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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Latin American Missions

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

“And a ruler asked him, Good Teacher,
what must I do to inherit eternal life? …
When Jesus heard this, he said to him,
One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have
and distribute to the poor, and you will have
treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
(Luke 18:18-2)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

As my time at Cornell University grew closer to an end in 1979, my anxiety grew because I had accepted admission, I thought, to the doctoral program only to learn later that my admission was contingent on maintaining a straight-A average. As the son of an economist, I knew that I would spend the rest of my life living in my father’s shadow if I did not finish a doctorate and I had no contingency plan for finishing up. I therefore explored options that would allow me to improve my Spanish and continue in Latin American studies. My uncle John suggested that I consider spending some time overseas working in missions with the Reformed Church in America (RCA).

The RCA sought missionaries that would live and work in Latin America so I was eager to apply. The interview required a psychiatric examination so I made a day-trip to Princeton, New Jersey to meet with an evaluator. There I took a series of written tests, including a Rorschach test and an opportunity to draw a recreational scene. In going over the Rorschach test, the evaluator seemed surprised that I noticed an increasing use of color in ink blots, as if no one had previously noticed. He also seemed interested in the tennis game that I drew, because it pictured me with my best friend who was also considering ministry.

In the interview that followed, no mention was made of my examination, but focused more on the ministry requirements, should I enter missions. The interviewer pointed to the relational component required for effective missions work, while I was more concerned with the technical requirements, having just finished graduate work in agricultural development. When we discussed salary, I flinched—working full-time for the RCA I would earn less than in the internship that I had had the previous summer working for the federal government. If I had completed a seminary degree, he explained, the RCA could offer me a higher salary. However, the conversation broke down when the interviewed told me that the RCA required at least a ten-year commitment of missionaries.

Ten years!

I had been thinking of working in missions for two or three years, but ten years was outside the scope of my thinking. In 1979, I was single and only 26 years old. I had never planned activities more than about five years into the future. What woman would consider even dating me knowing that I earned only a meager income and would disappear to parts unknown for an entire decade? No wonder that the interviewer passed over my examination results quickly; the idea of a ten-year commitment freaked me out and I could not continue the discussion. I left the interview distraught over my school situation and the prospect of never enjoying a decent job and normal family life.

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Reid Satterfield Commencement Address at GCTS


GCTS Commencement Address by Reid Satterfield

Reid Satterfield is an editor for T2Pneuma Publishers LLC, the former director of the Pierce Center at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (GCTS) in Charlotte, NC, a guest blogger on (link),  and a good friend.  He commenced in May 2015 and gave the address on behalf of the graduates.  I commend it to your listening (press here).

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Schnabel: Treat Missions as a Hermeneutic

