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The Celtic Way of Evangelism (Reviewed by James Petticrew)

In honor of St. Patrick’s day I am wearing green and posting a review from a Scottish friend of mine named James Petticrew on a book I really enjoyed called The Celtic Way of Evangelism by George Hunter.

Overview of the Book

In this book George Hunter contributes to the current surge of interest in all things Celtic by focusing on what he perceives are the salient features of Celtic missionary strategy and practice and their implications for mission in the Post-Modern western culture, especially that ofNorth America. At the risk of being pedantic, I would have preferred if the author had titled this book “The Celtic Way of MISSION,” rather than “evangelism. 

This title would have better described the work’s contents, as it is about more than just evangelism in the narrow theological meaning of that word. I would say the book is essentially about the author’s perspective of how the Celtic church participated in the missio Dei ushering in the Kingdom of God.

This book cannot be described as a scholarly historical study of the Celtic church, a fact which the author himself acknowledges in the preface. I think it is also open to the charge of reading things into the evidence in places. Yet, I think to make that charge, is to fundamentally misunderstand the purpose of the author. I don’t believe George Hunter intended to produce a scholarly analysis of the Celtic Church and its distinctive features for the academy.  (those looking for that book would be better reading Ian Bradley’s “Colonies of Heaven.”  His intention is rather I believe to provide inspiration, broaden perspective and motivate debate and new initiatives among those involved in mission at a local church level. Those who attack the lack of scholarly methodology and content in the book, I would suggest have in reality missed one of the main points of the book. That point, which I suspect is therein motivation for the author, is that mission should be removed from the realm of the “experts” and returned to the people of God.  It would be my contention that he broadly achieves that goal.

Outline of the Book

Chapter 1, “The Gospel to the Irish”, is essentially a brief biographical sketch of St. Patrick that describes how his captivity in Celtic Ireland influenced his later style of evangelism. Hunter describes the Roman Church’s desire to “civilize” (make them conform to Roman customs and liturgical practices) churches planted in other cultures.He then contrasts Patrick’s method of mission which essentially involved the indigenization of the church and gospel in the Celtic culture. Patrick’s missionary strategy could be outlined as involving the establishing of a community near a tribal settlement,praying for those in need, presenting the Gospel using creative means,establishing a church and ordaining priests to oversee it, and moving on to new areas to plant churches. Hunter outlines the controversy and opposition Patrick faced from his contemporaries in the established Romano British church arising from his missiological methodology.

Chapter 2,”A New Kind of Community, A New Kind of Life” details the importance and structure of what Hunter calls Celtic monastic communities. He points out how these communities differed from the Eastern-influenced monasteries found elsewhere in the Church and became essential to the Celtic form of mission. He describe the differences in these terms: The eastern monasteries were organized to protest against and escape from the materialism of the Roman world and the corruption of the church; the Celtic monasteries organized to penetrate the pagan world and extend the church?[1] An additional important feature of these communities were their essentially lay nature, they were not dominated by “professional”Christians and interacted with the surrounding culture. I suspect that this one of the areas that a professional historian would take issue with Hunter, many Celtic missionaries were very authoritarian and Celtic monasteries were hardly egalitarian communities. The everyday activities of these monasteries and their physical structure are also described in great detail.

Chapter 3,”To the Picts, the Anglo-Saxons, and Other ‘Barbarians'”, describes the Celtic mission to other previously unreached people groups by significant Celtic missionaries subsequent toPatrick, such as Aidan, Columbanus, and Boniface. Hunter also describes the growing controversy between the Celtic Church and the RomanChurch which resulted from the Celtic missionary effort extending into geographical areas where it encountered the established church.  He believes that this conflict was essentially about control and culture. The Roman church desired over all control as it saw itself as the “true” church and objected to the Celtic indigenization of the church in local cultures. The beginning of the end of the Celtic church occurred when the more centralized and better organized Roman church won significant ecclesiastical victories at the Synod of Whitby 664AD and the Synod of Autun 670AD.

Chapter 4,”The Celtic Christian Community in Formation and Mission”  in my opinion is  probably the most helpful section of the whole book. This chapter describes the Celtic community-oriented method of mission. The main points Hunter makes are concerning the communal aspect ofCeltic mission and the vital role of hospitality within it. Essentially according to the author, the spiritual seeker was made to feel belonging in theChristian community before they were invited to believe the Christian gospel.Hunter makes a comparison between this Celtic strategy and the Roman evangelism of Patrick’s day and some of today’s more common forms of evangelism which tend to start with the acceptance of propositional truth. His belief is that “believing before belonging” strategy of the Celts will become the predominant and effective evangelistic methodology in the 21st century.

