Learning from St Patrick

Learning from St Patrick

Author - Stephen McQuoid, General Director GLO Europe

Author Bio:

Stephen McQuoid is the General Director of GLO Europe and has a passion for reaching secular Europeans with the gospel. He is also an elder at Liberty Community Church in Bellshill and combines this with an itinerant teaching and training ministry both in the UK and abroad. He is married with three children.

One of the dangers we face as modern evangelicals is the temptation to think that God didn’t do very much in the world until we arrived. The truth is, however, there have always been heroes of the faith and we have much to learn from them.

This is certainly the case when it comes to world mission.  Christian mission did not begin with William Carey or Anthony Norris Groves.  Rather it is a continuing story that has run since New Testament times. Take, for example, the remarkable St. Patrick, who never had the opportunity to study missiology at an evangelical seminary, but was one of the most thoughtful, creative and dynamic missionaries of church history.

Much to my Irish blushes, Patrick was actually born in England in 389AD.  His life took a distressing turn when at the age of 16, some Irish tribes invaded his homeland and he was trafficked to Ireland where he lived for six years as a slave.  He managed to escape this miserable existence by smuggling himself over to France. There two things happened which were to change the course of his life.  Firstly, he became a monk and secondly, he developed a heart for mission and for the conversion of the Irish.The later came as a result of a vision in which he was challenged to bring the love of God to his previous captors.

He returned to Ireland in A.D.432 and spent the next thirty years preaching until his death.  There is a lot that we don’t know about Patrick’s story; what we do know is that he didn’t just fit in with the missionary rubric which the Roman Church had established.  Rather, he was an innovator and contextualised the gospel long before that word was even invented. He was effective! At the beginning of his ministry the land was completely pagan but by the end Christianity had spread throughout the whole country.

…there have always been heroes of the faith and we have much to learn from them

It seems likely that he made Armagh his headquarters and that city remains a significant Christian centre to this day. What is certain is that his mission method was well thought out.  His strategy was to motivate and train a group of monks who would be sent out to strategic areas to engage in evangelism. This methodology not only bore fruit in Ireland, but in Scotland too with the next generation of Celtic missionaries.

Being a missionary in Ireland was as hard then as it is now. The land was steeped in paganism which created a huge cultural and theological chasm which converts would have to cross. Ireland was also divided into kingdoms with each providing a whole new mission field. Moreover, frequent skirmishes with English raiders meant that sometimes converts were massacred in the clashes. None of this deterred the courageous Patrick.

What made Patrick a truly great missionary was his character combined with his missiological strategy.  As far as his character was concerned, Patrick did not have the benefit of a good education and he was very conscious of his lack of theological competence.  But what he lacked in theological expertise, he made up for in a single-minded devotion to Christ, living a spiritual existence in which meditation and dreams were a large part of his experience.  He was also acutely aware of the reality of spiritual warfare, where good and evil collided in the battle for people’s souls.

This firebrand spirituality was married to a flexible missiology. By contrast to the Roman Church which advanced itself through power structures and political strategy, Patrick preferred his monks to win hearts through passion and piety.  The Roman church was hierarchical, building impressive monasteries and beautiful churches all under the watchful eye of the Bishop. The Celts took a different approach.  Their monks lived simple lives, living near the people in learning communities where the abbot would teach Scripture to his disciples who would make disciples of the people. They also gave space for the flourishing of art, believing that it was an expression of spirituality. Theirs was an experiential faith and not just an intellectual one. They also took their faith to the people rather than expecting the people to come to them. This incarnational approach contributed to their success.

The Celtic church grew like wildfire, first in Ireland, then Scotland and then working southwards into England and also parts of Europe.  It could have become the official voice of Christianity except for one fatal mistake, that of a merger with Rome.  At the Synod of Whitby in 664 the Roman and Celtic churches agreed to amalgamate. The Roman church had wealth and organisation which the Celtic church lacked and that acted as a blanket which eventually snuffed out the fire of Celtic spirituality.

While it no longer exists, the Celtic church and its enigmatic founder, Patrick, have a lot to teach us about mission. Be passionate and love Christ. Read the Scriptures believing they can transform you and your disciples.  Live with the people, enjoy creativity and remember church is not about buildings. Engage in spiritual warfare and find tangible ways of expressing the Christian faith within the host culture. This is the stuff of contemporary missiology, though Patrick modelled it centuries ago!

Welcome to the joint blog of Echoes International and GLO. Sharing the thoughts and experiences from experts in mission across the world, we aim to examine the issues facing mission today, and challenge existing views about cross-cultural mission.

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