Evangelism in Third Millennium
Insights and Challenges from the Celtic Christians who evangelised a pagan society
There was a part of me that secretly felt that evangelism wasn't something you should do to your dog - let alone your best friend." So comments Rebecca Manley Pippert in her book Out of the Saltshaker.1 How many of us have a problem with evangelism? We cringe, duck for cover, or fall into a guilty silence.
Statistics show a decline in the total number of professing Christians in New Zealand and we wonder why it is such a struggle to share the Good News. In spite of some minor advances in church growth, it is difficult to make headway for the Gospel in our secularised, postmodern society.
Perhaps a result of this struggle (and our obvious impotence) is a new interest in the Christian Celts of the past. Could it be that God has brought this heritage into focus in answer to our prayers for insight, wisdom and encouragement?
For many it's an exciting discovery. Michael Mitton, national director of Anglican Renewal Ministries in England comments, "As I explored the Celtic faith, I discovered a burning and evangelical love for the Bible, I discovered a depth of spiritual life and stillness; I discovered a radical commitment to the poor and God's creation".2 Michael believes a rediscovery of the essential strengths of Celtic Christianity is vital for the survival of the Church of England into the third millennium.
The Celtic Christians had a strong enthusiasm for life, a love and respect for the world as the creation of God, an amazing trust in God, and a fearless spirit of adventure. They were radical in their missionary endeavours. They had a strong theology of the humanity of Christ, yet were very aware of the living presence of the Risen Jesus. Their art expressed a deep Trinitarian faith.
Further they were genuinely charismatic, with an appreciation of the miraculous, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. They were secure in Christ, yet deeply aware that the power of evil could attack at any time. Hence they were people of prayer, with a willingness to engage in spiritual battle praying for courage, protection, strength and discernment.
Theirs was a spirituality that resonates with seekers and Christians who see no future in a faith that colludes with the materialism of a consumer society, and the confusion of the present post-modern smorgasbord of New Age options.
Of course we need to be careful not to romanticise the past. (Who among us would consider adopting the spiritual discipline of standing chest deep in the freezing North West Atlantic Ocean to keep from falling asleep during a twenty four-hour prayer vigil, as St Columba is reputed to have done?) Nevertheless I believe the early Celtic church was the closest expression of authentic Biblical Christianity outside the Book of Acts.
No other church has had such an impact on a society, steadily converting the nations from druid-led paganism to Christianity. What made them so effective?
Learning from the Celtic Christians' Evangelistic Methods
Timothy Joyce, an Irish Benedictine monk, comments "The church today is more similar to the church of the fifth century than that of many other eras.
"Today the culture largely ignores the real Christian tradition. In fact, at times, it is hostile and antagonistic to Christian claims. Western civilisation is decaying as once the Roman Empire did. A new type of Dark Age gathers around us. This was the scenario for the blossoming of the Celtic church. Might it not be the way again today?"3
The Celts coupled a deep daring commitment to Christ with an infectious zeal. They transformed the pagan Anglo-Saxon and Irish tribes into believers.
Even though I always see the crinkle of an unbelieving smile and a glint in my friends' eyes when I suggest they read the book How the Irish Saved Civilisation by Thomas Cahill, I'm serious. It's not an Irish joke - or maybe it is! Cahill's rollicking history of the rise and impact of Celtic Christianity from 350 800 AD is a scholarly work.4
He argues that after the barbarian hordes crossed the Rhine River and began burning and pillaging throughout the Roman Empire, the structure of civilisation collapsed. The departing Roman troops of the fifth century left Britain prey to plunder and chaos. Basic social organisation and all the foundations necessary for literature crumbled. It was the Irish monks - who took the Gospel throughout Ireland and beyond - who saved the situation.
Literacy and the Gospel
First came Christians inspired by Antony and the holy men and women of the Egyptian deserts. Foremost among them was Patrick (ca 389 - 461). Taken from his family to Ireland as a slave, he encountered the Lord during the years of solitude, hunger and hardship as a shepherd in the bleak Irish hills. Patrick says, "I would pray constantly during the daylight hours. The love of God and the fear of him surrounded me more and more - and faith grew and the spirit was roused."
