Barbarians in our Midst: How the Irish Spread the Gospel

George G. Hunter III is distinguished professor of evangelism and church growth at Asbury Theological Seminary. He served as the founding dean of Asbury’s E. Stanley Jones School of World Mission and Evangelism. Dr. Hunter is the author of numerous well-known books dealing with evangelism, mission, church growth, ministry and emerging ways of “doing church.”

When he wrote The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach The West…Again (Abingdon), Steve Beard sat down with Hunter to talk about the Celtic vision of evangelism, discipleship, imagination, spiritual warfare, and the supernatural.

 What inspired you to investigate Celtic Christianity?

For longstanding reasons — partly subconscious, perhaps rooted in my genetic makeup or ancestral memory — I have always been more interested in ancient Celtic Christianity than practically any other Protestant that I know.

Screen Shot 2015-03-17 at 11.39.54 AMSeveral years ago a book came out called How the Irish Saved Civilization written by Thomas Cahill, a cracker-jack historian. It stirred my interest in the expansion of Celtic Christianity. He tells the story of how Patrick’s evangelization of Ireland developed an alternative way of doing church and reaching people. Cahill describes how the Celtic monks copied decaying scrolls on to new scrolls and thereby kept much of the Greek and Roman learning of antiquity alive—thereby “saving civilization.” The monks rescued learning from the oblivion of the Dark Ages when the Vandals, Franks, Frisians, Goths, Visigoths, and other “barbaric” peoples overwhelmed the Roman Empire and destroyed the libraries. The Celtic monks kept “civilization” alive.

Cahill tells the story of how people—joining apostolic leaders such as Patrick, Columba, Columbanus, Aidan and others—reached one barbaric population after another across Britain and western Europe. They did this even though the Roman branch of the church thought it was “impossible.” The Romans thought that barbarians could not be Christians. The Celtic movement proved you could evangelize people first and civilize them second.

Then a book came out by Anglican Bishop John Finney entitled Recovering the Past. Finney profiles the Celtic movement’s basic mission approach. My book spells out much more specifically how the Celtic Christian movement reached and discipled the barbaric population of Europe.

How do you see this relating to Christianity in the 21st century?

I see, all around us, the rise of “new barbarian” populations. These are the people whose lives are sometimes out of control — driven by compulsion or hijacked by substance abuse. Growing numbers of people have a “rough edge.” If they came to church, they wouldn’t know when to stand up, sit down, or what to say to the pastor afterwards. They wouldn’t know how to find II Kings or II Corinthians. If they said anything, they might split an infinitive or utter an expletive! There are a growing number of people, across the whole western world, who aren’t quite refined and aren’t always nice. Over the years, I have observed that almost all churches overlook those populations. At least nine out of ten churches I’ve worked with will never get around to offering the Christian faith to people who aren’t already sufficiently “civilized” by the church’s standards. Most churches never reach out to people who aren’t “refined” enough to feel comfortable with us, or to people who are too out of control for us to feel comfortable with them.

 What kind of rethinking must take place in the modern-day church in order to learn from the Celts?

First, the church probably needs to entertain the idea, as though for the first time, that lost people matter to God, including people who are not “like us” or recognizable “good” church people.

Second, within our Wesleyan tradition, people need to entertain a fresh understanding of the doctrine of prevenient grace. The Holy Spirit is working through the events and circumstances of people’s lives to awaken receptivity to the gospel. If we believe that lost and out-of-control people matter to God and that the Holy Spirit is already initiating an engagement with them, some of the other things will follow.

Sometimes when I’m leading a seminar I’ll ask people if they remember their first kiss? Most people will raise their hands. I ask, “Did you really know what you were doing?” Then, I ask, “Did that stop you from doing it?” Of course it didn’t. The point is that love finds a way. I discovered that the way forward with out-of-control populations today is astonishingly consistent with some of the ways Patrick, Columba, Aidan, Columbanus, Brigid, Hilda and others found to reach the “barbarians” of their time.

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Dr. George G. Hunter III

This is a much more vast population than most church leaders are aware of. Vast numbers of people have a genetic vulnerability for addiction, like other people have a genetic vulnerability to diabetes. But we now know about the added factor that drugs, some more than others, change the chemistry of the brain at varying rates in a way to induce a lifetime of “craving.” At that point a person’s life is, more or less, hijacked and, by themselves, cannot always control what they do. They experience unspeakable guilt and shame, and a profound spiritual battle that the Evil One and the demons exploit.