Chapter 5,”How Celtic Christianity Communicated the Gospel”, explains how the Celts made their communication of the gospel both appealing and effective. Hunter utilizes observations fromAristotle, Helmut Thielicke, and Soren Kierkegaard concerning what influences people most when hearing a message. His essential conclusion is that the authenticity of the Celtic community and its missionaries, coupled with their understanding of their target culture and use of relevant messages about real life issues,created a powerfully effective means of communicating the gospel.

Chapter 6,”The Missionary Perspective of Celtic Christianity”, Hunter discusses the missiological concepts of indigenization and contextualization with reference to the Celtic missionary movement. He outlines the main ways in which the Celtic church understood and utilized Celtic culture to communicate and embody the Gospel. He also discusses theological and anthropological differences between the Roman and Celtic churches.Hunter contrasts the Celtic perspective with the more “Imperialistic Methodology” of the Roman church which expected evangelized cultures to adopt and adapt to Latin culture.

Chapter 7, The ‘Celtic’ Future of the Christian Movement in the West” This final chapter wraps everything up by describing some post reformation and contemporary Christian movements that have utilized methods with an affinity  to those of the Celts.Included are the early Methodists, contemporary recovery movements, the Jesus Movement in Australia, and the Alpha course stemming from Holy Trinity Brompton, in London. Hunter’s contention, and of course the implication of the whole book, is that as the church seeks to evangelize again the West, it will find effective models, inspiration and principles from the Celtic church’s initial evangelization of Europe.

Appraisal of main issues

Here are the main issues that Hunter deals with in this book which I believe are of crucial importance to mission in the post-Christian West.

Missional Ecclesiology:  Hunter writes that by the end of the second century the Latin church had essentially become inwardly focused and infected by the imperialistic prejudices of Roman culture.The result was that there was no organized mission to the unreached people groups on the western and northern fringes of the Empire. The established church thus organized itself pastorally rather than in a missional way. Its main objective was to care for those who were already Christian rather than to reach those who were not. The author contrasts this with the Celtic church which he believes because of its context developed a missional ecclesiology. In other words, its organization and structure were the servants of its mission.

This missional ecclesiology is demonstrated in several ways. I have already described the importance of the monastic communities which had a direct missionary function. The Celtic church also appears to have been less “top heavy” than the established church, in the sense that it was less clerically controlled. Mission was carried out by apostolic teams, but also by the lay members of the monastic communities and presumably ordinary believers in the tribal settlements. Mission was expected,indeed it was regarded as essential and thus seen as a normative part of what it meant to exist as the body of Christ. Consequently, Hunter describes theCeltic church, as more of a movement than an institution.[2]

It seems to me that much of the contemporary church in my context in Europe is in contrast more of an institution than a movement. It is  structured on the assumption that Christendom?still exists and that the European population is latently Christian. The problem is that Europe is far from latently Christian, it is in fact entering into a post Christian era. And era which means it is particularly impervious to the Gospel because the culture has been born from a perceived rejection of Christianity. Currently the national and long established churches in Europe are on a numerical downward spiral. I am convinced that is because they are organized and structured on the assumption that they minister in a basically Christian context. It is here that I think George Hunter is pointing to something vitally important. Unless the church in the West can develop a missional ecclesiology that is effective in its cultural context, it is doomed to minister ineffectively to ever decreasing numbers. To use business terminology, the market for a church which is structured pastorally is drying up. It is not simply the problem of the “mainline”churches. The same problem is equally apparent in most evangelical denominations. My own church, the Church of the Nazarene, is a perfect example. I would argue that our training course for ministers is primarily designed to produce pastors who can look after and administer a congregation, much as the Roman bishop of Patrick’s day did. The problem is that our churches and culture need missionaries, as the average Nazarene church is under 50 in number and graying rapidly in age. Unless the church can redevelop a missional ecclesiology which makes mission inherent and makes structure the servant of mission, I can see no way for it to emulate the Celtic church’s evangelization of Europe in the 21st century. 

Culture: Another area which this book touches on which I believe is an issue of imperative importance to the church in the 21st century is that of culture and the church’s attitude towards it. Hunter writes Celtic Christianity had adapted to the people’s culture, the Romans wanted cultural forms imposed on all churches and people.[3]That statement may be slightly reductionistic but it basically reflects the situation. Celtic Christianity seems to have naturally understood the importance of what contemporary missiologists describe as indigenization and contextualization. They took time to understand the culture they were seeking to evangelize and then contextualized the gospel to the culture to make it comprehensible and then allowed indigenous expressions of the Gospel to develop. The genius of the Celtic missionaries was that were able to discern the parts of the indigenous Celtic culture that were neutral to the Gospel,those which could be used to promote the understanding of the Gospel and those aspects which went counter to the Gospel and had to be confronted and rejected.

