Today we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, and in honor of the saint and his missionary work, I want to share some of his legacy. Last year I wrote an entry giving a basic overview of his life, but this year, I want to share some thoughts on what we can glean from his way of evangelism.
Last year sometime I read The Celtic Way of Evangelism by George G. Hunter III , which is a great read and an interesting and insightful book where he explores the missionary model that St. Patrick and others used to effectively spread the Gospel to Ireland in the 4th and 5th centuries. He points out many significant aspects of this evangelism model and he also presents many parallels between then and today, giving not only helpful, but I would say extremely important insight into the work of evangelism in 21st century America. I want to share a few of his insights that I think are most poignant:
- St. Patrick engaged in a different way of evangelism than did the dominant culture of Rome. Rome made the mistake of conflating the terms “evangelize” and “civilize.” In other words, Roman Christian leaders assumed that a population had to be civilized enough already to be Christianized (civilization as a prerequisite for being Christian). Then, once a sufficiently civilized population became Christian, they were expected to learn to read and speak Latin, to adopt Roman customs, and to do church “the Roman way.” In short, the Roman way of doing evangelism was to make barbarian peoples “civilized” and to make them conform to the Roman customs. It is the attitude that they must become exactly like us if they are going to be true Christians. Does this sound like a familiar attitude?
- St. Patrick approached the mission field differently. Instead of waltzing right in to Ireland and demanding that the Celts conform to Roman practices of Christianity, he took the time to learn their language, their issues, their ways. He took the time to build relationships. There is not shortcut to understanding the people. When you understand the people, you will often know what to say and do, and how. When the people know that the Christians understand them, then perhaps they will know that God understands them too. St. Patrick and the others who came with them would engage people in conversation and in ministry, and look for people who appeared to be receptive. They would pray for the sick, counsel people, and mediate conflict. They would pray for abundant harvest for the people or a greater catch of fish. They would engage in open-air speaking, using parable, story, poetry, song, visual symbols, and perhaps drama in order to connect with the vivid imagination already present within the Celtic communities. St. Patrick’s way of evangelism sought to engage Celtic culture and the imaginations of the people he was trying to reach rather than to impose the dominant culture upon them. He looked for ways to relay to the truths of the Gospel through mediums that could be understood and identified with. This approach has a lot to teach us today.
- Furthermore, the Roman model and the Celtic model for evangelism follow differing sequences. The Roman model says 1) first you must present the Christian message, 2) then you invite them to decide to believe in Christ and become Christians. 3) If they decide positively, then you welcome them into the church and its fellowship. This is the way that we have done evangelism for the most part. We explain the gospel, they accept Christ, they join the church. Presentation, decision, assimilation. On the other hand, the Celtic model says 1) first you establish community with people, or bring them into the fellowship of your community of faith. 2) Within that fellowship, you engage in conversation, ministry, prayer, and worship. 3) In time, as they discover that they now believe, you invite them to commit. The Celtic model is more about sharing the life of faith with people. It reflects the idea that “Christianity is more caught than taught!” In this model, belonging comes before believing, and that needs to become a more prominent goal: helping people gain a sense of belonging in community even if their beliefs aren’t what we think they need to be.
- Evangelism was always done as a team of clergy and laity. It did not rely on one or two clergy to do all of the legwork. In fact, as Christianity took root in Ireland, the movement was predominantly led by those who were not ordained as priest or bishops. They knew the importance of a team that could pray and think together. They could inspire and encourage each other. They could remind one another of their common vision.
While there is much more that could be shared, to me, these are some of the most significant aspects of the legacy that St. Patrick has left us. I truly believe that his model for mission is much more relevant to us today than the Roman model that has been ingrained in us. As you celebrate St. Patrick’s Day today, consider the things that he teaches us and our own call to live out the Great Commission that Jesus gives us: Go forth making disciples of all (kinds of) people (whether or not they look or act like us, or whether or not they will ever look or act like us), in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.