The Missional St. Patrick (And Why There Is No Roman Imperative)

roman imperative

by Chad Inman


St. Patrick was a remarkable individual whose intrigue had nothing to do with leprechauns and rainbows. Though Patrick was ethnically a Celt, he was culturally a Roman whose primary language was Latin. He grew up in a Christian home with a deacon for a father and a priest for a grandfather. As a youth, Patrick was what some might call a “lukewarm” Christian, saying of himself, “At the time, I did not recognize the True God.”[1] According to Patrick, it was this rejection of God that led to his life being turned upside down when a band of Celtic pirates invaded the region, captured Patrick, and sold him into slavery. During his years as a slave, Patrick experienced two major changes.

First, Patrick experienced the revelation of God through nature and became a devout Christian.

. . . after I reached Ireland I used to pasture the flock each day and I used to pray many times a day. More and more did the love of God, and my fear of him and faith increase, and my spirit was moved so that in a day [I said] from one up to a hundred prayers, and in the night a like number; besides I used to stay out in the forests and on the mountain and I would wake up before daylight to pray in the snow, in icy coldness, in rain, and I used to feel neither ill nor any slothfulness, because, as I now see, the Spirit was burning in me at that time.[2]

Second, Patrick, immersed in a new environment, came to understand and accept the Celtic culture of his captors. It was this deep understanding of the Celtic world that later allowed him to effectively reach the “unreachable” with the good news of Christ. After six years of captivity, God told Patrick in a dream to flee from his captors.

The next 25 years or so of Patrick’s life are unknown, but at the age of 48, Patrick had another dream where an angel named Victor spoke to him. During that dream Patrick was called to bring the “good news of Christ” to the Celtic world. Patrick returned to Ireland as a bishop with this mission. Patrick’s 28 years of ministry to the Celts—and the movement that followed—forever changed the Western world.


Celtic Evangelism: Embrace Native Culture
At the time of St. Patrick, the Roman church believed that cultural changes and conformity were necessary for the spreading of the good news. It was assumed that a culture had to be civilized (i.e., Romanized), at least in part, as a prerequisite to becoming Christian. Once a “Christian nation,” further conformity to the Roman norm was expected. These populations were expected to adopt Roman customs, including reading and speaking Latin as well as doing church the Roman way. This was not initially the case with the early Roman church; stories of the first-century church report missional outreach to cultures that were neither Roman nor civilized (cannibal populations were even on the list of those receiving the good news). However, by the second century it was assumed that reaching barbarians for Christ was impossible.[3]

Protestant missions have historically followed a similar two-pronged focus: evangelize and civilize. Here too, many believe that a certain level of civility is required for acceptance of the gospel to be possible . . . .International missions today have moved beyond this model of required conformity, but, domestically, we often fall into the trap of believing that societal conformity is a prerequisite for receiving the good news of Christ. Perhaps this is why Christians often feel the need to impose Christian values on the unbelieving world.[4]

The message is comparable to that of the Roman church: “You have to be like us if you want to be a Christian.” But church leaders can engage people differently, encouraging them to stay within their culture while seeking to understand the person of Jesus.


Celtic Evangelism: Engage Everyone
The Celtic world was unreachable by Roman standards because it was made up of cultures that were the very definition of barbarian. The Celts had their own culture, rich in history and customs. Despite the beauty of the Celtic world, the Romans had no interest in learning about their history. For Roman missionaries, success was often measured not by receptivity to the gospel, but by how Romanized they could make the invaded culture.

Patrick, on the other hand, had no interest in conformity. His Celtic missionaries would engage anyone who was open to hearing the gospel message. The missionaries mediated disputes among the people and prayed for their basic needs—anything from the healing of sicknesses to successful fishing expeditions. They exhibited a sincere interest in the Celtic people without any prerequisites.[5]

The benefits of the Celtic approach are clear. Imagine an environment where Christians take a genuine interest in people’s lives without an ulterior motive.


Celtic Evangelism: Understand the Audience
Missionaries to the Celtic world were able to accept the Celts for who they were, in part, because they genuinely understood them and their way of life. For example, these missionaries came to understand that the Celts were an amazingly creative and imaginative people. When the missionaries would speak to the community, they would have probably attempted to engage the Celts’ remarkable imaginations by making use of things like song, parable, poetry, drama, visual symbols and art. Patrick made the clover famous by using the three leaves on the clover as a symbol for the Trinity. The incorporation of the Celtic culture was more than just a tool for the purpose of getting a message across. The missionaries also validated cultural traits that could appropriately coexist with faithful living. They encouraged the Celtic people to use their creativity as a form of worship and service to God.[6]

Church staff would do well to understand the culture of today’s unchurched. Many believe they do, but this belief may need to be challenged. The key is to see understanding as more than ammunition for warfare. If a cultural setting is viewed with prejudice, then true understanding is not taking place. Real understanding means that church workers explore a culture without bias and with acceptance. Acceptance means exploring the possibility that some things in the world need not be shunned.