Schnabel_vol_1_03162015Eckhard J. Schnabel. 2004. Early Christian Mission: Jesus and the Twelve: Volume One.  Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press. Review By Stephen W. Hiemstra Evangelism is one of the fault-lines in the postmodern church. Some critics see evangelism as cultural imperialism; most just neglect it. What was the role of evangelism and missions in the early church? In his book, Early Christian Mission, Eckhard Schnabel makes an audacious claim: the bible is a missionary document written by missionaries. He writes: “The fact that it is not possible to find a defined concept of ‘missions’ in the New Testament (NT) does not alter the fact that early Christianity was controlled by the missionary task in their entire existence and in all their activities…The body of literature on the early Christian mission is not large. This is true even for Paul’s missionary activity—a fact that may be traced back to the conviction that ‘Paul is important for us today as a theologian’ while being ‘primarily a missionary for the early church.’” (5-6) The NT focus on missions runs much deeper than a few obvious scriptural references, like the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20[1] or Acts 1:6-8[2].  Schnabel writes: “The first Christian missionary was not Paul, but Peter, and Peter would not have preached a ‘missionary’ sermon at Pentecost if he had not been a student of Jesus for three years” (3). If the Bible, particularly the NT, has a missional intent, then the interpretation rendered should simplify the text, much like the Copernican Revolution simplified the mathematics of planetary motion [3]. Schnabel defines missions as: “…the activity of a community of faith that distinguishes itself from its environment in terms of both religious belief (theology) and social behavior (ethics), that is convinced of the truth claims of its faith, and that actively works to win other people to the content of faith and to the way of life of whose true and necessity the members of that community of convinced.” (11)[4] The core missionary intent is evident, for example, in Jesus calling his followers to be “fishers of people” and are referred to as “Apostles” which means: “envoys sent by the risen Jesus Christ to proclaim the good news.” (10-12) Jesus describes his own mission when approached by Syrophoenician woman:[5]  “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matt 15:24 ESV)[6]  Jesus saw himself as a missionary primarily to Israel, but mandate for disciples was to:  “be my [Jesus’] witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Act 1:8 ESV)  Still, because he was asked, Jesus healed the woman’s daughter (207). If evangelism is a core concept for Christ and his disciples, then clearly a Christological view of the Old Testament (OT) must also have a missional intent. The need arises out of sin—some turn to God and some do not—those that turn to God need to make others aware of their shortcoming when faced with judgment.  Schnabel sees God’s blessing of Abraham as a key to understanding missions in the OT: “Now the LORD said to Abram, Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:1-3 ESV) Abraham is blessed to be blessing to others (61-62) [7]. Did the Nation of Israel lean into this idea of being a blessing to the nations around them? For the most part, no. The Prophet Jonah is instructive. God sends Jonah to preach to the Ninevites and he refuses; nevertheless, after being swallowed by whale, Jonah relents.  He  goes to Nineveh, prophesies their destruction, and the Ninevites turn to God (86-87). Jonah is neither surprised nor happy about this outcome (Jonah 4:1). Dr Schnabel was one of my New Testament professors at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.  He taught previously at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago, Asian Theological Seminary in Manila, Phillippines, and Freien Theologischesn Akademice in Giessen, Germany.   He writes in 2 volumes designed as comprehensive references.  The subtitle for the first volume is—Jesus and the Twelve (pages 1 to 913)—while the subtitle for the second volume is—Paul and the Early Church (pages 920 to 1928).  Volume 1 divides into 4 parts:
  1. Promise—Israel’s Eschatological Expectations and Jewish Expansion in the Second Temple period.
  2. Fulfillment—The Mission of Jesus.
  3. Beginnings—The Mission of the Apostles in Jerusalem.
  4. Exodus—The Mission of the Twelve from Jerusalem to the Ends of the Earth.
These chapters are preceded by an introduction along with an outline, preface, abbreviations, and lists of maps and figures.  Subject, author, and ancient text indices are found at the end of volume 2 along with an exhaustive bibliography. The distinctiveness of Schnabel’s writing arises in the way that he systematically describes events, towns and regions, chronological issues, and persons (15).  In this way he teases out details that would not appear in a less comprehensive treatment.  He takes advantage of his intimate knowledge of extra-biblical writing, map making, archaeology, and business practices from the first century to provide a fresh look at NT evangelism.  As such, this book is more than a good literary or exegetical study. This could be described as a work in biblical theology, meaning that the entire counsel of scripture is consulted and expanded upon through extra-biblical research. It is hard to summarize a reference with the scope of Schnabel work.  Still, the merit of his work is beyond question—Scot McKnight aptly describes it as a masterpiece.  Schnabel’s  Early Christian Mission convinced me that missions is central to the work of the church and to interpreting scripture [7].  This work belongs in every seminary library and missions professionals will want to be aware of its contents. [1]“And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:18-20 ESV)  A parallel statement in John is much more comprehensive—“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” (John 20:21 ESV)—even though it is often ignored. [2]“So when they had come together, they asked him, Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel? He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:6-8 ESV) [3]In like manner, if the Christian worldview is true, it should simplify a complex life; it is not a simpleton’s lifestyle. [4]This is an interesting definition. If X and Y, then Z. Conversely, if Z, then X and Y must be true. In plain English, missions is a test of: having a different theology and lifestyle, and really believing it. Ouch, if you don’t and/or if you won’t! [5] Also: Mark 7:26. [6] “but he said to them, I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose. And he was preaching in the synagogues of Judea.” (Luke 4:43-44 ESV) [7] When I sign copies of A Christian Guide to Spirituality (, I normally paraphrase the blessing of Abraham—an echo and reminder of my study of Early Christian Mission.

