When I visited Conception Abbey a couple of years ago I purchased an icon of St. Patrick. I chose this not as a means to facilitate worship but because of my admiration for the pioneering evangelist. I often include George Hunter’s book The Celtic Way of Evangelism on the required reading list of the Missional Church class I teach from time to time. Hunter explains very clearly how a pagan people were won to the Christian faith, establishing an arm of the church that flourished in a period when other parts of the church were experiencing conflict and decline.
Although the role of St. Patrick in the conversion of the Irish is shrouded in myth and legend, this “patron saint of Ireland” is credited with the rapid conversion of the Irish to Christianity and the establishment of an enduring Christian community there. Certain principles at the core of this outreach reflect the experiences recounted of the mythical Patrick’s life, but they are significant for us today even if they were not initiated by the man himself.
First, those who led in the conversion of the Irish understood the culture and used it to communicate the Christian faith. Legend tells us that Patrick had been kidnapped from England as a youngster and spent several years as a slave in Ireland before escaping. When he returned as a missionary to Ireland, he knew the language, the social structure, and the customs. Whether this is true or not, the Christian mission to the Irish used the symbols and mythology of the Irish to explain Christianity, building on concepts that the people could grasp easily.
Second, Christian missionaries in Ireland understood the value of community to the Irish people. They established communities that invited both believers and non-believers to participate. People were able to belong and then believe. They could observe what Christianity was all about before they converted to the faith.
Third, the Christian church in Ireland embraced the egalitarianism of the Irish society. In Irish culture, women were respected and protected under the law. Because of this, the church accepted women in significant leadership roles, even that of bishop. This increased the impact of the church in Ireland much more than in parts of the world where women were not given this opportunity.
Hunter provides a great deal more information about both the characteristics of the Irish or Celtic branch of the church in his book, but he also points out how the approach taken by Patrick and his followers can be applied to the church’s mission in North America today.
Ancient practices can be a fresh wind of the Spirit for churches today.
(A version of this blog appeared on March 14, 2013)