Years later Patrick had a prophetic vision and escaped to England. Then, after receiving a monastic training in Gaul, maybe even on the Mediterranean island of Lerrins, rubbing shoulders with Near Eastern monks, he received a Macedonian call to return to Ireland in 432.5
A man of deep piety and prayer, his thirty years of evangelism left behind thousands of baptised believers. His legacy included hundreds and hundreds of Christian communities - centres where a love for prayer, for God, creation, books and literacy flourished.
These communities became centres of learning that multiplied through Ireland. Later Columba established a monastic powerhouse at Iona, then moved on to the Picts in the North (Scotland). And later still the Irish Monks expanded to the East, into Northumbria, through the work of Aidan.
In fact these Irish monks (including women like Brigid) launched a spiritual invasion of England from their island monastery of Lindisfarne in Northumbria. Cahill notes "they were on good terms with the British Celts and began to set up bases in the western territories of Wales and Cornwall as well".6
Through the evangelistic work of Columbanus they spread into Europe as far as Rome itself. Columbanus's achievements were staggering. At his death in 615 he left behind letters, poems, sermons, songs, and, more important, a legacy of monasteries. These communities engaged in evangelism and teaching literacy. They also reintroduced classical learning to the European mainland. Their numbers stretched across all of what is now Europe.
Columbanus left at least sixty and maybe as many as one hundred monasteries. They were absolute powerhouses for the Gospel. With the Gospel they took through England and Europe all the strengths of Celtic faith, including a love of art, and the reading and copying of scripture.
Again Cahill suggests, "Like the Jews before them, the Irish enshrined literacy as their central religious act. As literacy was dying around them they embraced it and with it the light of the gospel".7
Monastic manuscript art had travelled from the workshops of Syria and Egypt via Ireland and Britain into the continent of Europe. Beautiful, intricately decorated Irish manuscripts of this early medieval period which survived the later destruction of the Viking raiders are the great jewels of libraries in England, Ireland, France, Switzerland, Germany and even Russia.
The embracing of literacy encompassed in the Gospel was undoubtedly a factor in the success of the Celtic missionaries' evangelism. It has been a factor in the spreading of the Gospel into preliterate cultures by missionaries today! Of course, there were other reasons for their success.
Family and Hero Evangelism
The Celts were a rural, kinship based society. A scattered people, who had tribal chieftains as leaders, they often suffered under tribal bickering and territorial strife.8 The Celtic evangelists used these family ties. Ray Simpson9 notes how Samson, Illtyd's disciple, renounced the home comforts of family in order to follow Christ, yet when his father appeared to be terminally ill Samson agreed to visit his family. The result was prayer, the healing of his father, and the conversion of his whole family. The family then not only helped Samson in his outreach, they planted new churches themselves.
The Celts were a warrior people who esteemed heroes. Patrick knew the influence of the community power brokers and like Columba and Aidan after him, sought to convert the king or chief. As a result, whole clans or districts would be won to Christ. Patrick would talk of spreading the nets wide so that a copious multitude may be taken for God.
It is thought that a higher percentage of the population became Christians in seventh century Ireland than in any other country since.10 Ireland became a culture where slavery and human sacrifice were unthinkable.
The Celtic evangelists deliberately targeted and attempted to win the opinion setters, heroes and natural leaders for Christ. We can learn from this. We know for instance, that winning the father for Christ gives us a greater chance of winning the whole family - yet we have a dearth of men's ministries.
What about using the heroes of our day? Wouldn't it be great if the whole church contracted key Christian sporting heroes to be full time ambassadors for the Gospel? Think of the impact a celebrity like Paul Holmes could have if he were enlisted for Jesus!
The Celts would have had no problem with John Wimber's phrase 'Power Evangelism'. The Celtic Christian world view didn't draw a dichotomy between natural and supernatural. All of creation was God's! They talked rather of 'thin places', places where the veil between the natural and the spiritual was slender, almost transparent, and a strong sense of the presence of God could be discerned.
When reading accounts of Celtic evangelism it is easy to dismiss the amazing power encounters as legend. But I suggest this is unreasonable. The Venerable Bede recorded the first reference to a 'Water Beast' in Loch Ness. Columba rebuked it because it was harassing the locals. The beast fled in terror and I guess to the dismay of the Loch Ness tourist industry has never been seen since! Was it real or perhaps a demonic apparition? Whatever, Columba gave glory to God and the whole clan is reported to have come to Christ.
