The Celtic Way of Evangelism. Rev. Ed. by George G. Hunter, III. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010. 154 pages.

Reviewed by Jason M. Fletcher. George C. Hunter is Professor of Church Growth and Evangelism at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He has authored several works in the area of church growth. Originally published in 2000 the author released a revised edition on the work’s 10th anniversary. The author expresses his hope that the Western church could learn valuable lessons from the missiological methods of the ancient Celtic church (xiv). His subtitle makes the statement “How Christianity Can Reach the West . . . AGAIN.” He makes the claim that Celtic Christianity first had to re-evangelize Western Europe during the early Middle Ages (29). To support this claim he cites the Irish missionary Columbanus who spent the years 600-615 founding monastic communities in what is now modern-day France, Switzerland, and Italy (28). The first portion of the book gives a description of the Celtic way of evangelism while the final two chapters work more toward how the ancient practices could be applied in a postmodern context. In the first chapter Hunter gives a biographical sketch of St. Patrick including his conversion and later commissioning by the Catholic church in Britain to evangelize the Celtic peoples of Ireland. Hunter claims that before Patrick, there was no organized mission to the barbarians because it was thought to be an impossible undertaking (5). If one could not learn to think like a Roman or read Latin like a Roman they were considered “barbarians” and unreachable (7). Patrick was well suited to this impossible task, not the least reason being because of his early imprisonment in Ireland. From this experience he had learned both the language and the culture (8). He also stands out because he did not venture out alone, but took an apostolic team “of priests, seminarians, and laymen and laywomen in (or about) A.D. 432” (3, 9). Moving from tribe-to-tribe, after twenty-eight years Patrick baptized thousands of Celts, 1

2 establishing at least fifty-five churches, and converted thirty to forty of the one-hundred and fifty indigenous tribes (11). If these historical accounts are true it might be right to call Patrick a successful missionary by modern standards. The second chapter invites the reader to go back in time and experience the distinctive nature of the Celtic monasteries that were established as a result of Patrick’s ministry. Hunter shows the contrast between Eastern monasticism and these new monastic communities in Ireland. The major difference being the Celtic communities were formed not to escape from the world, but to “penetrate the pagan world and to extend the Church” (16). Chapter three returns to Celtic church history and chronicles the spread of the gospel to the Picts, Anglo-Saxons, and other barbarian groups. It also answers the question raised by the subtitle of how the Celtic way reached the West for the first time. Within a century after Patrick’s death, Columba would lead a missionary band to the Picts who lived on the island of Iona, located just off the coast of Scotland (25). In 633 the missionary Aidan would leave from the base established in Iona to reach the Anglo-Saxons in Northeast England (25). Hunter makes the case that while Augustine would establish the Roman Catholic church in Southern England, the evangelistic spread of Aidan’s ministry was far superior (27). If this statement is true it would run counter to the traditional explanation given in many church history works which call Augustine, “The Apostle of England” (27). During this same period Columbanus took a group to the European continent, establishing monasteries in the Celtic form wherever they went . Conflict would eventually ensue as the two traditions came into closer contact. Two different synods were called in 664 and 670 which settled the issues in favor of Roman conformity (29-30). Hunter writes that while

3 portions of the distinctive Celtic church continued to exist, the “heroic Celtic era of mission eventually ended, and Christianity’s apostolic mission was negligible for centuries” (33). Hunter does well to include such a detailed historical narrative of the development and spread of the Celtic church. He rightly laments the typical church history survey that would focus on Reformation studies, bypassing the contributions of the Celtic peoples (x-xi). The most significant contribution from chapter four is the inclusion of John Finney’s discussion of the difference between Roman and Celtic forms of evangelism as recounted in his work Recovering the Past: Celtic and Roman Mission. In summary, the Roman model is to present the gospel, invite a decision, and then welcome into the fellowship. Contrast that paradigm with the Celtic form: invite into the fellowship, engage in ministry and conversation, and then call for a decision (43). While there are definite theological discussions that must take place concerning the importance of regenerate church membership, is it possible to help preChristians experience “belonging . . . before they believe?” (44). In chapter five the author discusses the Celtic way of communicating the gospel. Hunter wastes the first eleven pages of this chapter giving the reader a tutorial in communication theories. While it may seem helpful, all of this information is available in other works and appears redundant here. Where he shines, however, is in pages 66-70. It is in this section that he actually describes the Celtic way of evangelism. He makes the case that the Celtic peoples were more “right brained” than their Roman counterparts. Because of this, they used a more imaginative approach to sharing the gospel that utilized the five senses. Instead of using