Years ago, I heard Art Glasser, who taught mission theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, say, “The form that possessive destructive evil takes varies from one generation to another and from one culture to another. It’s most dominant form in our culture and this generation is addiction.” The more I circulate, the more convinced I became that Glasser was right.

In most every city you can find a church or two that steps out of polite conventionality and targets those lost, hijacked people. Likewise, you can find churches that have a dozen, or even a hundred, 12-step meetings at different times of the week in various places.

Some of these churches are invading enemy territory and visiting people in bars and high drug-use neighborhoods, rediscovering that the “sower goes forth to sow the seed of God’s word.”

Addiction can be attached to alcohol, nicotine, heroin, crack cocaine, or even sex. Millions of people live lives out of control; addiction is destroying them inch by inch. These people matter to God. Christ died for them and the power of the Holy Spirit is available to them. Tragically, the Church has what they need, but most churches aren’t offering it to the people who need it most.

Nevertheless, the Recovery Movement is the “underground awakening” of this generation. More people are discovering the grace of God for the first time in their lives through a recovery ministry than through all of the evangelism programs combined. As a professor of evangelism and church growth I had to take that seriously.

 Some might flinch at the notion of welcoming out-of-control segments of our society into “perfectly good” congregations. It sounds a bit explosive and adventuresome. Is risk-taking part of Celtic Christianity?

Yes. The gospel song about the shepherd who seeks the lost sheep has the other 99 sheep safe in the fold while the shepherd searches. But that is not the way Jesus’ parable reads. The parable has the 99 huddled together in the wilderness while the shepherd leaves them to hunt for the lost sheep! The parable suggests there is some inherent risk in being a Christian.

Within the Celtic outreach model, people are being grounded in Christian truth and spiritual disciplines, are part of a small group, and they reach out in teams. If these elements are held, probably no one will be lost to “the other side.” But when we keep the people in the church — to eliminate all risk, we rob them of the greatest adventure — following Christ as his ambassadors in the real world.

 Celtic Christianity appears to invest heavily in creativity, imagination, and spiritual experience rather than merely spiritual knowledge. Does that play a role in their evangelism and ministry?

Yes. There is now more latitude, and more need, to be creative in how we “do church” and present the gospel. That means engaging people with the gospel in lots of different ways in addition to preaching and didactic teaching. The approach involves culturally relevant music, using the people’s language rather than church’s traditional language, employing poetry, drama, and the visual arts. More and more churches are discovering a kind of multi-media approach to dramatize the gospel in as many different ways as they can. The key to this is allowing the “rebirth” of our imagination.

As the enlightenment has faded, western humanity appears to rely less on logic and reason — we are speaking of differences of degree — and relies more on imagination and experience. The Celtic movement would coach today’s communicator to engage people through their imaginations in a range of creative ways. You maximize the possibility that people will get the message and they’ll discover the beginning gift of faith.

 Celtic Christianity also seems to emphasize the interconnectedness between life and theology in a more profound way than most churches today. The Celtic cross incorporates a circle in the center, representing our physical world and nature. The Celtic prayers acknowledge the every-dayness of life and its connectedness to theology.

The Celtic movement presents a whole range of options for our churches. Celtic Christianity was enormously more “culture friendly” than the Roman branch of the church. It even believed that you could find things in the people’s primal religion that could be used to help interpret the gospel. They believed that the gospel came not to destroy but to fulfill the prior religious aspirations and some of the experiences of the people. Celtic Christians believed that the High God that their neighbors believed in — who was unavailable — had indeed come to us and is one with us in Jesus Christ.

Celtic Christians were also “nature friendly,” believing that the animals and birds and fish of the fields, forests, jungles, and rivers are more kin to us than the Roman branch of the church believed — which took a kind of exploitative approach to nature. Defenders of the Roman branch of the church will point to figures like Francis of Assisi. However, Francis discovered Christianity’s love for animals from the Celtic monastery at Bobbio, just a few miles from Assisi, which had been founded by Columbanus.

 One aspect of Celtic Christianity that seems to be similar to Third-World expressions of Christianity is an openness to spiritual warfare. There also seem to be many more episodes of what the late John Wimber called “power encounters” or supernatural displays of God’s power — healings, deliverances, dreams and visions.