There are dozens of stories like this. The core reality shows us that Celtic evangelism was, among other things, about power encounters, healings, deliverances and miracles. It was evangelism as seen in the book of Acts. At times there were direct confrontations with the pagan Druids, paralleling Elijah and the prophets of Baal.
At other times and more often, there were compassionate healings. Many Picts believed in the Lord after Columba restored to life the son of a Pictish chief. The son, chief and household were baptised and immediately set about witnessing to Christ.
A critical lesson for us is the way the power of God evident in these signs was taken into the marketplace, down the lanes and into the houses of all they visited. It wasn't kept in the church; it was on the road.
A few years ago one of the members of our prayer team suggested our church set up a tent offering prayer at a local New Age festival. We were too cautious and chickened out. I now believe the Celtic Christians would have seized the opportunity.
Michael Mitton comments11 "by its humility and authenticity, the Church showed that it was interested in using this power not in dominance, but genuinely, to demonstrate that the love of God could have a powerful effect on people's lives and could rescue, heal and deliver them".
The Celts symbolised the sacrifice of Jesus with standing stones and huge stone crosses. Often these were constructed on the site of sacred Druidic oaks. (Columbanus once had to flee after he spiritually cleansed the area by chopping down sacred trees that had become occultic idols.)
Many of these crosses can be seen today - in the 'thin places' like Iona, once a thriving monastery of 150 monks. Columba built Iona on the site of an old Druid temple. This was a common practice - redeeming the land. Columbanus founded a monastic community at Burgundy near the Swiss/German border and built his first church on the site of the ruined temple of Diana.
Of course we cannot manufacture the power of God, but shouldn't we be much more proactive in taking the power of God into the market places of our time? Shouldn't Christians be lovingly praying for neighbours without embarrassment? I also believe we need to recover our confidence in the power of Christian symbols. Long after our utilitarian warehouse-style churches have rusted the great stone crosses will remain!
Cultural Sensitivity and Gospel-friendly Trends
The Celts carried with them an appealing view of human life. They didn't shy away from calling sin sin. They taught about the reality of Hell. They modelled a deep prayerful devotion to Christ, a moment by moment dependence upon and awareness of the Holy Spirit and a joyful celebration of God's goodness. They knew how to party!
They had a positive view of God's creation, including humanity. Ian Bradley notes: "The way they worked was very different from the approach of later Christian missionaries who joined forces with traders and imperial adventurers and sought to impose their own Western values and secure a cultural as well as a religious conversion of the natives."12 The Celts instead 'lived alongside' and shared the good news.
They were bare footed monks plodding the muddy lanes and climbing the wind swept hills. Cuthbert, Abbot of the monastery at Melrose, never lost the 'human touch'. He maintained his love for and commitment to the poor. He would go to the very poor, avoided by others, and live with them in abject poverty for up to a month at a time preaching the gospel, then returning to Melrose again.
The Celts used a freeform spontaneous gift of discernment. They blessed what was good and combated with prayer that which was evil, the emphasis falling on blessing.
They were imaginatively open to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Rather than fill in 'sacred' wells they blessed them and cleansed them for the Lord. They then renamed them and had a celebration of the water of life! This seems very risky to us, but the Celtic Christians did not fear because they knew the vibrancy of the Spirit and were rooted in the Word of God.
With an almost outrageous confidence, they believed their love for Jesus and his Word would prevent them from straying. They embraced art and culture. They discerned evil where it existed, but they saw the gospel as liberation and emancipation for the culture rather than a means of dominating and repressing it.
They kept alive native traditions and preserved poetry and folksong. The pagan Celts loved stories, so the evangelists told stories using well known myths, reinvesting them with Christian meaning.
Harvest festivals - which were fertility rites - became celebrations (probably too exuberant and wanton for our modern Christian sensibilities) of the good of creation and God's provision. Brigid's encompassing table grace is a far cry from the insipid ones we are used to. Brigid was a famous abbess and founded the hugely influential mixed monastery at Kildare.13
The growing disillusionment with materialism in our culture means we need to look for 'gospel-friendly' trends as points of connection. Ray Simpson14 lists a number. They include: alternative medicine, ecology, animal welfare, holistic approaches, creative pursuits, beauty, healing, peace movements, total fitness, meditation, the search for identity and roots, the search for love and belonging, the hospice movement, justice. Not all of these concerns are particularly Christian and some may be 'fuzzy', but they are points of connection for friendship evangelism.