Indeed, culture may coexist with the Christian faith. Patrick spent six years completely immersed in the Celtic world. Today’s international missionaries sometimes do the same. They spend years studying a culture, and then become students of that culture after they begin their ministries there. When I was an employee of Youth for Christ, I spent roughly 20 hours a week at a local high school campus. I was mistaken for a student on several occasions (an assistant principle once yelled at me for having a cell phone at school). I was at lunch, I was at sporting events, and I was at the weight room after school. During that time I didn’t just understand youth culture, I understood the culture of youth in that particular community. I wasn’t simply observing from my office; I was immersed.

Every community has its own culture with its own nuances, but the uniform world that today’s “post-Christians” live in is eerily similar to the Celtic culture of 1600 years ago. Just like the Celtic barbarians, today’s “barbarians” find truth not in head knowledge, but in experience. Many churches today believe these barbarians are unreachable for Christ. Just as the Romans believed that the Celts had to be more Roman to accept the gospel, many of today’s
churches believe that the unchurched need to conform to the modern school of thought in order to become Christians.

The truth is the cultural shift that has taken place among these “barbarians,” sometimes referred to as postmodernity, makes them quite open to things of faith. Many of these individuals are searching for a god. The problem is they are searching in all the wrong places.


Celtic Evangelism: Thin Places
Recognition of the similarities between the Celtic culture and today’s cultures allows church staff to incorporate specific missional modes used by Celtic missionaries. The real benefit of the Celtic example is the understanding that Christian faith formation can and should be driven by experience. People don’t want to just learn about God; they want to be ushered into his presence. Mark Oestreicher puts it this way:

When a teenager is sitting in third-period science class and hearing arguments that might undermine her factual knowledge (as strong as it may be), it will be her experience of God—last week in her spiritual community, last month in the soup kitchen, and last summer on the mission trip—that sustains her faith in the face of seemingly objective facts to the contrary.[7]

I’m attracted to the idea of “thin places” described by the post-Patrick monk St. Columba. Thin places are spaces in time and place where the distance between humanity and God is smaller, thinner. As church workers, we can create thin places for our members through corporeal acts of worship: prayer walks, the stations of the cross and the Eucharist. It may also be appropriate to create our own local practices.


Celtic Evangelism: Speaking Out Against Damaging Customs
Understanding the Celts does not mean ancient missionaries sought to make Christianity fit neatly into their culture. Instead, they presented the community of faith as its own culture and set up their own communities near, but separate from, the tribal settlements. Patrick was more than willing to go against the culture, bringing about social reform in the process. In fact, he went head-to-head with a group of murderers and slave traders in his “Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus,” which he used as bad press against Coroticus and his crew. These men had brutally killed some recent converts to Christianity and had kidnapped Christian Celtic women for the purpose of making them slaves. He hoped that he would be able to use this letter to pressure Coroticus into returning the women. Near the beginning of his feisty letter, Patrick writes, “I never would have wanted these harsh words to spill from my mouth; I am not in the habit of speaking so sharply. Yet now I am driven by the zeal of God, Christ’s truth has aroused me.”[8]

Patrick’s efforts must have had some success. By the end of his ministry, the Irish slave trade that had previously been a social norm had come to a halt. Intertribal warfare had also declined. Patrick’s Christian communities modeled faithfulness, generosity and peace to the Celtic people.[9]

Understanding and being a part of today’s culture without demonizing it is crucial, but equally important is speaking out against the various parts of culture that have a damaging effect. Former faculty of Duke’s Divinity School William H. Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas say, “The church exists today as resident aliens, an adventurous colony in a society of unbelief.”[10] The Western church is so quick to dig its heels in and fight the barbarian way of life. Yet it so easily accepts civilized culture, which may indeed be every bit as unchristian. Similarly, there are many Christian principles that are truly un-American.

Celtic missionaries understood that believing the Christian message often comes after belonging to a Christian community. Yet our models of evangelism generally include a presentation of the gospel, followed by a decision, followed by admittance into Christian community as the final step. In this way, we’ve become more sequential than faithful, and it’s not working for us. Some in our congregations will need to feel the sense of belonging to a church family before they believe in the gospel narrative. This especially holds true for the experience-driven generations of today.

Like some 1600 years ago, the world’s churches are largely content with neglecting a major portion of the harvest. Thus, the model of St. Patrick and those who followed him can be of some use. Maybe an approach that recognizes God is big enough to reach people exactly where they are is the key. In St. Patrick’s time, a barbarian people wanted to know that they belonged. Today’s “lost” may not be so different. Are we going to demand that they become civilized, or are we going to create opportunities for them to be accepted and to experience the living God?

Condensed excerpt from Immerse Journal


1. St. Patrick, The Confession of St. Patrick (Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library), This first section of his writing is St. Patrick’s own account of his life and the events that lead up to his mission in Ireland. Though that is not its primary purpose. Patrick’s Confession is a defense of his life and ministry.
2. Ibid., paragraph 16.
3. George G. Hunter III, The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can
Reach the West . . . Again (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 17.
4. Ibid., 16.
5. Ibid., 21.
6. Ibid.
7. Mark Oestreicher, Youth Ministry 3.0 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 104.
8. John Skinner, trans. The Confession of Saint Patrick and Letter to Coroticus
(New York: Image, 1998), “Letter” paragraph 1. This letter can be viewed online at
9. Hunter, Celtic Way, 21-23.
10. Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), 49.

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One Comment

  • Chad

    Mar 17, 2014 - Reply

    Boy am I glad to see this!

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