Schnabel: Treat Missions as a Hermeneutic

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1 Corinthians 16: Unity and Diversity in Christ

Winter Trees by Sharron Beg
Winter Trees by Sharron Beg

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love…If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed. Our Lord, come! (1 Corinthians 16:13-14,22 ESV)

Many study groups fast forward through the final chapters in the Apostle Paul’s letters thinking that the names listed are difficult to pronounce and the overt lesson is over.  This is a mistake.

In Chapter 16 Paul deals with at least 3 very controversial issues in the church:

  • Mission giving and financial integrity;
  • Support and acceptance of church leaders; and
  • Boundaries on the Christian community.

Missions and Financial Integrity

The Jerusalem council imposed 4 requirements on Gentile converts: …abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality (Acts15:29 ESV) [1].  Paul mentions only one requirement:  remember the poor (Galatians 2:10). By that, he particularly meant the poor saints in Jerusalem.  He reasoned: For if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings (Romans 15:27 ESV).

It is interesting that Paul, who took no support from the church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 9), was especially careful to request that they appoint their own trustees for the collection for the poor saints in Jerusalem (v 3).

Church Leaders

In the middle of church divisions, Paul sends in a turnaround team and highlights the work of theologically sound, local leaders.  In commending the household of Stephanas, he highlights their spirituality (first converts) and conduct:  they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints—be subject to such as these, and to every fellow worker and laborer (vv 15-16)

Boundaries on the Church

While the church is open to everyone, the church does not consist of everyone.  Paul states:  If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed. Our Lord, come! (v 22) [2]  The mark of a Christian is love for the Lord, not affiliation or family ties.  Given this presupposition, Paul advises:  Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like adults, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love (vv 13-14).

The mention of the household of Stephanas (v 15) as well as Aquila and Prisca (v 19) [3] underscores the importance of family ministries, especially husband-wife teams, in the early church.


[1] This list contains 3 food requirements and behavioral requirement.  Each requirement focuses on sins of the body.

[2] “Our Lord come” is written in Aramic (μαράνα θά; Marantha) suggesting again that the earliest confessions included statements of Christ’s divinity and expectations of the second coming.

[3] Also:  Acts 18:2,18, 26;  Romans 16:3, and 2 Timothy 4:19.


1 Corinthians 16: Unity and Diversity in Christ

First Corinthians 15

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A New Life in an Old Land by Thomas Smith

King Tomislav
King Tomislav, Zagreb, Croatia

By Thomas Smith

Our guest blogger this week is Pastor Thomas Smith who works with his family as a missionary to the reformed churches in Croatia, a part of the former communist country of Yugoslavia.

A New Life in an Old Land

Sparkling crystal clean water along pristine beaches on hundreds of islands and inlets loom large on the tourist promotions for Croatia.  Rightly so, Croatia’s Dalmatian and Istrian regions really are spectacular.  If you have not yet visited Croatia, you should. Visiting a country like Croatia for vacation is one thing, living and working here year round is a different experience.

Over much of the past two years, I have lived in Zagreb, the capital city of Croatia where I have been a theology lecturer and helper to a Protestant church.  This is the first time I have lived outside the United States.  I am still adjusting to the culture and rhythm of life here.


Croatian culture puts more value on family, traditions, and relationships than does American culture.  While Croatians value convenience, pragmatism, efficiency, and quality, they do not rate these quite as highly as Americans.  So as an American living here, I find myself feeling frustrated at times with products, services and rules because they are different than in America.  So, I am learning to change my expectations and my ways of thinking and doing.

I remind myself that I want to be here, I am called to be here to help the evangelical community in general and the Protestant Reformed Christian Church ( in particular.  The Protestant community is small, less than one percent.  Roman Catholicism is woven into the fabric of society.

