The Celtic Way – Our Missional Future?

There is a general assumption (even if subconscious) among members of western churches that the way ‘Church’ is done is the way it has always been done, and so should continue to be done. This is one of the reasons for the change-averse and risk-averse thinking that binds the contemporary western church. This bondage also applies to missional thinking as is once again demonstrated by the many upcoming Christmas ‘outreach’ activities being planned by many of the churches I am aware of. A quick scan of these offerings reveals that they are not substantively different from those that were standard practice in the 1990s, while over those two decades church attendance and missional fruit have both shown marked and ongoing decline. Go figure!

So we yet again see another year drift by and churches sleepwalk through Christmas into a new year where nothing changes and the same tired, failed, largely fruitless (but often resource-heavy) missional efforts once more prove the old adage that –

          ‘If you keep on doing what you have been doing,

you will keep on getting what you have been getting’­

And what we ‘have been getting’ is chronic missional failure.

One of the major reasons for this is the ‘general assumption’ described above. This assumption is actually completely false. In fact, the way church and mission were done in New Testament times, were done for centuries in the western world, and are still done today in large non-western areas of the globe, were and are markedly different to what we see in 21st century western churches. So what would be a better way forward?


In order to successfully meet the mounting missional challenge, which has serious implications for western societies in general, it is now beyond argument that a tectonic shift in missional thinking is now required. This is not only because of the longstanding missional failure but also because there has been a tectonic cultural shift in western society, a shift to which church leaderships appear to be chronically blind. It is in this area of culturally appropriate mission that the northern European Celtic missional movements of the 5th and 6th centuries can be usefully explored.

One particular example of Celtic mission from which the modern ‘Church’ (I use the word in the broad sense) can learn a great deal, is the mission of St Patrick in the 5th century AD. Patrick’s missionary efforts were largely to Ireland (although he was in fact English), but the effect of them was far wider than that for he inspired the great Celtic missional movement across the British isles in the following centuries led by such people as Columba or Columbkille. It is important to note that the missional mind-set of the Celts was entirely different to that of contemporary western churches today.

Several principles adopted by Patrick and the subsequent Celtic mission to a pagan, spiritually pluralistic society with much in common with ours, can, and in fact should, be applied to our mission to Western society. Here are five that have (or should have) high relevance to formulating our missional strategies.

Mission is a Team Activity. The first point to be learned from the Celts is that Mission was a ‘team’ activity done by groups working together, they did not generally engage in ‘one to one’ evangelism or use individual evangelists working alone.

Mission is Centrifugal. That is, it is essentially an outward activity, not the ‘bringing people in’ (to our churches) characteristic of the missional activities of western churches. Mission means ‘Going and Staying’. Celtic Missional Teams went out and embedded themselves in and stayed in the ‘Live, Work and Play’ pagan communities with the intention of making disciples. This did not involve attempts to attract and draw the non-Christians into formal religious services at another location as is still mostly the (failed and failing) strategy of western churches.    

Mission involves Word and Deed. The Celtic Missionary groups didn’t just proclaim the Gospel with words but engaged in the lives of the non-Christian communities by modelling Christ, providing support and service (i.e God’s love) as opportunities presented themselves, so they were‘Looked on with favour’ (Acts 2:47). Indeed the historian the Venerable Bede comments on Columba that he ”converted the nation to the faith of Christ by his preaching and example”.

Mission requires Time (a great deal of it). The essential resource needed for effective Gospel engagement with the lost through participation in a missional community, is a large investment of TIME. This is because essential to fruitful 21st century mission is the building of relationships which is a slow process. Yet Time devoted to mission is the very thing that the vast majority of church members, who generally can’t even maintain a minimalistic weekly church attendance, are simply not prepared to give.

Mission is about Community.  As Winfield Bevins has written, “The Celtic Christians understood that mission takes place within the context of the Christian Community  . . . . . . . (and) they entered into the community they were trying to reach. This is contrary to the way most modern Christians try to reach people. They went to where the people were, we usually expect people to come to us.’ . (Author’s emphasis).

And here is the Key Issue. Unless and until the western church actually grasps the fact, now evidenced for several decades, that trying to attract (drag) those we wish to reach into our culturally alien churches (generally by one-off ‘events’ e.g. most of the current Christmas offerings, or short duration mission activities), is a failed and failing strategy, then the mission is doomed to ever deepening failure. This failure is guaranteed to continue until and unless the church decides to make the radical mind-set shift to a Celtic style ‘Go and Stay’ in the ‘Live, Work and Play’ micro-cultures where the pagans live.

This now a Crisis, indeed an existential Crisis, one that has been looming for decades, and which the statistics make absolutely crystal clear. There is simply no valid biblical, theological or practical argument that the church has to keep on doing what it has been doing and there is every argument for ‘Something Completely Different’ as implementation of something like the ‘Celtic way’ would achieve..

However, to implement this requires a complete, indeed tectonic mind-set shift by those who wish to prosecute 21st century mission. Tragically, the ‘Christmas offerings’ mentioned above indicate that such a mind-shift is a faint hope. This is to a large extent because, as Eric Hatfield has written in an article titled ‘A Lead Role in a Cage’, today’s church leaders generally operate in a cage of their congregation’s, their own, and/or their denomination’s construction which severely limits the possibility of any significant Kingdom fruit. Given the statistics re church decline and failed mission, it beggars belief that this ‘Leadership Cage’ is the case, but the dismal reality is that it is.

As we move towards the Gate of entry into 2020 the Crisis deepens unabated largely because of the frozen thinking in regard to mission, and the resulting ‘way past use by date’ missional strategies. If we are not to ‘keep on getting what we have been getting’ then our prayer must be that God will be gracious and that he will open eyes to the need for ‘Something Completely Different’ (which see). It may just be that the adoption of the missional Principles of the ’Celtic Way’ for pagan mission in a pluralistic culture like ours might be the way to a more fruitful missional future, such that many more of the Lost will be brought to Christ. To God’s glory.

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