In downtown Belfast a group of trees have no lower limbs. The limbs were not lost to fire or drought or city tree-pruners. They were cut off because so many people hanged themselves on them in this city smothered with despair.
As evangelist Jay Lowder passed them, he thought about the day twenty-five years earlier when he sat with a pistol to his own head—and about God’s redeeming grace that saved him.
During a recent evangelistic campaign in Northern Ireland he shared about his brush with suicide and preached the Gospel, helping hundreds of Irish men and women find new life through Jesus Christ in the process.
“I haven’t forgotten what it’s like to be lost,” he said.
Lowder, a “harvest evangelist” from Wichita Falls, Texas, preaches mostly to large rallies and assemblies, calling people to make public commitments of salvation through altar calls. It’s a Billy Graham style of evangelism he acknowledges has fallen out of favor in recent years.
“There’s very few of us out there,” he said. “We’re a dying breed.”
Though fulltime evangelism can be daunting, he held to an even more challenging dream: preaching among the spiritual deadness of the United Kingdom.
“It really boiled down to just feeling as though God had placed on my heart a burden and a desire for those people,” he said.
Lowder received two invitations to preach in the UK, but both were derailed by a failure to get local church leaders on board. Then a retired businessman in Lurgan, a suburb of Belfast, persuaded a small group of pastors to have Lowder preach in two churches early this year. Since public altar calls were uncommon, the pastors warned him not to expect a huge response.
“Well sure enough, we went over, and we had a record number of people saved for that area,” Lowder said.
When local pastors saw the results, momentum built for a major outreach in May they called Mission Hope. It brought together fifteen churches from different denominations—an unusual achievement in an area where Lowder says churches don’t work together. He would be preaching to a people who by and large had pushed God out of their minds, an apathetic, indifferent, and dry culture.
“I think [because of] the hopelessness, the struggle in the economy that people are facing, and the lack of outreach on behalf of the churches, people just don’t think about God,” he said. “It’s just not something that they consider.”
Lowder approached Mission Hope with the same foundational principle he carries anywhere he speaks: the Gospel is enough. He says people everywhere are looking for forgiveness, whether or not they admit it, and the straightforward proclamation of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ will unlock the doors to their hearts.
“I’m narrow-minded enough to believe that the Gospel is the solution,” he said.
Lowder preached at Shankill Parish Church, the largest building in Lurgan. The novelty of large evangelistic rallies and the publicity surrounding Mission Hope led to a large attendance. People walked more than a mile through wind and rain to get a seat in the crowded building.
“What it represented was the hunger of people going, ‘Dear God, I’ve got to find answers in my life. I’ve got to find the solution. I’ve got to find hope,’” Lowder said.
Officially, 409 people—from age 8 to 80—responded to the message by placing their faith in Jesus Christ. Three hundred of those responded at a youth rally, shocking the local organizers. Thinking twenty-five professions of faith would be “miraculous,” the rally’s forty trained evangelistic counselors were overwhelmed.
“I’m telling you, there’s nothing more convicting than when you’re around people who are desperate for God,” Lowder said.
Given Northern Ireland’s high suicide rate, Lowder shared how the Lord rescued him from nearly putting a bullet in his own head before he knew Christ. Later he received many messages from people helped in their own struggles by his story. (Lowder’s story can be found in a 2002 SBC LIFE interview. See www.sbclife.net/articles/2002/04/sla4.asp.)
Each person who trusted Christ during Mission Hope was contacted as part of a follow-up plan. Lowder keeps in contact with some of them via Facebook. Hearing their stories is music to the ears of a man who says he can never stop telling the Good News about the Savior who rescued him so many years ago.
“I just remember what it was like when my heart was void of any hope, when my heart was void of any life,” he said. “And when I think about where I was and about where God took me after that in coming to know Him, that’s what drives me, man. Not forgetting where I came from.”
John Evans, a member of Sagemont Church, is a freelance journalist in Houston, Texas.