Years ago Francis Schaeffer called for Christians to stand alongside non-Christians with these types of concerns. By doing so we are able to share how Jesus can bring depth, clarity and fulfilment. To Celtic Christians our current ghetto mentality would represent an extraordinary failure to trust God.
Celtic mission could be described as 'a joyful abandonment'. Few Celtic missions were formally planned in human terms, although they were convinced they were following the leading of the Holy Spirit. They set off, asking God to direct their steps.
They talked of 'going on a pilgrimage,' (peregrinatio, in Latin - white martyrdom in Celtic terms). This was a single-minded search for God on this earth. It might involve the life of a hermit (green martyrdom) or a wandering on foot. Most frequently peregrinatio led to exile in a foreign land - anything to be free of earthly ties and thus be freer for God.
Such were the incredible journeys of people like Brendan, Columba, Aiden and Columbanus. Legend has it that Brendan and a group of monks who abandoned themselves into the hands of God set sail in their coracle and were the first to discover America. (So the Irish not only saved civilisation but also discovered the New World!) Adventurous evangelism was often an unplanned by-product of godly personal devotion.
The journey of Columba (521-597) and his twelve colleagues to the tiny island of Iona was just such a peregrinatio. Its results were to have a profound and lasting effect. Columba and his monks founded many monasteries and went on to convert King Brude of the Picts.
They trusted in the providence of God and went where they believed the Holy Spirit was leading. If the door closed at one place, or they were kicked out (as happened to Columbanus), they would go to another.
Such courageous warrior adventurism was a Celtic cultural trait and an amazingly effective evangelistic method. Coupled with the Celts' appetite for meditation, and seeking God, it was a powerful brew.
Look at the prayer of Brendan:15
Today we have lost this gutsy zeal, this passion and adventurism. In my younger days I remember this exciting sense of 'serving' gripping the hearts of my friends when they went out with YWAM. Sadly, we now seem to be more worried about making mistakes, or offending people. The church no longer rewards or esteems sacrifice like that of the Celts.
Hudson Taylor had a Celtic-style adventurism and cultural sensitivity. Remember how he deliberately grew a pony tail to identify with the Chinese? He was criticised for it by his own kind, but he was marvellously effective on the mission field.
We need to recover something of this adventurism. Perhaps we need to have awards for sacrifice, to try and stimulate a new spirit of adventurism! We live in a much more restricted society than that of the Celts. We need passports and visas, but I'm sure Columba would not have let that stop him.
Heading into the third millennium we need a gutsy, adventurous, experimental, flexible warrior spirit that wholeheartedly trusts the goodness and providence of God, and puts life and reputation on the line.
Community based evangelism
It would be a mistake to think that the Celts set out as individualists. Usually a group of twelve would go together. They supported each other (no solitary missionary struggling with loneliness here); they maintained the rhythm of devotion and community life.
Very quickly monasteries were established. These monastic communities were not just enquiry centres. They became schools, scriptoriums, universities, hospitals and centres of social care. Each monastery then acted as a mission station.
A high priority was given to discipleship - each person had a spiritual director or soul friend. Brigid is reputed to have declared, "A person without a soul friend is like a body without a head".16 At these communities they recognised and released gifted leadership. They trained men and women to preach and heal, and sent them out.
Leadership was based on calling, gifting and anointing rather than gender. Leaders were not ensnared with red tape or bureaucracy. Bishops were usually pioneers freed to be travelling evangelists with a base of prayer support and a place to return, should God so direct.
These communities struck a deep chord in tribal society where family kinship was strong. Kings sent their sons and daughters to the communities which soon replaced the pagan learning centres. The network of monastic communities had an immense impact, providing security in a society that was deeply troubled and under threat of collapse. They were not para-church organisations but were at the heart of the church's mission. Columba called them 'colonies of heaven'.17
The church in the next millennium will increasingly need to relate to the longing within society for community and relationship. People who have become suspicious of words, promises and hype, are attracted to relationships and belonging.
There are signs of profound anxiety in our culture. The family seems under threat. There is unease about security, and moral decline. Postmodernism has resulted in an increasing openness to spiritual answers. I am convinced that forms of evangelism that ignore the corporate life of the church are doomed.18
There are opportunities to establish church communities that model authentic, affirming Christian love and devotion. All it takes is the vision and will that was present in the Celts of old. Tom Sine, one of the church's few futurologists, argues that new models of Christian community are crucial for the survival of civilisation and Christianity.19 It is interesting that Tom and Christine Sine are establishing a Celtic-inspired community near Vancouver.
