The Celtic Way of Evangelism – A Review

George G. Hunter, III. The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West…Again. 10th rev. ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2010). 130pp.

A single question is central to the mission of the local congregation: how can we translate the gospel message for our context? The answer to this question will have implications for every part of our life together. It will influence our discipleship, and it will shape our engagement with our city.

The last sixty years have witnessed significant change in American society. In 1953 few would have anticipated an African American President, the legalization of same sex marriage in several state, or the church being moved to the margins of society. Yet, these are the days we have been given and our commission is to faithfully and effectively communicate the gospel in this new milieu.

George Hunter’s book, The Celtic Way of Evangelism offers insight into how the Christian community can engage these new realities. To do so he draws on the Irish mission work of Saint Patrick, a British Christian who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Ireland. He escaped and years later returned to engage in a highly effective apostolic mission to the land of his captivity.

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Hunter provides a significant amount of historical background that helps the reader come to know Patrick as well as the key distinctions between the Celtic and the Roman expressions of the Christian faith.

This book does not contain a strategy so much as express a vision of what the Christian community can be, and must be, in order to do effective mission in our post-Christendom culture. Hunter identifies ten characteristics of Celtic Christianity the translate to characteristics of effective missional communities today. I will highlight four: contact, community, contextualization, and conversation.

Conversion almost always happens in the context of a relationship (i.e., contact) with both an individual Christian and a community of Christians. Authentic, trusting friendship with a Christian is often a key avenue through which the Holy Spirit draws a not-yet Christian into the kingdom. Relationships–with all that is entailed with sustaining them–were central to the Celtic way of evangelism. Are you intentionally nurturing an authentic friendship with a not-yet Christian?

A unique understanding of community marked the Celtic approach to mission–belonging preceded believing. Celtic communities were hospitable to people, encouraging them to become a part of the community without the expectation that they change in order to be welcome. This is an echo of the gospel–God doesn’t require us to change before he welcomes us. Instead, he welcomes us in order to change us. As a church, are we welcoming strangers and people who aren’t like us? Or, do we inwardly expect people to change (learn “Christian etiquette) before they become part of our community?

Christian missiologist David Bosch informs us, “the Christian faith never exists except as ‘translated’ into a culture.” The job of the church is to work to effectively and faithfully ‘translate’ the message so that it can be heard by the members of our culture, one in which the Christian worldview is no longer ascendent. At the very least the work of contextualization requires taking seriously the changes in assumptions that are now evident in culture. For one, there is no longer an assumption that everyone ought to at least publicly give lip service to the Judeo-Christian ethics. If we start by assuming traditional ethics, our witness to the gospel will go nowhere fast.

Celtic Christianity placed a high value on conversation as opposed to presentation. Conversation is bilateral; presentation is unilateral. The ministry of conversation is central to becoming a new creation in Christ since we encounter the gospel most fully through relationships. Conversation is also significant for discipleship. Celtic Christianity emphasized the role of “spiritual friends” as companions as we follow the way of Christ–people who help us to live out the message in the midst of the realities of life in a broken world.

The Celtic Way of Evangelism is a helpful book that offers much to prayerfully consider as we collectively try to discern what it means both to love God ourselves and to lead our city to God as well.