The Celtic missionary movement that was started by St. Patrick was a fresh expression of the church. When most of us think of Ireland, we think about green rolling hills and country-sides 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 preservation of western civilization. Celtic Christianity stands out as one of most vibrant and colorful Christian traditions that the world has ever known.
Before you can fully understand Celtic Christianity, it is important to 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 very much about him. There is a holiday that bears his name and he is known as the man who drove the snakes out of Ireland and used the shamrock to explain the Trinity.
So who was Saint Patrick? Patrick was the founding leader of the Celtic Christian church and was personally responsible for baptizing over 100,000 people, ordaining hundreds of ministers, driving paganism from the shores of Ireland, and starting a movement in Ireland that helped plant hundreds of churches and monasteries throughout the British Isles.
Tradition has it 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.”
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 become converted 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.
Patrick’s mission was responsible for planting nearly 700 churches throughout Ireland. The churches and monasteries that he was responsible for establishing 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 helped preserve the Christian faith during the dark ages.
4 Lessons from the Celtic Fresh Expressions
Here are four major lessons we can learn from the Celtic Fresh Expression movement for today.
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 the understood the power of numbers. Each member of the Celtic missionary team played an important role in the whole of reaching the community. The Celtic team approach to ministry 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.
2. A Holistic Faith
The Celtic Christians developed a holistic approach to mission 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 difficult 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 classroom, but living their faith in real world.
3. Mission in 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 man 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 Word of God.
4. Christian 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 (Romans 12:13; 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:8; 1 Peter 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 transform from strangers into friends.
Patrick and his Celtic Missionaries didn’t exactly “invent fresh expressions.” They responded to a people who needed to experience Church in a way they could understand.
How can you follow Patrick’s example in your setting?
Dr. Winfield Bevins serves as the Director of Asbury Seminary’s Church Planting Initiative. He has a passion for equipping others to spread the gospel in their own context. As a seasoned practitioner, he has used his experience to train leaders from diverse backgrounds on three different continents. He is the author of several books, including Plant: A Sower’s Guide to Church Planting. You can find out more about him at his website winfieldbevins.com.