This issue would need to be nuanced very carefully. Compared to present-day traditional western Christianity, Celtic Christianity emphasizes much more experience, the revelation of God through dreams, the power of intercessory prayer, etc. There also appears to have been a significantly greater emphasis on healing — physical, spiritual, and emotional healing — than what we usually find in the church down the street.

When it comes to what Wimber called power encounter, its cousin exorcisms, and some of the other Halloween-oriented ministries, those appear to have been occasional projects of the Celtic movement. They would do it when necessary but they didn’t count it necessary very often. It appears there were such ministries but they were episodic. The later “hagiographers,” who wrote about the lives of the saints, were enormously more interested in spiritual warfare than the saints had been!

 Yet even in the Celtic prayers, you read a greater sense of the recognition of the Evil One, of dark forces. Perhaps it was because they were surrounded by Druid culture, but even their written liturgical prayers reflect far more of a cosmic struggle than what we see in mainline, denominational Christianity.

Yes, they certainly had a more vivid sense of the supernatural. They had a vivid sense of the presence of God and a vivid sense of all three persons of the Trinity. They had a vivid sense that we are to pray without ceasing. It meant praying into each situation, and their prayer life reflected their awareness of evil forces in their midst. Part of their life of prayer was to be protected from the Evil One and delivered from the powers of sin, evil, and death. Frankly, I have learned to pray for protection; Christians who are in denial of the presence of evil are more vulnerable than they know.

How would a local church adopt a more Celtic way of “doing church?”

I would recommend adopting the four-fold Celtic approach to preparing people for ministry. It appears to me to be vastly more sophisticated and effective than anything now being attempted in most churches.

First, every person in a monastic community spent some time in solitude, out in nature. They had a saying, “Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” Patrick himself discovered the presence of God, that he had learned about in the catechism, in the midst of nature. The Celts believed that time alone in nature is indispensable for triggering a God-consciousness.

Second, everyone had a soul friend. This is not a superior such as a spiritual director, but more like a peer with whom one could be totally vulnerable.

Third, most Celtic Christians were members of a small group who met weekly. Ten or fewer people were led by a person who was most chosen for his or her transparent devoutness.

Fourth, everyone was involved in the life of the monastic community—worship, and Scripture memorization, etc. A great many illiterate Celtic Christians knew all 150 psalms by heart because they rehearsed 30 psalms a day; as a community, every five days, they rehearsed all the psalms.

Everyone, in the community, was involved in ministry with seekers. At some point in their development they would be a seeker’s soul friend, or they would observe and help a seeker in their small group who was discovering faith.

That fourfold approach: solitude, soul friends, small group, and ministry of the community — including ministry with seekers — appears to be a potent synergizing combination to produce contagious saints than any of the “improvements” in the last 12 centuries.

What kind of ministry did the Celts have to seekers?

It was, essentially, the “ministry of hospitality.” The monastic community would simply admit into its ranks people who had not yet discovered the gift of faith. The community seems to have believed Christianity was more caught than taught. The people were more likely to catch it in the community of faith rather than by being left to their own devices in the world. That strategy was recovered by Wesley in 18th century Methodism. The Celts, and the later Methodists, welcomed and involved seekers who hadn’t yet experienced justification.

In the book, I feature 18th century Methodism as a historic case of “unconscious reappropriation” of the Celtic Christian vision. I’ve read all of Wesley’s writings and cannot find much evidence that he consciously drew upon ancient Celtic Christian materials. A number of those themes, such as small groups, hospitality and imagination, were by that time in the DNA or ancestral memory of British Christianity. From time to time, various movements in the Christian community have rediscovered and reinserted those themes.

The current Alpha course is a more recent case of a movement reappropriating many Celtic Christian outreach principles without being fully aware of their ancient source.

 You spent time in Ireland, Scotland, and England — at places like Iona — while preparing your book. Many people seem to be doing that. Why?

I think that Celtic Christianity virtually invented the pilgrimage, and our generation has rediscovered its subtle power. The Celts believed that the “veil” between earth and heaven is much “thinner” in places historically associated with a monastic community, or faithful preaching or service, or conversion of a tribe. We experience, in ways we cannot fully explain, that we are more likely to experience God at Iona, or Lindisfarne, or Glendalough, than at Rupp Arena or downtown Manhattan.

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News. This article first appeared in the March/April 2000 issue of Good News.  

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