Book Review: The Celtic way of Evangelism, by George Hunter.

Posted: November 9, 2008 by Matt Horan in ReEmergent Church
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Review by Matt Horan


Need the book intends to meet:  With the church in decline, Hunter holds up the Christian 51xeg498p1lfaith of the Celts in Ireland from the 5th to the 7th centuries as a model for evangelism in the 21st century.Content:


  1. In the early 5th century, Patrick was a slave, kidnapped from England by Celtic raiders.  He lived there for about a decade, in which is Christian faith deepened through prayer and solitude.  Upon escaping… he trained to become a priest.  Feeling led to return to his former captors and bring the gospel, he was appointed Bishop to Ireland.  Since the Celts had not been invaded by people with foreign religious ideas for over 1000 years, they gave Patrick a hearing.  His knowledge of their life and customs allowed him to contextualize the gospel for them, and thus Christianity spread rapidly among the Celts.
  2. The common missionary practice of Patrick’s Christian movement was to form new Christian communities in new areas, where they would “pay the price” to get to know the people, minister to their needs, and “become locals.”  Thus they were able to apply Christianity in ways specific to the people that they were getting to know, and invite people to commit to Christ.
  3. Further, Celtic Christianity did not see practical day-to-day matters as trivial; or beneath weightier spiritual matters.  Celtic Christianity got its hands dirty, speaking to the daily issues of the people.  They saw God as providential and eminent, more than they saw God as above or transcendent.
  4. The model of the Romans of the same time was not as effective.  They felt that the Roman way to do church was the only way, and so the two came into conflict.  The Romans wanted the Celts to conform to their patters of practice, dress, calendar, language… and just become generally more orthodox.  This contextualization of the gospel was unacceptable.
  5. A 7th century Synod was called, in which the Romans got their way.  The Celts were ordered to conform to Roman practice, and so they gradually did.  Proportionately, Celtic ambitions to reach Western Europe stalled.  Hunter uses this history as an example of what a refusal to contextualize the gospel by living among the “barbarians” and conversing with them will cause.  People are looking for Christians to care about them—about their lives and struggles and specific situations.  If they come to a church and all they get is an urging to conform to the present church culture; they will feel that the church doesn’t care about them, and by inference, that God doesn’t care about them either.
  6. The book contains a great word about hospitality.  The Celts dropped everything and made guests a top priority.  They got the best places to stay, the choicest seats at the table.  The abbot would wash their feet of whatever they picked up on their journey, and make their experience their top priority.  The abbot would pray with them, read them the Scriptures, and invite them to partake of all elements of the community.  Making hospitality a priority demonstrates that the Christians love their guests, and by inference, that God loves them too.


  • “When the people know that the Christians understand them, they infer that maybe the high God understands them too.” (Pg. 20)
  • “[The Celts] belief that Ultimate Reality is complex, and their fascination with rhetorical triads and the number three opened them to Christianity’s Triune God.  Christianity’s contrasting features of idealism and practicality engaged identical traits in the Irish character.” (Pg. 20)
  • “A bishop’s primary (perhaps only) expectations were to administer the existing churches and care for faithful Christians. (A local priest’s job description was similar, stressing pastoral care of the local flock.)  So the British leaders were offended and angered that Patrick was spending priority time with ‘pagans,’ ‘sinners,’ and ‘barbarians.’” (Pg. 24)
  • “What would a visitor from Rome have noticed about Celtic Christianity that was ‘different’?  The visitor would have observed more of a movement than an institution, with small provisional buildings of wood and mud, a movement featuring laity in ministry more than clergy.  This movement, compared to the Roman wing of the One Church was more imaginative and less cerebral, closer to nature and its creatures, and emphasized the ‘immanence’ and ‘providence’ of the Triune God more than his ‘transcendence.’  Most of all, the Roman visitor would notice that Patrick’s ‘remarkable achievement was to found a new kind of church, one which broke the Roman imperial mould and was both catholic and barbarian.’  That ‘new kind of church’ gradually displaced the parish church as Irish Christianity’s dominant form of Christian community.” (Pg. 26-27)
  • “Eastern monasteries organized to protest and escape from the materialism of the Roman world and the corruption of the Church; the Celtic monasteries organized to penetrate the pagan world and to extend the church.” (Pg. 28)
  • “Western Christian leaders usually focus on the ‘ultimate’ issues, as they define them, to the exclusion of the lesser issues; indeed, they often consider middle issues ‘beneath’ them!  When Christianity ignores, or does not help people cope with. These middle issues, we often observe ‘Split-Level Christianity’ in which people go to church so they can go to heaven, but they also visit, say, the shaman or the astrologer for help with the pressing problems that dominate their lives.” (Pg. 32)
  • “The Celtic Christians learned prayers to accompany getting up in the morning, for dressing, for starting the morning fire, for bathing or washing clothes or dishes, for smooring the fire at days end, and for going to bed at night.” (Pg. 33)
  • “[Guests] would be included at the Abbot’s table at meals; if the Abbot was in a period of fasting, he would break the fast—for the Abbot has no higher priority than ministry with guests.” (Pg. 52)
  • “The Celtic model for reaching people” (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.” (Pg. 53)
  • An observer wrote about St. Patrick, “His love for his adopted people shines through his writings, and it is not just a generalized ‘Christian’ benevolence, but his love for individuals as they are…. He worries constantly for his people, not just for their spiritual but for their physical welfare…. Patrick has become an Irishman.” (Pg. 63)
  • Celtic Christian advocates especially engaged barbarian imaginations through storytelling and poetry.” (Pg. 73)
  • “Celtic bishops were primarily evangelists rather than administrators.” (Pg. 119)

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