How to apply Celtic insights to our society? Our heroes and warriors are our sports men and women. What if we promoted the formation of Christian Sports academies to encourage and train sports heroes in excellence and evangelism?
Academies like Excel Ministries are seeking to impact the arts for Christ. Imagine the day when non-Christians can't wait to attend. When the media opinion-setters want their children to enrol because they will get the best training possible. And what if the many Bible Colleges and 'church' schools adopted the vision of the early Celtic training centres, to disciple, equip and send out anointed, adventurous evangelists and leaders to redeem Western civilisation for Christ?
It's great to hear of many churches experimenting with culturally sensitive services for the X-generation. Perhaps we need Friday or Saturday night services starting at 11.00 pm to reach the Club culture. In this context it would be both theologically and linguistically correct to call Jesus 'wicked', sinners 'sad' and the Pharisees a bunch of 'plonkers'! Bring on the day when church members give permission for this type of adventurousness.
Then there is the demographic bulge representing the over 50s: those who are feeling a sense of unease with the state of society - looking to their roots and tentatively trickling back to church in the hope of finding something that corresponds to a secure childhood memory.
Will they find inspiring traditional services or get a musical and cultural smack in the eye? Shouldn't we who are in 'full on' musically loud churches have the courage to respond to the yearning for times of quiet, giving people the chance to be still, and silent?
Why do we feel the need to temper zeal, to 'channel' adventurism, to guard reputations by deflating enthusiasm under the guise of middle class 'wisdom'? The Celts were basically nobodies. They had nothing to lose so they were prepared to risk everything. God guided and blessed them.
Their favourite image for the Holy Spirit was the Wild Goose. Perhaps we have so domesticated our view of God we no longer expect the Holy Spirit to guide in outrageous ways. Perhaps it's time to say "to hell with it. Let's get on with the job! Lord, here I am, shall I abandon, O King of Mysteries, the soft comforts of home?"
Peter Berger in his book The Heretical Imperative argues that "in every generation there is a heretical imperative - a choice which takes the individual outside the status quo and establishment trends. In ages when religion was predominant the heretical imperative took people away from the establishment mentality of church/state edifice.
"In a society which has relegated religion from the premier league, the heretical imperative is to choose again the way of religious life in the face of growing secularism. To find faith in a secular society is to take the heretical imperative . . . . It is possible that the crisis of modernity will give birth to a powerful resurgence of religious forces, Christian and non-Christian. There is no reason to exclude the possibility that the future holds new, as yet inconceivable moves of God."20
f course, as in all things, history is in the hands of God. Perhaps he will again sweep the land in renewal and revival. When he does will he find wimps sheltering in declining churches like decaying bomb shelters - or men and women filled with a warrior-like adventurous spirit?
"There are times in history when the dark drums of God can barely be heard amid the noises of this world. Then it is only in moments of silence, which are rare and brief, that their beat can be fairly discerned. There are other times when God is heard in rolling thunder, when the earth trembles and the treetops bend under the force of his voice. It is not given to men to make God speak. It is only given to them to live and to think in such a way that, if God's thunder should come, they will not have stopped their ears."21
18 This was the conclusion of John Finney, bishop of Pontefract after detailed research. Quoted in Michael Mitton The Soul of Celtic Spirituality in the lives of its Saints, 1996, Twenty-Third Publications, p.83
The Celts. BBC Television Series. Written and Presented by Frank Delaney.
The Sun Dances, Prayers and Blessings from the Gaelic, Alexander Carmichael, 1960, Floris Books
Beasts and Saints, Translations by Helen Waddell, 1934, Constable and Company.
Celtic Britain, John Rhys, 1996, Random House
Celtic Christian Spirituality, An anthology of medieval and modern sources, Oliver Davis and Fiona Bowie, 1995, SPCK.
The Eye of the Eagle, David Adam, 1990, Triangle.
Living between Worlds, Place and Journey in Celtic Spirituality, Philip Sheldrake, 1995, Darton, Longman and Todd.
Jim Wallace is Senior Minister St John's Presbyterian Church, Rotorua, member of International Charismatic Consultation on World Evangelisation and past Chairperson of Presbyterian Renewal Ministries. Jim is married to Laurelle and between them they have 5 children.