Thursday, March 17, 2011

Mission work St Patrick's way

In the late 4th or early 5th century, Patrick was growing up in an aristocratic family in what is now northeast England. At about the age of 16 he was captured by Celtic pirates from Ireland and sold into slavery. For about the next six years Patrick was a cattle herder for a prosperous tribal chief. During these years Patrick experienced three profound changes. First, during days in solitude in the beautiful wilderness he encountered God and became a man of prayer. Second, he developed a keen understanding of the Celtic peoples. Third, he came to love his captors and developed a deep hope that they would have reconciliation with God.

One night, after six years of captivity, a voice spoke to Patrick in a dream saying, “You are going home. Look! Your ship is ready.” The voice directed him to flee for his freedom the next morning. He awakened before daybreak, walked to a seacoast, saw athe ship, and negotiated his way on board.

Data for the next 25 years is sketchy, but we know that Patrick trained for the priesthood and served for years in a local parish. Then one night, at the age of 48 (past the life expectancy for a 5th century male), Patrick experienced another dream. An angel named Victor brought him letters from his former captors in Ireland saying “we appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.” Patrick interpreted this as his Macedonian Call” and proposed to his supervisors that he be sent on mission to Ireland.

This request and eventual mission was unprecedented, but persuading the Roman church created a significant challenge for Patrick. The reason for this was that the thinking of the Roman church at this time was that a people had to become “civilized” before they could be “Christianized” - - - and the Celtic people to whom Patrick had been called were, in the Roman mind, serious barbarians. They didn’t read or write, let alone speak Latin. They were tribal warriors who stripped naked and rushed enemies in battle, often decapitating conquered enemies. Some of their religious customs required human sacrifice.

But Patrick became an apostle in the truest sense. His teams would meet the people, engage them in conversation AND in ministry. They prayed for the sick, counseled people, mediated conflicts. They often engaged in open-air speaking, and regularly used parables, story, poetry, song visual arts and even drama. Ancient documents indicate that Patrick would receive people’s questions and respond collectively. Sound like someone else you know of? When people responded, the missionary team invited the barbarians into their life together. The Celtic people who joined life with Patrick’s mission teams did not have “conversion experiences” as we 21st century, western evangelicals understand conversion. Rather, as they shared life, day-by-day, people would eventually realize that they had gradually come to believe in the God of the scriptures and then chose to profess this belief through baptism.

Was Patrick’s method successful? Ancient documents report that Patrick’s teams planted about 700 churches, ordained perhaps 1000 priests. Within his lifetime 40+ of Ireland’s 150 tribes became substantially Christian. Many church historians believe St. Patrick to be Christendom’s most fruitful missionary of all time.

And his achievements included “civilizing” these barbaric peoples. He was the first man recorded to have spoken publically and crusaded against slavery. Through his influence intertribal warfare significantly decreased. His communities were known to be models of the “Christian way” of faithfulness, generosity and peace to all of the Irish.

Patrick's life and mission philosophy reminds us that we should be less focused on barbaric activities of the people around us, much more focused on simply "being Jesus" to and among them.  After all, aren't we are all barbarians?

Taken from: Hunter, George G. III; The Celtic Way of Evangelism, Abingdon Press; 2000

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