I am of Celtic stock. Both grandparents on my maternal side claim roots in Ireland. My father, who I never knew, was reportedly of Irish descent as well. I accept that I am, though generations removed from the emerald shores, Irish through and through.
While living well inside the boundaries of the United States, all things Irish are of interest to me. I like Smithwick’s, especially on tap. I enjoy Celtic music, dance, and dress. I even lapse, from time to time, into an authentically fake Irish brogue when talking about all things Irish.
It should then, come as no surprise that I became engaged and fascinated with the thought of Celtic Christianity. When I first heard the phrase used it sparked my imagination. It invoked green hued images of community and laughter, worship and celebration of both life and the Life Giver. Here, knotted together with ornate twists and braids of gold, was the combination of two things I highly value, my Irish heritage and my Christian one as well.
As I began to research and delve into what others called Celtic Christianity I became disappointed. More often than not I found that the term “Celtic Christianity” had been co-opted by many groups seeking to lend a sense of legitimacy to their particular bend in the Christian theme. Some who wore the title used twisted genealogies of Papal succession to try to prove their primacy over the Church in Ireland or elsewhere. It was also used as a Christian cloak to mask other intentions, sometimes fleshly and hedonistic, or at other times activistic, both the beneficial type as well as the other kind.
Still, there is a part of me that has clung to the image that I first had in my head of what Celtic Christianity should be. Of course I have no rightful claim to the phrase, but one thing that my online research lead me discover was that there really is not a standard rubric for measuring what Celtic Christianity is or is not. There were some reoccurring themes that seemed to ring true, or at least that I personally resonated with. Some of these themes included a connection to stewarding of nature, a strong sense of community, the presence of Christ in the mundane living of life, and the celebration of all good things. The early Christian Celts seemed to have a prayer for every activity, from washing cloths to worshiping together. To them Christ seemed to be everywhere. I liked that so I hung on to that.
About 12 years ago I was in a church planting class with Doug Murren. He was talking about the local parish. Parish wasn’t a term that he used, but it was something that he alluded to while he told us all of the model of Saint Patrick of Ireland. I won’t bore you with my own retelling of the story of St. Patrick, there are many well written stories of Patrick’s capture, enslavement, conversion and deliverance on the web. What I will share is the way Doug explained that Patrick did ministry.
When Patrick received permission from Rome for his mission to Ireland, he chose and personally trained a team of missionaries. The previous model of missionary outreach was to follow the expansion of the Roman Empire. The Romans would take over an area and begin to Romanize the people. Once a people group or society had been sufficiently civilized through education by the Roman occupying force the church would send in missionaries to establish churches and teach Christianity.
Instead of doing ministry the tried and effective way it had always been done, Patrick, chose to stand that particular model on its ears and approach evangelism from a different sort of model, a parish model. Ireland had not been conquered and “civilized” by the Roman Legion. There was little to no infrastructure. The land was governed by tribal chiefs and warlords. The language was difficult and somewhat guttural. The isolated villages of the Irish countryside were rife with disease and subject to regular privation because of droughts, crop failures, and depleted soils.
Patrick instructed his missionaries to go into the villages. They were to work on teaching modern farming techniques and improving sanitation. They were to work on roads and commerce, animal husbandry. They were instructed to earn their way in the community while improving the economy and lifestyle of their “parish” by improving trade and commerce.
It was only after three years of community involvement that the priests were allowed to finally build a church. This effectively worked to evangelize the entire Island, ushering thousands of souls into the life saving experience of knowing Jesus.
Today it seems that we specialize in the Roman approach to planting churches. We send in people with the intention of growing a church hoping the byproduct of that would be that we grow The Church. We always seem to start with the gathering. Once we have enough people attending we begin to focus on the facility. We move around and reorganize the church building blocks of formats, music, and program in order to reach the community hoping to influence life in that community from within the cloistered monastic walls, both physical and psychological, of the construct of church.
The Roman way of planting churches has worked for years, even centuries. In the United States, countless thousands of souls have been saved because of the obedience of those who spread the church that way. Now, 500 years after Europeans first landed in this country, our nation has changed. It has become skeptical, and rightly so, of the imperialistic Roman model of bringing church and Christianity to the unchurched. It worked so well for so long that it is hard to let go of. I have seen it work and have had friends in ministry do well walking out their vision in the Roman way, but it makes me uneasy. Perhaps I am a rebel, or a freak, or somewhat out of my time, but I long for something sustainable, that doesn’t look corporate or imperialistic.
Everything that has been invested in me over nearly 40 years of trying to be a Christ Follower has pointed me toward community. I became a Christian co-living in a Christian community with others. My heart and my mind always looks for and longs for that kind of connection. I call it the Celtic Evangelism simply because I like it. It resonates with me. Some call it the New Parish. I like that too. The point is that it isn’t a way to grow a church, but it is the best way I can think of to grow The Church. It will not likely become really popular because it is almost invisible from the outside. There are no big campaigns or buildings, no huge numbers to quantify success. You cannot build an impressive resume by serving the community you live in. You cannot make a comfortable salary as a paid minister in the Celtic way. You might not ever have a “church” building in which to meet. All these things may be missing, but the warmth of community, the satisfaction of shared vision and love for Jesus, and the victory of impacting people in a positive way for Christ will far outweigh all of the things lost by leaving the imperialistic mode in the dust of your bare feet as you walk steadily toward the cross, your neighbor by your side.