Hunter: Celtic History Defines Missions

George Hunter: The Celtic Way of Evangelism 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:

  1. “The Gospel to the Irish
  2. A New Kind of Community, A New Kind of Life
  3. To the Picts, the Anglo-Saxons and Other ‘Barbarians’
  4. The Celtic Christian Community in Formation and Mission
  5. How Celtic Christianity Communicated the Gospel
  6. The Missionary Perspective of Celtic Community
  7. 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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More than Green Beer 2

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

“We put no obstacle in anyone’s way,
so that no fault may be found with our ministry…”
(2 Cor 6:3)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In the late fourth century, Celtic pirates kidnapped a sixteen year old boy named Patrick and sold him into slavery in the Irish wilderness where he worked for six years herding cattle. Forced to depend on God, Patrick learned to the Celtic language and to love and pray for the Celtic people. In response to a dream, he escaped his master and returned to England where he studied to become a priest. He was later commissioned as bishop and returned to Ireland as an evangelist.

Saint Patrick

Patrick and his colleagues planted so many churches in Ireland that they later turned their attention to the continent of Europe and began revitalizing the church on the continent (Hunter 2000, 13-25). When people say that Saint Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland, it is not a clever tale but a biblical allusion:

The LORD God said to the serpent, Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel. (Gen 3:14-15)

Christ himself was the offspring of the woman that Patrick introduced the Irish to. Patrick’s walk with the Lord, like that of Joseph (Gen 39), began with a life of hardship, but it also yielded a rich harvest.

The hardship of the Irish has a long history. In 1976 in graduate school at Cornell University, I had an Irish officemate whose wife was famous for her ability to play the harp. I loved to hear her play and would travel with him to see her perform whenever I could. When my officemate learned that my mother’s maiden name was Deacon, he informed me that we were not really Irish, but Scots, who the English resettled in Northern Ireland and who, together with the Irish, were encouraged in the second half of the nineteenth century to immigrate to the New World under difficult circumstances.[1]

The Deacon Family

The oldest Deacon that I ever knew was Richard Henry Deacon, my grandfather.[2] Grandpa Deacon, as we called him, was born in 1895 and as a young man helped settle the Canadian west. Later on he was sent to Europe in the first World War, but thankfully arrived too late to be sent into combat. He later returned to Guelph, Ontario where he managed the boiler at the University of Guelph.[3] In spite of his lack of education, he rescued textbooks from the boiler fires which he read on his own. He particularly enjoyed reading a good “murder book”, as he used to call them.

Grandpa Deacon was a live wire and a constant joker. He once told the story of visiting a graveyard only to find two men buried in the same grave—“the tombstone read: here lies a lawyer and an honest man.” He used to drink and smoked two packs of cigarettes a day until his doctor told him that his emphysema would kill him if he didn’t give it up. That day he quit smoking and he never smoked again. Still, the rest of his life he wheezed constantly and walked with a limp, having fallen off a ladder out repairing a roof.

Working with Tools and Making Them

Grandpa was always handy and he always came to visit and help us when Dad had a big home-improvement project, like finishing off a basement. Grandpa was also extremely pragmatic and he used to tell me that “if you don’t have a tool; make one”. When I was in grade school, for example, he built me a working cross-bow using only the scraps of wood and metal that we had lying around the house. At that point in my life, I did not appreciate how uniquely talented he was, but later in my career as a financial engineer when I was given undoable projects, having only “scraps” to work with, I followed his example and built my own tools. Like Grandpa, I learned to work with the tools at hand.

Living in Poverty

Grandpa was also fun to visit because he shared my youthful passion for fishing. When I visited, he early on took me fishing and later on took me to visit in-laws who lived on the farm, knowing my fascination with farming. On one such visit, I remember walking in on a family sitting down to lunch which featured soup bones—potatoes and turnips were also in ample supply, but the bones stood out to my youthful eyes.

The Deacons ate better than farm folks, in part, because grandpa had a regular paying job; he was an expert fisherman and hunter with a freezer full of his trappings; and he was an avid gardener who planted a large garden out back complete with fruit and nut trees. It also did not hurt having the corner store was just down the hill from the house at 123 Granger Street. Still, the threat of poverty was never far off, something I never forgot.

Grandpa died in 1980 following complications due to a prostate operation. At his funeral, when they lowered Richard Henry into the grave[4], was the only time I ever saw my mom cry. Later that day my aunt, Judy, took me aside and gave me Grandpa’s gold regimental ring, which Maryam wears to this day.

My Grandmother

My grandmother, Marietta Salter Deacon,[5] was a social butterfly and a devout Baptist who led my mother to get involved with mission work at a young age. When Marietta died from stomach cancer in 1941 and was buried in Wingham, my mother was left to take care of her younger siblings even while she was herself just a teenager. My own “mission work” with Hispanic day workers is a tribute, in part, to Marietta.

A Bit of Perspective

Having a bit of Irish in me once meant little more than green beer on Saint Patrick’s Day. However, the more I learned about Saint Patrick, who some credit with saving the Christian faith from fourth century decadence, the more I realized that I inherited more than just a full head of hair from the Deacon family.


Freeman, Philip. 2004. Saint Patrick of Ireland: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Hunter III, George G. 2000. The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity can Reach the West…Again. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Marx, Karl. 1887. Capital A Critique of Political Economy: Volume I Book One: The Process of Production of Capital. Edited by Frederick Engels;Translated by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling. Moscow: Progress Publishers. Cited: 11 November 2016. Online:

[1] Details of the Irish story are treated at length in Marx’s Capital, Vol 1.

[2] Richard Henry Deacon (August 18, 1895–February 1, 1980). Richard was the son of Richard Deacon (July 4, 1845; Lanark County, Ontario) and Jane Chamney (1858-). Richard was also the grandson of Richard Deacon (Feb 1802- June 8, 1886; Kilkenny, Ireland; Church of England) and Sarah Jane Wellwood (September 1805-June 24,1890; Kilkenny, Irelandl; Church of England). Jane Chamney was the daughter of Richard Chamney (1826-1904; Wicklow County, Ireland) and Euphemia
Mason (1832-1881).

[3] Formerly, Ontario Agricultural College. Framed certificates state that Granpa Deacon was a Certified Stationary Engineer, Second Class dated 1943 and again in 1962 (framed one under the other). Apparently a Stationary Engineer holding this certificate was qualified to: (a) act as chief operating engineer in (i) a high pressure stationary steam-plant not exceeding 600 registered horse-power (ii) a low pressure stationary steam-plant, compressor or refrigeration plant of unlimited registered horse-power, (iii) any portable compressor plant, or (b) act as the shift engineer in any plant of unlimited registered horse-power.

[4] Grandpa was buried in a family plot in Woodlawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Guelph.

[5] Marietta Jean Salter Deacon (August 1905–January 7, 1947). Marietta was the daughter of Frances Jean Eastwood Cooper and William George Salter.

More than Green Beer

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

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