We are currently living during one of the eras in history when the whole philosophical outlook of a culture is changing. Most contemporary commentators describe the current situation as the transition from modernity to post-modernity. I perceive the church mainly reacting to this cultural shift in two ways. One wing of the church seems to want to accept the new culture and its resulting norms without question and adapt the church entirely to it. The more conservative evangelical section of the church, by and large, seems alarmed by the changing culture and is full of clarion calls to resist and reject the new culture’s ways of thinking and behaving. Its here that I thinkHunter is right to hold up the Celtic church as an inspiration and model for us in interacting with a new culture. There is much about contemporary culture it strikes me is neutral and can be readily accepted by the church. It is very apparent that there are certain features of post-modernity, such as the desire for community, the search for spiritual reality and experience and the rejection of a purely empirical epistemology which offer the church opportunities to connect people with the authentic gospel. Hunter says that the Celtic church affirmed and built one very indigenous feature they could. Celtic Christianity preferred continuity rather than discontinuity, inclusion rather than exclusion[4]The church in this era must follow their example and grasp these cultural avenues of opportunity offered to us by contemporary culture. Patrick and his successor also confronted the aspects of Celtic culture which were in direct conflict with the gospel. They refused to accept those aspects of the indigenous culture which were essentially subversive of the Gospel.  We must have the courage to do the same in the culture that is currently evolving around us.

The author made another statement concerning the interaction of church and culture which really made me think. Hunter writes that “missionary encounter with another culture can often help us to perceive and recover something precious in the Christian body of truth.”[5] The more I thought about this, the more I could see Hunter is right. Our current interaction with post-modernism has brought back to our attention the importance of fellowship and community, authentic and experiential spirituality and creation within Christianity. Reflecting on this I wonder whether mission is not just essential for those outside the church but for the church in itself.In the missionary encounter with culture the church is forced to reappraise and perhaps even redefine its own beliefs and practices. I think this part of what was going on at the Jerusalem council in Acts 15.

Anthropology:  According to the author one of the major areas of tension between the Celtic church and the Roman church was over anthropology. The Roman church influenced byAugustine had a basically negative view of human nature as significantly if not entirely corrupted by sin. This in turn meant that their primary understanding of salvation was as a rescue from sin, sinfulness and its consequences. The Celtic church had a more positive perspective on human nature which saw the image of God in humanity as basically intact. The resulting soteriology,regarded salvation as completing the work of creation and restoring the image of God fully. Hunter is undoubtedly correct in saying that the Celtic perspective on human nature is deficient. I would want to also say that the Augustinian perspective on its own is also deficient. If the Celtic view point creates an unduly optimistic view of human nature, surely the Roman perspective is unduly pessimistic. I think that given our contemporary culture we need to reaffirm some of the Celtic anthropology. I believe that for two reasons.Firstly, contemporary culture does not respond to guilt induction. If we only understand and present salvation as salvation from sin, most post-modern people will believe they don’t need the cure for they have no symptoms of the disease.Churches like Mosaic in LA are showing that what contemporary people do respond well to is the challenge to be all that God created them to be. I think Hunter is right in saying we have to engage people’s latent goodness before we talk to them about their inherent sinfulness if we want to make an impact on our society. Secondly, I believe that just as it did with the Celtic church restoring the more positive perspective on human nature will motivate us to mission. For all practical purposes sections of society have been written off by the evangelical church as impervious to the gospel. We have forgotten and need to be reminded that sin has not totally destroyed the image of God in any section of humanity or human being. We need to regain the Celtic belief that God can reach those written off as “hopers” by the wider society. Balancing what appears to be the differing anthropological of the Roman and Celtic churches could well be a key missiological factor for the contemporary church in being effective in mission.  

by Eric Bryant
Eric Bryant
Eric Michael Bryant serves as an elder, speaker, and navigator with the leadership team at Mosaic in Los Angeles, a church known for its creativity and diversity. Starting as a volunteer in the parking lot at Mosaic, Eric later worked with students and then helped catalyze new venues across Los Angeles. Eric serves as part of the core teams for the Mosaic Alliance and The Origins Project, a movement of people committed to Jesus, Humanity, and Innovation. Eric’s book, Peppermint-Filled Piñatas: Breaking Through Tolerance and Embracing Love, is a guide for overcoming the negative Christian stereotype by embracing the people Christians “love to hate.” Eric lives with his wife, Debbie, and two children, Caleb and Trevi in the middle of Los Angeles County.