One of the lesser-known factoids about St. Patrick is that he was not Irish. He was a “Briton”, one of the Celtic people who populated the British Isles. We never held it against him, though, poor fellow. It wasn’t his fault.
Among the many other factoids about Patrick is that he was nearly 50 years old when he traveled to Ireland as a missionary. At an age when most men in the 4th century were preparing for death, Patrick was preparing to sail to Erin. He had a career of nearly 30 years ahead of him there.
The most fascinating factoid about Patrick, in my opinion, was his method of evangelizing the wild tribes of Ireland. According to George G. Hunter’s book “The Celtic Way of Evangelism” (Abingdon, 2000), Patrick helped bring the Gospel to Ireland not by changing the Irish into Roman Christians, but rather by changing Roman Christianity into Irish Christianity.
Patrick did not evangelize by any form of cultural hegemony; rather, he converted via friendly persuasion and respect for the culture he encountered. This was radical for its day, for people of the 4th century thought nothing of imposing their will upon others by force. Patrick did the opposite. He evangelized the Irish by becoming Irish. He did this via “community”.
The Celtic Way is nearly the opposite of the traditional method of evangelism, which is presentation, decision, and then fellowship. The Celtic model for reaching people is (1) you first establish community with people, or bring them into the fellowship of your faith community, (2) within fellowship, you engage in conversation, ministry, prayer, and worship, (3) in time, as they discover that they now believe, you invite them to commit.
Hunter writes: “Patrick’s entourage would have included a dozen or so people, including priests, seminarians, and two or three women. Upon arriving at a tribal settlement, Patrick would engage the king…hoping for [his] conversion or at least [his] clearance to camp near the people and form into a community of faith adjacent to the tribal settlement…
“The apostolic band would probably welcome responsible people into their group fellowship to worship with them, pray with them, minister to them, converse with them, and break bread together. One band member or another would probably join with each responsive person to reach out to relatives and friends. The mission team typically spent weeks, or even months, as a ministering community of faith within the tribe. The church that emerged within the tribe would have been astonishingly indigenous.” Pages 21-22.
The Celtic Way reflects the slogan that, for most people, “Christianity is more caught than taught”.
Hunter and others discuss how the “monasteries” built by the missionaries to Ireland were less like monasteries and more like open villages, with no walls or gates. Irish tribal people could walk about and visit whenever they wished, as the monasteries became just another part of the larger community. It was not until several centuries later, when the Vikings came calling, that the Irish began to build their tall, fortress-like towers.
Hunter poses that we can learn much from Patrick as Christendom fades from western society; that we need to focus more explicitly on the importance of the seeker’s experience with the Christian community in the process of their conversion, not merely “selling” to them with presentation-decision-fellowship.
In an environment today where skepticism is rampant and many in the church have caused great harm, the Celtic Way may be the only way to move forward as a church. It’s about respect for The Other and the creation of community first, not marketing or cultural hegemony. It is not as fast as hegemony – it took Patrick and his disciples generations to finally convert Ireland – but it is much more effective, and authentic to the Gospel of Jesus Christ – bí cennte de! (“Be sure of it!”)
Happy Saint Paddy’s Day!