By Winfield Bevins
When most of us think of Ireland, we think about green rolling hills and countrysides covered in grass. What is not as widely known is that over one thousand years ago on this little island was the birth of one of the most influential movements in the history of the Christian church. In fact, some scholars argue that the Celtic Christians contributed to the preservation of western civilization. Celtic Christianity stands out as one of the most vibrant and colorful Christian traditions the world has ever known.
Before we can fully understand Celtic Christianity, we must look at the life and ministry of Saint Patrick. His life is surrounded by mystery, superstition, and myth. We have all heard of him, but few of us know much about him.
Patrick was the founding leader of the Celtic Christian church and was personally responsible for baptizing over 100,000 people, ordaining hundreds of priests, driving paganism from the shores of Ireland, and starting a movement in Ireland that preserved Christianity during the Middle Ages. As we shall see, the life and ministry of Saint Patrick reveals the great influence he had on Christianity and the world.
Patricius, better known as Patrick, was born in 389 A.D. in a Christian home in Britain during a time when England was undefended by the Roman Empire. Irish raiders captured people in Britain and brought them back to Ireland as slaves. At the age of sixteen, Irish barbarians demolished Patrick’s village and captured him. They brought him to the east coast of Ireland and sold him into slavery. During this time, Patrick would spend many hours in prayer talking with God.
Six years later, he received a message from the Lord saying, “Soon you will return to your homeland…. Come, and see your ship is waiting for you.” He escaped from his master, fled 200 miles, and boarded a ship of traders who set sail for France and eventually made his way back into Britain. It was at this time that he received his call to evangelize Ireland. He explained his call in the following way:
“I had a vision in my dreams of a man who seemed to come from Ireland. His name was Victoricius, and he carried countless letters, one of which he handed over to me. I read aloud where it began: ‘The voice of the Irish. . . . We appeal to you holy servant boy, to come home and walk among us.’ I was deeply moved in heart and I could read no further, so I awoke.”
This vision had a profound effect on Patrick and he immediately made plans to return to Ireland, the land of his previous captivity.
Tradition tells us that Patrick was appointed bishop and apostle to the Irish in 432. Patrick traveled the Irish country preaching the gospel. Paganism was the dominant religion when Patrick arrived. He faced most of his opposition from the druids who were highly educated and also practiced magic. They constantly tried to kill Patrick. He writes, “Daily I expect murder, fraud, or captivity, but I fear none of these things because of the promise of heaven.”
Patrick’s own writings tell a great deal about the man, his ministry, and his love for Ireland. He mentions several times that his education was disrupted when he was taken captive at the age of sixteen. He was also self-conscious about his lack of education. He said, “I am unable to explain my mind to learned people.” Although he did not receive the same education as other bishops, he did receive his call directly from the Lord. Perhaps it was his lack of education that made him so successful in pagan Ireland. His great success demonstrates that he was able to relate to common people in a real and relative way. He had a great love for people and the Lord, which was manifested in every area of his life and ministry.
Part of Patrick’s ministry strategy was focused on Ireland’s tribal kings. Patrick knew that if a king converted, his people would follow. When kings would convert they would often give their sons to Patrick to educate and train in the ways of the Lord. Thus, he persuaded many of them to enter into the ministry. As bishop of Ireland, Patrick planted nearly 700 churches, was instrumental in the conversion of thousands, and ordained hundreds of clergy, and established many monasteries. Because of his ministry, Christianity spread through Ireland and into other parts of the British Isles.
The churches and monasteries that he established became some of the most influential missionary centers in all of Europe. Missionaries went out from Ireland to spread the gospel throughout the world. It was the Irish monasteries that preserved the Christian faith during the dark ages.
The missionary legacy of Saint Patrick continued long after his death through the Celtic Christian monastic movement. In the sixth and seventh centuries, Celtic Christianity spread throughout the British Isles like wild fire under the gifted leadership of men such as Columba who established monastic communities in Iona and Aidan in Lindisfarne. These monasteries were not places for monastic recluses, rather they became spiritual centers and discipleship training hubs that sent out missionaries throughout Western Europe. On Columba’s influence, early church historian Bede wrote that he “converted the nation to the faith of Christ by his preaching and example.”
What made the Celtic way of discipleship especially successful was their commitment to making disciples, not just converts, by infusing evangelism and discipleship. This is an important lesson. Many churches today focus on evangelism at the expense of discipleship by seeking to win converts instead of making disciples. The goal of evangelism is disciple making. The Great Commission in Matthew chapter 28 is to make disciples who will follow Christ rather than simply win converts. When Jesus commanded us to “make disciples,” the disciples understood it to mean more than simply getting someone to believe in Jesus. They interpreted it to mean that they should make out of others what Jesus made out of them.
There are a few lessons that we can learn from the Celtic way of discipleship.
