Of course, these values are nothing novel. They are biblical ideas that the First Church and the Celtic Church had practiced for centuries. However, many of these missional values have been largely ignored by mainline Christianity in recent decades, and somewhat predictably, our churches have struggled to fight against the cultural tides of individualism, consumerism, and institutionalism. In hopes of reaching a postmodern, post-Christian culture, Western Christianity now finds itself searching for a new way forward. But before we try to reinvent the wheel, I think we could all benefit by learning something from St. Patrick and the Celtic Church.
In The Celtic Way of Evangelism, George Hunter III offers the following ten insights regarding Celtic Christianity’s evangelistic methods: credibility, clearance, contact, community, communication, conversation, contextualization, continuity, consistency, and conviction (pp 104-106). The book also describes the Celtic Church as devoted, prayerful, relational, communal, invitational, experiential, diverse, and optimistic. One could argue that the Celtic Church maintained a missional and attractional evangelistic ethos, rather than the missional or attractional dichotomy that the current missional movement promotes.
What, then, did the Celtic Church attract people to? The church was not content to simply try and attract large crowds of nominal believers to a Sunday morning gathering or a large evangelistic event. Rather, it sought to attract seekers, visitors, refugees, and other guests to a live life with and among its monks. As a result, non-Christians would get a close-up look at Christian worship, the Bible, accountability and community. Over time, these new Christians would learn The Way and become fully integrated into the monastery. The Celtic Church adhered to the age-old clichés that Christianity is better caught than taught, and that belonging comes before believing (p 43).
So how does all this relate to us today? In ministering to a postmodern culture, I agree with Hunter that the Celtic model of beginning with fellowship in the gospel and moving toward an invitation to commitment will be more useful than the more prevalent Roman model in which a presentation of the gospel and a decision should precede one’s acceptance into the fellowship. As Hunter points out, prior to the Enlightenment the common philosophical ideal was, “I belong, therefore I am.” During the Enlightenment, on the other hand, people lived by the phrase, “I think, therefore I am.” Now, as we live in a culture saturated by various social media, subcultures, ethnic groups, peer groups, and new tribalism, we might be returning to the pre-Enlightenment motto (p 103).
What we are more confident of, however, is that Postmoderns value things like acceptance, honesty, authenticity, togetherness, freedom, expression, belonging, meaning, participation, and connectivity – many of which were staples of Celtic Christianity. In addition, Hunter notes that the Celtics held spiritual formation in high regard, but only as it pertained to the effectiveness of their ministry and mission. I believe the effectiveness of our ministry and mission will be increasingly shaped by our ability to humbly relate with a postmodern culture while maintaining the integrity of the gospel message. Moreover, we must commit to pray without ceasing like the Celtic Church did, for only God can change hearts and transform lives.