Back to the Celts for Our Future

In 563 AD an Irish prince set out with a bunch of friends in small coracles to cross the Irish Sea to the wild west coast and islands of what now is Scotland. The purpose of the dangerous journey was mission, to take the gospel to the fierce pagan tribes of Scotland. He and his companions set up a base on the small island of Iona, and from there over the next 35 years developed a missional network. His name was Columba.

As we struggle in the mission of the gospel to the pagan tribes of our own 21st century society, we do well to reacquaint ourselves with the mission of Columba, for to do so is to go back to the Celtic past to find clues for our own missional future.

The mission strategies and methods of Columba give the lie to our so often frozen imaginations and assumptions that how we do church and local mission is the way it has always been done and must be done. For Columba’s methods, and the resulting establishment of Christianity in the pagan world of Scotland and northern England, bear almost no resemblance to ours.

Columba’s strategy was to send out small groups who established huts among their pagan neighbours. They then sought to attract people to the gospel by their way of life, by their care for all, and by the preaching and practice of their faith. Indeed there are parallels between the way they practiced the Christian faith and the description of first church Jerusalem we see in Acts 2:42-47.

So what clues for our own mission can be gleaned from Columba?

  • Columba’s context was to do mission to ‘pagan tribes’. That is our context and challenge also but the contemporary church (Australian Anglican anyway) appears to find this fact hard to grasp.
  • The Celtic mission strategy was not to try to ‘drag’ pagans into sizeable ‘church’ centres but to embed small missional faith communities within the pagan society.
  • These communities were regularly observable by local people who could see how Christian communities operated, and also this provided opportunities for engagement, showing God’s love and sharing the gospel.
  • Columba’s communities were mobile and would move according to the dictates of the mission. Something our generally building-centric models are certainly not.
  • The setting up of such missional communities was difficult and required sacrificial commitment.

The Celtic Christians developed one of the great and most effective missional movements in church history. If we are prepared to open our minds and explore their methods for ‘Pagan Mission’ they may helpfully contribute to our missional challenges in 21st century western society.

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