didactic apologetics, the Celts used story, visual art, and music as their primary medium. While he does not make contemporary application one might not have to make a giant leap to see where the usage of imagination and the senses could be an effective strategy today.

4 Much of chapter six could have been condensed into chapter five as it would more readily fit under the subject of communication. Two examples stood out in this chapter. The first example is the statement that the Celtics were fascinated with the number three, which Patrick used to amplify the discussion of the Trinity (76-77). Hunter goes as far as stating that the emphasis on the Trinity became “the foundational paradigm for Celtic Christianity” (77). The second example revolves around the Celtic emphasis on human sacrifice. Hunter shows that within their indigenous worship the Celts were still performing human sacrifice when Patrick arrived in AD 433 (78). Patrick used this pagan practice to highlight the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. These examples show how certain aspects of the gospel resonated with the Celtic culture. Chapter seven marks a shift in the book where he begins to make contemporary application of the material. I believe he correctly chastises the American church for functionally being consumerist, moralistic, therapeutic Deists (94). His stated cure is a return to the Celtic way of spiritual formation. He makes ten points of application which could be distilled down to five. Spiritual formation should include personal responsibility, Scripture, prayer, an anam cara “soul friend”, and participation in a small group (95-98). The inclusion of the Celtic anam cara is something that would be unique to his applications. In his description this “soul friend” is not someone in authority in the likes of a mentor, guide, or coach, but a fellow sojourner. The closest analogy might be an accountability partner. In this chapter Hunter also offers advice on additional resources in Celtic spirituality that could be helpful. What is even more helpful is his caveat that some authors in this subject area are more interested in the pre-Christian forms of Celtic spirituality (95).

5 In his concluding chapter the author draws a parallel between the “barbarians,” which Patrick and the later Celtic Christians sought to reach with the gospel, and those struggling with drug and alcohol addictions today. At least one of his examples of those practicing the Celtic way seem to push the boundaries of evangelicalism. In highlighting the ministry of Canterbury Chapel the church appears to syncretize Christianity with psychological recovery practices. Canterbury is a self-described “12-step Church for people in recovery from drugs and alcohol, in Vian, OK” led by Rev. Meri Whitaker (http://www.cooksonhillscenter.com/staff.htm accessed February 1, 2011). While the Celtic way as described by Hunter excites the imagination I wonder if he is reading too much of his cultural context and lens onto these ancient peoples. Could the Celtic way occur without the establishment of institutional monasteries, however different in form from both their Eastern and Western counterparts? On a positive note, Hunter writes in an accessible style that would engage church leaders of many different levels. It appears to be well-researched including extensive endnotes as well as an ample bibliography for further research. The author admits his deficiencies in the original languages and his dependence upon English translations (xii). This weakness betrays his lack of experience writing in the church history genre. The difficulty is compounded when he admits the scarcity of surviving written records from the time period covered (14). This admission could make difficult any definitive statements concerning the principles and practices of the Celtic church. A final weakness lies in the length of the work. Though already short in its revised form the author would have been well served to have condensed this book even further, specifically in chapters five and six.

6 The Celtic Way’s greatest contribution, however, is in the area of missiology. Hunter draws some striking correlations between the Celtic cultures and the current Western context. The importance placed on contextualizing the gospel, building relationships, and the importance of spiritual development cannot be understated. For that reason I wholeheartedly recommend this book for any church leader looking for principles and strategies of reaching those within a post-modern context.

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