One of the services I’ll be providing for New Life’s blog is book reviews. I have several in the works, but I’m very excited about this first one.
While I spend a lot of time reading comics and working with my kids, I also have an intellectual side that craves knowledge. That craving for knowledge led me to teach Church History. There are so many things that have been lost to the Church, primarily because those in charge (first the Roman Catholic Church, then whatever arm of Protestantism was prevalent in your region) silenced their competition by banning and burning books and sometimes people…okay, usually people along with the books.
So many flavors or styles of ancient faith have been newly rediscovered thanks to archeological findings and an interest in old books. Writers like Philip Jenkins have illuminated traditions that were normal Christianity in some cultures, such as Syriac Christianity that lived in peace with Islam and Thomasite or Nasrani Christians who date back to possibly the first century of the Common Era.
However, my favorite group of “lost Christianity” is the Celts. Most of us are familiar with the stories of St Patrick and his work in Ireland. But what isn’t told is the some 300 years after Patrick when the Celtic faith was independent of Rome.
George G. Hunter III has written a book about this tradition, which is still being rediscovered. This book, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, tells not just the story, but also examines the methods of evangelism, community care, and outreach that disappeared when the Celtic church was ordered to conform to Catholicism.
Hunter’s main point is that the Celtic method is authentic. Missionaries would adapt to the culture they were in by learning the language, sustaining themselves, and becoming part of the community. In contrast, the Roman monastic community would build churches, conduct services in Latin, and support the monastery by soliciting funds. He spends the rest of the book outlining the superiority of the Celtic method/ethos over the Roman, but Hunter asserts this straightaway.
One could draw a distinct parallel with modern missions theory versus colonialism. In colonialism, the missionaries would build an enclave of some sort, then require those who wished to convert to literally come inside the walls. These new converts would then be taught English/French/Spanish, taught how to “properly” dress, and then sent out to recruit others of his tribe. However, the tribe would now see him as “other”, and the missionaries would see him as less than themselves, so these new converts often wound up with no one to turn to and completely alienated.
This is the Roman method. They were so convinced of the superiority of their lifestyle and church governance that everyone must be brought up to their level.
We see this in many church evangelism efforts today (though they are vestiges of an era that no longer is relevant to society). The Celtic method, discussed above, is seeker-friendly. These men and women, while having a self-contained monastery, would be involved in the communities in which they served, sharing supplies, educating children, etc. Immersion was the key to their success.
Their services were adaptable, their prayers were simple (not to mention in the vernacular), and they left behind their “otherness” to become one with the people. This is the “new” method of missions and modern outreach. Ministry is not tied to a place, but within the spirit. The church does not hoard wealth but gives and raises the community around themselves. When the book was written in 1998, this was actually a novel approach. It’s now becoming the norm with growing denominations.
Churches and denominations are realizing that most of America is what could be considered either post-Christian (major cities and regions like the Northeast, Pacific Northwest…well, the whole West Coast where the typical person might not know a Christian or be familiar with Christian teachings), or nominally Christian (the Midwest and South, where there’s an idea of what Christians believe, but still a majority who do not attend regular worship services). The approaches used vary, some use an online presence marked by videos, apps, and music to attract outsiders, while some are turning back to a holistic method of community immersion. The latter approach really emphasizes personal relationships, community events, participating in local charities and meeting needs, as well as promoting partnerships between other congregations in the city/town to have a greater impact.
Where Hunter differs from other writers is his approachability. This was not a hard book to read. It was filled with poems and insights into how the monks spread their message and lived life. I’ve condensed an overall summation of the book because it’s only 8 chapters and 130 pages.
This is a good weekend read for anyone who has an interest in Irish culture, mission history, or is in ministry and is looking for some new old ideas. If you want to further study Irish missionary culture after this, I’d highly recommend Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization.