How to Be Missional Like St. Patrick

St. Patrick’s day is upon us. Whether you are are a green-beer drinking Irish Catholic or an abstaining evangelical, the person and legend of Patrick is essential study for every missional leader.

The First Missionary

In his masterful history of the Celtic Church, How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill makes the bold claim that Patrick was the first true missionary.”

“We understand that Jesus’s apostles preached his Good News—Good Spell or Gospel, to use the Old English term—after the descent of the Spirit at the Feast of Pentecost in Jerusalem and that they intended to preach “to the ends of the earth.” We are a little uncertain as to how far most of them actually got, though we think Peter ws nailed upside down to a cross at Rome. Thomas—in legend, at least—got as far as India. But the first Christian missionary for whom me have extensive documentation is Paul, not one of the original apostles, but an apostle, as he puts it, “appointed not by human beings—that is, appointed by vision. Patrick may the second such appointment. What is remarkable is not that Patrick should have felt an overwhelming sense of mission but in the four centuries between Paul and Patrick there we no missionaries…

In truth, even Paul, the great missionary apostle, though he endured all the miseries of classical travel for the sake of the Gospel, never himself ventured beyond the Greco-Roman Ecumene. Thomas, presumed apostle to India, though traveling perhaps beyond the official Ecumene, would have proselytized an ancient civilization with many ties to the Greek world. So Patrick was really a first—the first missionary to barbarians beyond the reach of Roman law. The step he took was in its way as bold as Columbus’s, and a thousand times more humane. He himself was aware of its radical nature. “The Gospel,” he reminded his accusers late in his life, “has been preached to the point beyond which there is no one”—nothing but the ocean. Nor was he blind to his dangers, for even in his last years “every day I am ready to be murdered, betrayed, enslaved—whatever may come my way. But I am not afraid of any of these things, because of the promises of heaven; for I have put myself in the hands of God Almighty.”

The History of Saint Patrick

If you don’t know much about Patrick, these videos are a good place to start:

The Celtic Way of Evangelism

Dr. George Hunter’s book The Celtic Way of Evangelism has done much to provide practical underpinnings to the missional conversation. This video series will introduce his main thesis: The Celtic Church, which can be traced back to Patrick, re-Christianized Europe after the fall of Rome.

Learning Missional from St. Patrick and The Celtic Church

Jonathan Dodson describes Patrick’s missional strategy this way:

When entering a new town or province, the first thing Patrick would do was befriend the local ruler. Very often that leader would come to Christ and permit Patrick to evangelize the area. Next, Patrick would establish monastaries for the training of Christians, but unlike many of his contemporaries, Patrick emphasize mission as a part of Christian training. In essence, he estbalished missionary training centers in every city in order to effectively reach the whole of Ireland.

Patrick also learned the local language, the old Gaelic, and translated the gospel into their culture. He developed their “flavor of writing” and adapted colloquialisms and was known for his persistent study of Gaelic culture. He painted heaven as a great feast, not an angelic reunion, which appealed to the banquet culture of the Irish.

Chad Inman makes the following observation about Patrick’s approach:

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.

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.

Jamie Arpin-Ricci, author of The Cost of Community, has recently released a new book entitled “Vulnerable Faith: Missional Living in the Radical Way of St. Patrick.” Here’s how Publisher’s Weekly describes it:

[Vulnerable Faith] combines the story of St. Patrick with Alcoholics Anonymous’s 12-step program to illustrate what a life beyond pretense looks like. Humans, Arpin-Ricci says, normally live in fear not only of death but also of rejection and loss of control. It’s only as people have the courage to embrace vulnerability, as Patrick did on a path that inadvertently followed the trajectory of the 12 steps, that they can live as whole people. The idea of a 12-step/St. Patrick mash-up is intriguing, but the book soars highest when Arpin-Ricci writes about his true subject: the radical Jesus that animates both Patrick and AA. This Jesus transforms the world and emerges in community as people face fears and reach out to others. Social justice permeates Arpin-Ricci’s message: focus not on perfecting the self, but on seeking the other as Christ. For anyone yearning to find a more full-bodied Jesus than the version that only saves individuals from hell, this is a worthwhile read.

David Mathis notes Patrick’s team approach:

A notable part of his strategy was that Patrick didn’t go solo to Ireland. He went with a team. Just as Jesus sent out his disciples together (Luke 10:1), and Paul and Barnabas went out together (Acts 13:3), so Patrick assembled a close-knit crew that would tackle the work together, in the same location, laboring for the founding of a church, before moving on together to the next tribe. It was, what Hunter calls, a “group approach to apostolic ministry.”

We don’t have record of the details of Patrick’s ministry teams and strategies, but Hunter says, “from a handful of ancient sources, we can piece together [an] outline of a typical approach, which undoubtedly varied from one time and setting to another.”

Patrick’s teams would have about a dozen members. They would approach a tribe’s leadership and seek conversion, or at least their clearance, and set up camp nearby. The team “would meet the people, engage them in conversation and in ministry, and look for people who appeared receptive”. In due course, “One band member or another would probably join with each responsive person to reach out to relatives and friends”. They would minister weeks and months among them, eventually pursuing baptisms and the founding of a church. They would leave behind a team member or two to provide leadership for the fledgling church and move, with a convert or two, to the next tribe.

With such an approach, “The church that emerged within the tribe would have been astonishingly indigenous”.

James Nored at the Exponential blog describes Patrick’s influence this way:

There was no one Celtic people or one Celtic church. The Celts were a diverse group of peoples held together primarily through a common underlying Gaelic language. In around 400 c.e., the time of “St. Patrick,” as he was later known, there were the Irish Celts, the Picts or Scottish Celts, and the Briton Celts. The Irish Celts invaded modern day Scotland, creating the similarity in language and accents between these two peoples. And the Britons were invaded by the Anglo-Saxons (the Angles were one of the Saxon tribes, which were Germanic in origin). This pushed the Britons mainly into Brittany and Wales (creating the Welsh people), while the rest of the Britons mixed with the Anglo-Saxons.

Resources for Celtic Spirituality

Christine Sine notes a few helpful aspects of Celtic Spirituality saying:

The Celts approached God with awe, reverence and wonder but also saw God as an essentially human figure intimately involved in all creation and engaged in a dynamic relationship with it. This interweaving of intimacy and mystery embraced the Trinity as a family and each family unit be it family, clan or tribe was seen as an icon of the Trinity. The Trinity was a very real presence for Celtic Christians and an almost tangible comforter and protector who could ward off evil forces.

Chris Morton adds:

Legend tells of how Patrick used a three leaf clover to explain the Trinity. He had a deep understanding for the passion and chaos that made the Celtic people celebrated and feared throughout the Roman empire. Rather than simply bemoan the darkness he found their, he transformed it. As Thomas Cahill, author of How the Irish Saved Civilization, has said:

In becoming an Irishman, Patrick wedded his world to theirs, his faith to their life…Patrick found a way of swimming down to the depths of the Irish psyche and warming and transforming Irish imagination – making it more humane and more noble while keeping it Irish.

Throughout the centuries, missionaries have gotten caught up in the game of cultural imperialism. Patrick’s example shows that the way of Jesus need not destroy a local culture, but brings out the best in it.

Zachary Perkins describes how Patrick taught about the Trinity:

 shamrock has become a huge symbol in Ireland in large part because the plant is everywhere, but also because of its connection to St. Patrick. Patrick is reported to have used the shamrock as a way to explain the mystery of the Trinity to the Irish people. It was something the Druid people very easily picked up because three was considered a sacred number in the Druidic religion.

So, as you go about with your St. Patrick’s Day celebration, think about the man who almost single-handedly spread the Gospel to an entire nation. St. Patrick is a model for us of humility, boldness in the face of adversity, forgiveness and bringing the Gospel to the world.

Patrick’s own Letter to Coroticus demonstrates how Patrick dealt with pain and betrayal:

I do not know why I should say or speak further about the departed ones of the sons of God, whom the sword has touched all too harshly. For Scripture says: “Weep with them that weep;” and again: “If one member be grieved, let all members grieve with it.” Hence the Church mourns and laments her sons and daughters whom the sword has not yet slain, but who were removed and carried off to faraway lands, where sin abounds openly, grossly, impudently. There people who were freeborn have, been sold, Christians made slaves…

Therefore I shall raise my voice in sadness and grief- O you fair and beloved brethren and sons whom I have begotten in Christ, countless of number, what can I do you for? I am not worthy to come to the help of God or men. The wickedness of the wicked hath prevailed over us. We have been made, as it were, strangers. Perhaps they do not believe that we have received one and the same baptism, or have one and the same God as Father. For them it is a disgrace that we are Irish. Have ye not, as is written, one God? Have ye, every one of you, forsaken his neighbor?…

Where, then, will Coroticus with his criminals, rebels against Christ, where will they see themselves, they who distribute baptized women as prizes — for a miserable temporal kingdom, which will pass away in a moment? As a cloud or smoke that is dispersed by the wind, so shall the deceitful wicked perish at the presence of the Lord; but the just shall feast with great constancy with Christ, they shall judge nations, and rule over wicked kings for ever and ever.


Praying with Patrick

By far, the most famous words of Patrick is a prayer attributed to him known as the “Lorica” or “Breastplate” of St. Patrick.
May this prayer bless you in your mission!

I bind unto myself today
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The Three in One and One in Three.

I bind this day to me for ever.
By power of faith, Christ’s incarnation;
His baptism in the Jordan river;
His death on Cross for my salvation;
His bursting from the spicèd tomb;
His riding up the heavenly way;
His coming at the day of doom;*
I bind unto myself today.

I bind unto myself the power
Of the great love of the cherubim;
The sweet ‘well done’ in judgment hour,
The service of the seraphim,
Confessors’ faith, Apostles’ word,
The Patriarchs’ prayers, the Prophets’ scrolls,
All good deeds done unto the Lord,
And purity of virgin souls.

I bind unto myself today
The virtues of the starlit heaven,
The glorious sun’s life-giving ray,
The whiteness of the moon at even,
The flashing of the lightning free,
The whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,
The stable earth, the deep salt sea,
Around the old eternal rocks.

I bind unto myself today
The power of God to hold and lead,
His eye to watch, His might to stay,
His ear to hearken to my need.
The wisdom of my God to teach,
His hand to guide, His shield to ward,
The word of God to give me speech,
His heavenly host to be my guard.

Against the demon snares of sin,
The vice that gives temptation force,
The natural lusts that war within,
The hostile men that mar my course;
Or few or many, far or nigh,
In every place and in all hours,
Against their fierce hostility,
I bind to me these holy powers.

Against all Satan’s spells and wiles,
Against false words of heresy,
Against the knowledge that defiles,
Against the heart’s idolatry,
Against the wizard’s evil craft,
Against the death wound and the burning,
The choking wave and the poisoned shaft,
Protect me, Christ, till Thy returning.

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

I bind unto myself the Name,
The strong Name of the Trinity;
By invocation of the same.
The Three in One, and One in Three,
Of Whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord.

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