of the evening. A charismatic speaker, he says in a strong Dublin accent. “Tonight we are going to talk about the wonder of the Father, not my father but God.”
He tells the story of his own journey to discovering his faith, describing the moment he found himself “dancing in the aisles of Tesco”. As the band begins once more and the chorus swells again, we are asked to come forward if we too want to “give our lives to Jesus”.
Eerily similar to the bible passage we had just heard, an outpouring of students into the aisles begins like the Israelites crossing the Red Sea and the young girl beside me is one of the first to leave her seat. Members of a prayer committee, one of the fifteen different teams that form the backbone of the Chapel group, go from person to person, chatting to them as the rest of the crowd continues to sing along, all standing.
Chapel ends abruptly in a much more hasty fashion than it began. The atmosphere in the room is still crackling as the hubbub quickly begins again among the crowd. No one leaves straight away, many are happy to linger with their fellow devotees for a little longer.
Lack of faith?
I had the opportunity to speak to Martin who began attending Chapel in late February and previously did not consider himself very religious. He spoke very eloquently about his journey into the group through an official weekend away: “I was so lost and ashamed with myself and terrified that my friend turned around to me and said please come to this event. I just dreaded it and when I came [to] that weekend [away], any pressure that I felt was on me, I felt I left it at the door.”
He left with a good feeling overall “and it was the first time that I felt like that in months”. He is now planning his next trip with the group, where he will be baptised. I also questioned him about the general disillusionment among the youth towards religion: “Some of my friends say ‘Oh, it’s not for them’ but they ask me a lot of questions about it because they’re unsure, they say ‘I don’t know someone who goes to church on a regular basis or I don’t know someone who goes to, you know, Chapel’ so they would ask questions and they’d be curious which is good that they’re curious about it but some of them are kind of afraid because they don’t want someone else judging them but it’s up to you. No one is going to judge you here.”
Dan also offered his perspective on the lack of faith amongst the youth of Ireland: “There are so many misconceptions about faith and the church.” Then he adds: “It’s just about ‘hey, meet a person called Jesus’ and he can change your life.’”