George G. Hunter III. 2000. How Christianity Can Reach the West…Again. Nashville: Abingdon Press.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Anthropology intersects theology in ways that can be unfamiliar and fascinating. Take the concept of the soul, which loosely translates into the modern concept of identity. Your soul consists of body, mind, and spirit, but it also includes those you are in relationship with—including God. Yet, you may find yourself in relationship with people that you have never met, like unfamiliar family members and people that inspire you. For me, Saint Patrick falls into this latter category.
George Hunter’s book, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, begins with a startling premise:
“Most Western Church leaders would never guess that ancient Celtic Christianity could show the way today [to evangelize postmodern (‘neo-barbarian’) people] for two reasons. First, they assume that no expression of ancient Christianity could be relevant to the challenges we now face. Second, they assume that the only useful stream of insight is, by definition, confined to Roman Christianity and its Reformation offshoots.”(10)
When I first read this statement about Celtic Christianity, I was dismissive—having Irish blood in me, I am not accustomed to hearing much of anything positive about Ireland, its language (Gaelic), or its history. Hunter changed my mind about all of this.
The Story of Saint Patrick
I knew, however, that Saint Patrick (Fifth century AD) was the first successful evangelist in Ireland—before Patrick, the Irish were believed to be unreachable barbarians. His success was not anticipated because Patrick, as a teenager sixteen-year old, was kidnapped by Irish pirates and sold as a slave in Ireland. For the next six years he worked as a slave caring for his master’s cattle in the Irish wilderness. Later, he escaped and traveled abroad to study to become a priest. Much later, he returned to Ireland as the church’s first missionary bishop and evangelized the Irish out of love for them. His love of the Irish was obvious and his evangelism focused on offering hospitality. In the end, Patrick and his companions planted more than seven hundred churches in Ireland (Hunter 2000, 13-23).
Celtic Versus Roman Evangelism
Saint Patrick approached evangelism in Ireland differently than the typical “Roman”approach. Hunter writes:
“Bluntly stated, the Roman model for reaching people (who are ’civilized’ enough) is: (1) Present the Christian message; (2) Invite them to decide in Christ and become Christians; and (3) If they decide positively, welcome them into the church and its fellowship. The Roman model seems very logical to us because most American evangelicals are scripted by it!…
[by contrast the] Celtic model for reaching people: [is] (1) You first establish community with people, or bring them into the fellowship of your community of faith. (2) Within fellowship, you engage in conversation, ministry, prayer, and worship. (3) In time, as they discover that they now believe, you invite them to commit.”(53)
The first church that I interned in employed the Roman model and the second employed the Celtic model, where ironically Spanish, not Gaelic, was the primary language spoken.
In the second church where I interned, the attitude towards church differed fundamentally from the first church. The first church was a steeple church built in the 1950s who had trouble adapting to the changing culture of the community around it, which was increasingly Hispanic and Korean. As the Angelo congregation grew older, the church experienced a financial crisis with the death of each member, but the form of worship and the ethnic makeup of the congregation did not change and new members primarily entered the church on their own volition. The second church met in a business park, added a Hispanic service, and frequently met off-campus in the community, growing primarily through addition of members who became acquainted with the congregation through its community outreach.
In discussing indigenization or contextualization, Hunter observes that “The Christian faith never exists except as ‘translated’ into a culture.”(77) This translation is often a literal translation into the local dialect, but it also entails understanding the cultural experience of God. In the Irish case, this meant that priests needed to cut their hair differently, to emphasize the immanence of Christ more than God’s transcendence, to build churches out of wood rather than stone, and to grow closer to nature, which recognized the Irish proclivity to experience God’s creation.
In Briton, earlier efforts to offer a Roman version of Christianity quickly went apostate once Roman domination was removed, in part, because it did not resonate with local culture (79). Hunter defines culture “as the learned pattern of beliefs, attitudes, values, customs, and products shared by a people.”(100) Defined as such, it is easy to see why the attitude of millennials towards church differs fundamentally from boomers—they differ culturally from their parents in substantive ways.
Hunter writes in seven chapters preceded by a preface and followed by notes, bibliography, and an index. The chapters are:
- “The Gospel to the Irish
- A New Kind of Community, A New Kind of Life
- To the Picts, the Anglo-Saxons and Other ‘Barbarians’
- The Celtic Christian Community in Formation and Mission
- How Celtic Christianity Communicated the Gospel
- The Missionary Perspective of Celtic Community
- The ‘Celtic’ Future of the Christian Movement in the West”(v)
From this listing it is obvious that Hunter covers more ground than can be summarized in a short review.
George Hunter’s The Celtic Way of Evangelism, which I read in seminary and again for this review, touched me deeply when I first read it because of my Irish roots and ignorance of them. As a seminarian, I quickly realized that the institutional church that I was part of mostly followed the Roman style of evangelism and Roman attitude towards those outside the church. While I coveted working in the Roman system, it never quite fit my call to ministry. As such, reading Hunter’s book introduced me to the ministry that I had done ever since. Thus, for me, this was an important, life-changing book.
Hunter: Celtic History Defines Missions
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