1. Doing Ministry as a Team. The Celtic Christians did ministry as a team instead of individually. This means they didn’t go out and try to win the world by themselves, rather they went out as a team because they understood the power of numbers. Each member of the Celtic missionary team played an important role in the whole of reaching the community. The Celts believed in “the importance of the team,” wrote John Finney in Recovering the Past: Celtic and Roman Mission. “A group of people can pray and think together. They inspire and encourage each other. The single entrepreneur is too easily prey to self-doubt and loss of vision.” The Celtic team approach to ministry and discipleship is an important alternative to the modern “lone ranger” mentality approach that is typical in so many Western churches and desperately needs to be recovered.
In his indispensable resource, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, Dr. George Hunter observes: “In contrast to contemporary Christianity’s well-known evangelism approaches of ‘Lone Ranger’ one to one evangelism, or confrontational evangelism, or the public preaching crusade, (and in stark contrast to contemporary Christianity’s more dominant approach of not reaching out at all!), Celtic Christians usually evangelized as a team by relating to the people of a settlement; identifying with the people; engaging in friendship, conversation, ministry, and witness with the goal of raising up a church in measurable time.”
2. A Holistic Faith. The Celtic Christians developed a holistic approach to discipleship that prepared people to live out their faith through a sense of depth, compassion, and power in mission. The Celtic believers were immersed in a holistic spirituality that had depth and meaning and enabled them to withstand difficulty and hardship in their everyday lives. In other words, their faith wasn’t just theoretical, but practical and relevant to everyday life. Celtic Christians were not just hanging out in a classroom but living their faith in the real world.
A major problem with much of North American discipleship is that it is one-dimensional. Many Christians see themselves as either evangelical, sacramental, charismatic, etc. However, like a diamond, the Christian faith has multiple dimensions. The Celtic Christians understood the complex nature of the faith and sought to bring together a faith encounter that encouraged spiritual growth on many levels.
Dr. Hunter taught that there was a structure of experiences that deepened their faith.
• Experience voluntary periods of solitary isolation in a remote natural setting such as a grove of trees near a stream where you can be alone with God.
• Spend time with your “soul friend,” a peer with whom you were vulnerable and accountable; to whom you made confession; from whom you received absolution and penance; who both supported and challenged you.
• Spend time with a small group.
• Participate in the common life, meals, work, learning, biblical recitation, prayers, and worship of the whole Christian community.
3. Missional Community. The Celtic Christians understood that mission takes place within the context of the Christian community. The Celtic Christians entered into the community they were trying to reach with the gospel. They would live, work, and eat among the people they were trying to reach. This is contrary to the way most modern Christians try to reach people. They went to where the people were; we usually expect people to come to us.
They knew that God created people to live in community with others. In the context of Christian community, spiritual seekers were able to explore the faith in real life settings. They were able to see the gospel message lived out before them. In this sense, Christian community is a living sacrament that demonstrates the eternal truths of the Word of God.
Upon arrival, a guest would be given a soul friend, a small group, and a place for solitude. A guest would also learn some Scripture; worship with the community; one or more members of the community would share the ministry of conversation and pray with and for the guest daily. After some days, weeks, or months the guest would find themselves believing what the Christians in the community believe. They would then invite the seeker to commit their life to Christ and his will for their life, leading the new disciple in continued outreach ministry to other seekers.
4. Hospitality. The Celtic Christians understood and practiced biblical hospitality. The role of hospitality was central in the Celtic Christian ministry to seekers, visitors, refugees, and other guests who came into their sphere of influence. Hospitality was an important part of the monastic community life and ministry. They would invite seekers, pilgrims, refugees, and others to be guests of the monastic community. They followed the Benedictine Rule that said, “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’”
Many contemporary Christians and churches have lost touch with the biblical hospitality. It is imperative that we relearn the gift of hospitality, especially in light of its important place in the Scriptures. The word hospitality literally means “love of strangers” and is found several times in the New Testament (Rom. 12:13; 1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:8; 1 Pt. 4:9). We are all called to offer the love of Christ to our guests and welcome them in such a way that they would be transformed from strangers into friends.
Lessons for Today. The Celtic Christian movement offers several extraordinary insights into discipleship for the church of 21st century. We can learn a lot from the man, Saint Patrick. He is an example of how an individual can overcome tremendous obstacles with the Lord’s help. Patrick went back to the very land where he had been a slave to evangelize. It is like the story of Joseph who ended up saving his brothers who had sold him into slavery. What a powerful example of how God can use our past to minister to others. Many times the Lord will give you a burden to help bring salvation and healing to people from your past.
Even though he didn’t have a good education he didn’t let that stop him from letting God use him. We see that he was able to do great things for God despite his lack of worldly education. His calling came from God and that’s all that really mattered. When the Lord is in your life, he will make a way for you. Patrick was used mightily by God to deliver the people of Ireland from paganism, slavery, and sin. He helped bring revival to a nation and to a continent. He stands as one of the great leaders of the Christian faith.
Winfield Bevins is the director of church planting at Asbury Theological Seminary. He is the author of several books, including Liturgical Mission: The Work of the People for the Sake of the World; Ever Ancient Ever New: The Allure of Liturgy for a New Generation; and Marks of a Movement.