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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Hebrew Anthropology and Apologetics

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithDelight yourself in the LORD, 

and he will give you the desires of your heart. 

(Ps 37:4 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The wholly confusion that dominates the church today is rooted the Greek dualism that pervades western thought. While Greeks distinguished mind and body, Hebrews did not. The Hebrew mindset saw mind and body as different parts of a unified whole, whose center is the heart (cardia) and not simply emotions that come and go. Stroking emotions and teaching the head neglect the heart that responds principally to ritual.

Neglected hearts see no reason to become disciples or attend church because the center of your being is not adequately engaged. Emotions and thinking are more like appendages to the will, not its center. The church then finds itself full of confused thinkers and traumatized emoters who ridicule and neglect ritual leading to even more neglected hearts. Wholly confusion naturally leads then to holy confusion.

Hebrew Anthropology

Inherent in this statement is the Hebrew view of anthropology cited above—note the two references to heart. What Greek would talk about the thoughts and attitudes of the heart? Drawing attention to this anthropology, Smith (2016, 5) asks: “Do you ever experience a gap between what you know and what you do?” `If he had the rational mind in view, no such gap would exist but, of course, we all experience this gap.

This line of thought leads Smith (2016, 7) to observe: “What if you are defined not by what you know [the mind] but by what you desire?[the heart]” (7) If our desires are reflected more in our actions than in our words, then this Hebrew anthropology leads us immediately into an inconvenient discussion of ethics because our hearts are not lily-white clean as our words. It also forces us to discuss how we know what we know (the epistemology question) because our hearts are not so easily persuaded to follow even our own thoughts. Suddenly, much of the New Testament language sounds less churchy and more informed by an alternative world view, one decidedly not Greek and unfamiliar in American culture.

The Future is Always Present

Smith offers an interesting ethical insight—an instrument (or person) is good when it is used with its purpose in view. He asks how one would evaluate a flute used to roast marshmallows over a fire—we would never say that a flute used this way was a bad flute. Why? The measure of a flute is how it is used to play music, not roast marshmallows. Smith (2016, 89) observes:

“…virtue is bound up with a sense of excellence: a virtue is a disposition that inclines us to achieve the good for which we are made.”

Because of original sin, we are not inclined to love virtues and to practice them. Being created in the image of God implies that are on a mission in worship to develop the virtues through ritual and sacrament that match God’s intent for our lives (88).

This sense of worship explains why Revelation draws many illusions from the creation accounts in Genesis and paints many pictures of worship in heaven. Our collective objective as Christians is to live into our vision of heaven (our eschatology) where we reflect and commune with the God that we worship. Our end (ultimate story) is always in view and it informs how we should live and worship.

How are we to live into our collective future if we love the wrong things today?

Sacred and Secular Liturgies

Smith (2016, 46) spends a lot of time discussing liturgies. He writes:

“Liturgy, as I’m using the word, is a shorthand term for those rituals that are loaded with an ultimate Story about who we are and what we’re for.”

The Apostle’s Creed is, for example, both a ritual and a story that explains who Jesus is, who we are and what we are for. Repeating the creed until you can recite it in your sleep implies that it has become a ritual and a part of your identity.

Holy music goes a step further to bury it in your heart. Having work with Alzheimer’s patients, I can tell you that songs like the Doxology are the last thing you forget before getting lost in the mist—I have seen patients lost, unable to speak, brought back to themselves when you sing such songs with them. This is what Smith means by a sacred ritual.

The problem is that our society has its own liturgies. He spends a great deal of effort, for example, analyzing and dissecting the liturgies of the shopping mall. When you are upset, do you go to chapel and pray (think of the film, Home Alone)⁠1 or do you call a friend and go shopping? Why shop? The liturgy of the mall suggests that individual find empowerment in purchasing things that they probably don’t need. The problem with this secular liturgy is that inherent in purchasing things to make us feel good about ourselves is we are broken, need things to fulfill ourselves, and don’t measure up to others with more stuff. Worse, the feel-good benefit quickly wears off because it is a lie (Smith 2016, 47-53).

Hospitality as Apologetic

If the heart is the center of our identity, not just our emotions, we need to think about apologetics differently. An apologetic focused on heart needs to appeal both to the mind and the emotions. Let me offer three examples.

The first example concerns the first letter of Peter, where the most famously quoted verse is: “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3:15) The thing is that the rest of the book focuses on lifestyle evangelism, as it says.

“Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” (1 Pet 2:12)

Works like hospitality speak directly to the heart without words. 

The second example arose in the fourth century when we see that Saint Patrick was famous as the first successful evangelist in Ireland. 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).

The third example is more recent. In the city of Rio de Janeiro  there are many young people caught up in the gangs of the drug culture. In Brazil they call young people with mixed blood (blacks and Indians) as the “killable people.” Many of them die from the violence, but those that survive and are incarcerated by the police don’t have much hope. In the jails, the police do not feed them or offer medical care. For the most part, the gangs control daily life in the prisons. In this hellish world, there are few visitors, not even Christians, but those that come are mostly Pentecostals who provide food, medicine, and worship services. As a consequence, the gangs respect the Pentecostals, providing security for their services and allowing young people who really come to Christ to leave the gangs—the only option other than a body bag (Johnson).

As we have seen, hospitality can be more than just food. In these stories, it can be a faith journey that travels the path to the Hebrew heart.


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

Johnson, Andrew. 2017. If I Give My Soul: Faith Behind Bars in Rio de Janeiro. New York: Oxford. (Review)

Smith, James K. A. . 2016. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press.


1 ps:// In the story, church is where eight-year old, Kevin McCallister meets Old Man Marley and finds out that he is not scary, but a nice man. The two become friends and help each other resolve their problems.

Hebrew Anthropology and Apologetics

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

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Newsletter at:

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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 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site:, Publisher site:


Continue Reading