The Celtic Way of Evangelism

Hunter, George G. 2000. The Celtic way of evangelism : how Christianity can reach the West — again. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

I have already quoted once from this book (here). As many people celebrated St. Patrick’s Day this week, it seems appropriate to write a book review.

The title of this book might give the impression that when you read this book you will finally know how to evangelize successfully. I am always a little bit hesitant if somebody thinks he has “found it.” However, the content of the book does not fall in this trap. It is an interesting analysis of what might have made St. Patrick’s mission to Ireland so successful and which of these factors might be useful for today.

The aspects that the author underlines are in itself nothing new, and there are certainly many other books on the market who say the same thing. Nevertheless, I found it interesting, especially the comparison between the Celtic and Roman Christianity and their approach to evangelism. Hunter, similar to J. Philip Newell (whom I have quoted recently), are not claiming that one is better than the other, but that both are poorer without the other. In this sense it is unfortunate that the Roman church fought and suppressed Celtic spirituality.

So, what can we learn from St. Patrick?

The basis of his mission was laid during a time of enslavement. He was a Briton from NE England, coming from an “aristocratic family [that] had gone “Roman” during the Roman occupation of England.” During his enslavement by Celtic pirates as a teenager, several changes happened:

  • a personal experience of God’s presence when he was herding cattle in the wilderness, a growing faith;
  • a deeper understanding of the Irish Celtic people, their language and culture, as you can only learn it from the ‘underside’;
  • a love for and an identification with his captors to the point of feeling they are his people.

Through divine intervention he was able to board a ship and regain freedom after six years of enslavement. He trained for the priesthood and served as a parish priest in England until his “Macedonian call’ to become a missionary to the Celtic people in Ireland at age 48. This calling went totally against the general opinion of the Roman church of his time, because the Celts were regarded as ‘barbarians’ and as not enough ‘civilized’ to receive the Gospel. It was considered impossible to evangelize them.

St. Patrick’s approach to evangelism was made possible by his earlier experience:

The fact that Patrick understood the people and their language, their issues, and their ways, serves as the most strategically significant single insight that was to drive the wider expansion of Celtic Christianity, and stands as perhaps our greatest single learning from this move­ment. There is no 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, they infer that maybe the High God understands them too.

He worked with a team of people who would set up a temporary camp near a tribal settlement. They would contact the king or leader of this settlement, ask for their permission, and then stay for several weeks or even months, engaging people in conversations, pray for sick and possessed people, counsel and mediate conflicts, ministering to all who appeared receptive. The social dimension of their ministry included crusading against slavery – successfully!

Hunter underlines five aspects of the Celtic way of ‘being and doing church’ that contributed to the evangelization of Europe, a kind of “missionary ecclesiology” of the ancient Celtic Christian movement from which we could learn today:

  • Team approach – in contrast to the contemporary approaches of “Lone Ranger” one-to-one evangelism, or confrontational evangelism, or the public preaching crusade, the Celtic mission worked as a team, including oldtimers and newbies.
  • Modeling – this community provided a setting that prepared people to “live with depth, compassion, and power in mission.”  This included the discipline of solitude, spending time with a ‘soul friend’, being part of a fellowship group, participate and contribute to communal life, experiencing and learning ministry by observing and doing.
  • Imaginative prayer – St. Patrick’s team would use parable, story, poetry, song, visual symbols, visual arts and drama to engage the Celtic people’s imaginations. They took people’s ‘right brains’ seriously and made the gospel’s meaning vivid.
  • Hospitality – the monastic community was open for everybody and their highest com­mitment was hospitality to strangers, seekers, pilgrims, and refugees. It was seen as a ministry to seekers, without any strings attached.
  • Process conversion – they saw conversion as a process.

I found the comparison between the Irish and the Roman model of evangelization conversion very enlightening.

The Roman model for reaching people (who are “civilized” enough) was:

  • Present the Christian message;
  • Invite them to decide to believe in Christ and become Christians; and
  • If they decide positively, welcome them into the church and its fellowship.

The Celtic model in contrast starts where the Roman model ends – with fellowship:

  • You first establish community with people, or bring them into the fellowship of your community of faith.
  • Within fellowship, you engage in conversation, ministry, prayer, and worship.
  • In time, as they discover that they now believe, you invite them to commit.

In case you have not noticed – the Roman model is still pervasive today.

The Roman model seems very logical to us because most American evangelicals are scripted by it! We explain the gospel, they accept Christ, we welcome them into the church! Presentation, Decision, Assimilation.

I would add, not only American evangelicals, but also many European evangelicals follow the Roman approach. This comparison appears to be all the more relevant for today, as several researchers have pointed out that today’s postmodern people often need to first belong, before they can believe.

[John] Finney reports that most people experience the faith through relation­ships, that they encounter the gospel through a community of faith, that becoming a Christian involves a process that takes time. In his later book, Recovering the Past, Finney summarizes their chief finding in four words. For most people, “belonging comes before believing.”

In one of the chapters Hunter analyzes the missionary perspective of Celtic Christianity, which included among other things an optimism and affirmation of God’s presence in nature, a belief in the goodness of creation and human nature, even though both are infected, but not destroyed, by sin and evil.

This is in stark contrast to the emphasis of the Roman church who under the impact of St. Augustine’s teaching insisted on the absolute depravity of humans. The latter often contributed to the complete rejection of other people’s cultures, while the Celtic attitude provides “an outstanding example of a Christian mission moving into a culture and affirming, and building upon, what it can.”

This allowed them to evangelize ‘uncivilized barbarians’ and become a ‘religion- and culture-friendly’ movement. They used critical contextualization; on the one hand, integrating and ‘Christianizing’ places, symbols and festivals whenever possible, by dedicating them to the Triune God, but on the other hand, clearly challenging anything that was idolatry [cf. Boniface felling Thor’s Oak] and not shying away from power encounters.

Celtic Christianity preferred continuity rather than discontinuity, inclusion rather than exclusion.

In summary, I found this book well written and very thought provoking. It is balanced in its arguments and does not give the impression that the Celtic way is the only possible approach to evangelism today, but I believe that there is lots we could learn from them.

2 thoughts on “The Celtic Way of Evangelism – Book Review

  1. Jutta,

    If you are interested in the Celts, you might enjoy the Sister Fidelma mystery series by Peter Tremayne, whose “day job” is as a scholar of Irish history (His professorial name is Peter Berresford Ellis). The Fidelma tales take place at the time of transition from Celtic to Roman Christianity, and he includes a lot of the conflicts which that transition entailed.


  2. Thanks, Jennifer! I’ll check them out. I also decided to read George MacDonald who seems to include a lot of Celtic lore in his fantasy stories.

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