Identity Issues

Here church membership is about identity. Church membership is not about being a disciple of Christ. If you are Orthodox, then you must be Serbian. Or if you are Muslim, then you must be a Bosnian. Croats are Catholic. But, Protestants are just odd and don’t fit any hole–it would better if you were an atheist.

The Croatian people are wonderful friends.  They are kind, helpful, generous and hardworking.  Most work at their jobs and are paid very little. The transition from communism to capitalism has been rough and inhumane.  My friends tell me life under Tito’s communism was better than conditions today.

While there is plenty of despair to go around, the people are great and love life. They love children, dogs, a good cup of coffee, conversation, and a good story. They appreciate home-made food, fine wine, music, and dance.  Enjoying the same things, I feel at home here. Like death and taxes, frustration and bureaucracy are unavoidable no matter where you live.

Croatian History

Croatians are primarily a Slavic people, but through the centuries they have absorbed the Illyrians, Romans, Celts, Germans, and other ethnicities.  The Slavic tribes came to this part of Europe in the early 600’s.  The first united kingdom arrived in 925 AD, but the royal line died out by 1100 AD.  They later merged their kingdom with Hungary until the 1500’s when they joined the Austro-Hungarian Empire to avoid being overrun by the Turks.


During the 1500’s Luther’s ideas about reforming the Roman Catholic church across Europe because of Gutenberg’s printing press.  The Protestant Reformation came to the edges of the country. In this time period, Croatia was a battleground between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Turkish Empire.  Due to the military and political situation, the Protestant Reformation was unable to penetrate Croatia. During the 16th and 17th centuries diffe

rent Popes assembled Catholic nations to battle the Ottoman Turks and, as a consequence, the Croatians saw the Vatican as their best defender and friend.  Catholicism became an important part of their identity and Croatians remained loyal to the Roman church. The Counter-Reformation led by the Jesuits effectively reduced and eliminated the Protestant presence.

Reformation in Croatia

Nevertheless, during the Reformation in eastern Croatia a priest named Michael Starin embraced Luther’s ideas. He introduced people to Christ; spread the idea that the Bible alone is the highest authority in the church; and proclaimed “Salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone” in the region.  A total of 130 parishes converted.  For example, in the village of Tordinci, a Protestant church was created in 1551 and remains active today–despite the Counter Reformation and persecution–463 years later!  In 2001, it voted to leave the Reformed Calvinist Church (which is mostly Hungarian), along with some other parishes.

Friends in Christ

The pastor at Tordinci, Dr. Jasmin Milic, is a close friend and he invited me to join him as a church planter in Zagreb. Much like Paul’s vision of the Macedonian begging him to “come over … and help us” (Acts 16:9), I prayed and felt God’s call to join this church.  In 2011 and 2012, I transitioned from being a Pennsylvania pastor to working as an evangelist inside the church in Croatia.

My task here is to preach, teach and do outreach, but I also mentor young church leaders and teach seminary classes.  Friends, family and churches in America feel called to support my family and work through contributions to the International Theological Education Ministry (ITEM).  As our expenses grow and our savings shrink, new partners in Christ step forward to support my wife and I in this work.  The crystal clear waters of the Adriatic remind me of the waters flowing from the throne of God (Revelation 22:1).  Here is the crystal sea and before it are every tongue, tribe, and nation worshiping the Lord!  The Lord beckons:  come to Croatia; see the crystal sea; make disciples; join the new life in Christ!

Tom and Anna Smith
Tom and Ana Smith


Rev. Thomas J. Smith grew up in York, PA.  A graduate of Penn State University and Covenant Theological Seminary, he has been an ordained Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America since 2004.  He is married to Ana with whom he has three daughters, Katherine, Kristina, and Evelyn.  Tom and his family have been living and working in Croatia since 2012.

Financial contributions (designated for Tom Smith) may be sent to ITEM, Inc., P.O. Box 31456, St. Louis, MO 63131-0456  or through PayPal at .

A New Life in an Old Land by Thomas Smith

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