15 December 2017

New Irish Arts

Many readers will be familiar with the music of New Irish Arts. We catch up with Jonathan Rea to hear about his vision for their ministry.

What is New Irish Arts?

Our purpose is to serve God and people through the Arts. Most of our work is centred on the New Irish Choir and Orchestra, who perform music at lots of events each year. People tend to hear about us through our concerts in venues like Ulster Hall and the Waterfront – but actually our remit is much wider. Sometimes we help other organisations resource events – like the recent celebration of the Worldwide Missionary Convention in the Waterfront, or our concert at New Horizon in July. Occasionally we broadcast for BBC and RTE TV and radio. Often we perform smaller concerts for churches and charities, or we send small groups of artists to work in community projects in some of the less privileged parts of Ireland.

Although we work mostly through music, we sometimes involve visual artists and actors – it just depends on the occasion. All in all we have around 500 volunteer members on our database, and we typically do about 15-20 events per year.

How did it all begin?

Back in 1994 my friend and mentor Keith Getty had a vision for a Christian choir and orchestra that would be committed to excellence and used to glorify God throughout Ireland. Keith got the ball rolling and established the group for the first 10 years, and he still works alongside us from time to time.

What’s your role in it all?

It keeps changing! Originally I joined the choir, then I moved across to the orchestra as pianist and started doing some arranging and conducting small events. But when Keith’s hymn writing ministry took him to the USA I was asked to take over the post of Artistic Director. More recently, we have sensed God prompting us to develop our ministry in some new directions, and it became clear that I needed to invest more time. So I have taken a career break from my job as Director of Music in Bangor Grammar School, to build on our current work and explore the potential for some new areas of service. The Board have given me the grand title of Creative Chief Executive – which just means that I’m still responsible for the artistic side of the organisation, but I’m taking on the challenge of strategic development too! New Irish has been a huge part of my life now for a long time, and I really value what I’ve gained from being involved – but I’m excited about what God is doing at the moment and keen to see His plan for the future as it unfolds.

You mention new possibilities – tell us more!

The priorities for this year are to expand our work in the Republic of Ireland, to re-establish our youth choir and to provide more training to encourage church musicians. Longer term, we’re looking at options for developing ministries in schools, prisons and beyond Ireland. All of this fits alongside the existing programme of concerts, and keeps us on our toes!

At the risk of being a little bit provocative – how do you make sure your music isn’t just entertainment and performance?

I believe we should serve God with the gifts He gives us. This applies equally to the lawyer, the plumber, the pastor and the musician. In my case, I believe God has given me specific skills in music – and New Irish provides a context in which I can use my gift for His kingdom. So in our events, we always try to challenge both the players and the audience to get beyond the superficial pleasure of something we can “sit back and enjoy” – and instead to engage all our hearts, minds and voices in worship to God. Some of our events are straight presentations without audience involvement – and in this case we still try to include some element of challenge that points people to Jesus.

God is blessing our ministry in lots of different ways. Last year we prayed about developing our relationship with the BBC, and just a few weeks later we were invited to help with Songs of Praise – contributing to a total of four programmes this year. We prayed that God would give us opportunities to develop our base of members in Dublin – and just last week we gave the first ever concert where members from south of the border outnumbered those from the north! Also, a random conversation in the street last week in Co Wicklow led to a whole group of unchurched neighbours attending our concert, and subsequently deciding to go to church together! So while we rarely get the opportunity to spell out the salient points of the gospel in a step-by-step manner, we often provide a context, which helps the church to bring outsiders across the door.

Even within our membership we’ve seen lives changed as people have grasped the challenge to use their gifts to serve God. God is using our network of members to encourage each other and within the group there are many deep friendships where people are a real support to each other’s faith.

So, I suppose the answer to your question is that we try to keep the focus in the right place. Yes – music is great and we do try to perform as well as we possibly can – but really the interaction with people is where the heart of our ministry lies.

For people who’ve never been, can you describe the experience of a New Irish Concert?

It depends which event! But to take an example, our next event is our Christmas concert in the Ulster Hall. There’ll be a big choir and orchestra, several guest soloists and lots of chances for the audience to join in celebrating the birth of Jesus. The atmosphere is always very exciting – especially when the audience sings out well! We always try to encourage the audience to think of the concert as something we all do together – so that they are active rather than passive. I suppose the best way to experience it is to come! (I know – this is a shameless plug!) Tickets are selling fast at the time of writing – but you should still be able to get them from www.waterfront.co.uk The concert is on 9th and 10th December in the Ulster Hall.

Any other events you’d like to tell us about?

Actually yes! Next June we’re doing a concert in the Waterfront with our founder, Keith Getty and his wife Kristyn, at which they’ll be launching a new album. Again the tickets are from www.waterfront.co.uk and the event is on Saturday 2 June.

Is there a way we can experience New Irish if we can’t get along to a concert?

Well we do have 2 CDs for sale which you could order from our website – www.newirisharts.com – or you can get them in most of the local Christian bookshops.

What if people want to get involved?

Again, contact us through our website if you’re interested in helping us in any way – or if you think we might be able to help you.