Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Celtic Way of Doing Church

"First, a host of New Barbarians substantially populate the Western world once again; indeed, they are all around us. Many of them are "secular"; that is they have never been substantially influenced by the Christian religion; they have no Christian memory and no church to "return" to. Many have never acquired a "church etiquette" (they would not know when to stand, or where to find Second Corinthians, or what to say to the pastor after the service)...these populations are increasingly simlar to the populations that the movements of Patrick, Columba, and Aidan reached as the New Barbarians become increasingly postmodern" (pg. 96)

I first read George Hunter's The Celtic Way of Evangelism (2000) in 2002. The book made a big impression on me, and was one of the first books that got me hooked onto Celtic Christianity. This is an important book, and I often go back and reread sections just to make sure I'm reading it right. There is something distinctive about Celtic Christianity, and Hunter's book does an excellent job in explaining  what that "distinctiveness" is.  Hunter begins his story by focusing on the uniqueness of Patrick's mission to the Irish. The "single greatest lesson" is that Patrick went out of his way to understand everything he could about the Irish. He took an active interest in the Irish people, taking the time to learn and understand their language, their habits, their thought forms, and their culture. I've lived in other cultures and these graces are not easy ones. Patrick demonstrates an amazing humility, and  understood that to be effective and make a real impact, he had to be both genuine and sincere. Patrick had all these qualities and more

Secondly, Celtic Christianity was more of a movement, a way of life, an "experience" instead of a religion of Empire, or something linked to an institution or church building. Moreover, the movement stressed the importance of the laity and not the clergy. Hunter remarks that the Roman visitor would have encountered a faith group which was more imaginative, less brain centered that Latin Christianity.  The Celts also had a creation based theology which stressed the "immanence" and "providence" of God.  A major reason for these differences were the Celtic roots in Desert and Monastic Christianity. Celtic Christian communities were focused around the monastery and abbot instead of the bishop and cathedral. Monastic communities tended to be less individualistic and more community orientated. Hunter believes the Celts communities were better integrated and focused not only on the "utlimate" issues of life, but also the "middle-level" issues of life, including life's daily struggles.

Hunter also explores the "missionary ecclesiology" of this ancient church and identifies five themes. First, the Celts took a relational, and team approach when sharing their faith story. Before sharing the message of the gospel, they first tried to relate to the people, identify with the people, and engage in friendship, ministry and witness. What a sharp contrast to the confrontational evangelism often practiced in the church both then and now. Second, monastic communities helped prepare people to live with depth and compassion. The Celtic communities were places of great learning, an Open Univeristy with ongoing adult education hundreds of years ago. Hunter also asserts that Celtic Christianity helped prepare people through a "fivefold" structure of experiences including almost every realm of life. These stages included voluntary periods of solitary isolation, time with a "soul-friend" (spiritual direction), time in small groups in a monastic setting, participation in the common life such as meals and prayers, and an environment where people were seeing ministry all around them. These were vibrant, rich faith communities, where learning, art, poetry, and storytelling were all valued.  Hunter also notes how important hospitality was in the Celtic monastic community. Celtic communities were welcoming ones. Within many of the monasteries, a place was always set for a guests and seekers who come to the community.

The sharing of one's faith is important and needs to be done tactfully. As the Christian Church huddles, and reviews its standing in the world, it would be wise to look to lessons of the past, and learn how one church, the Celtic church,  took new and bold steps centuries ago. For instance, there are several clear "takeaways" people can apply to their own churches. In true Celtic fashion, how welcoming is your church to newcomers and strangers? And second, if you have congregations with different ethnic backgrounds, what is being done to help understand their culture? If you're looking for a blueprint on how "to do" church in our own day, you'll find The Celtic Way of Evangelism worthwhile to read.

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