Vain Hope Or ‘The Irish Way’

As churches sleepily emerge from the Covid-induced shutdown it seems nearly all are happily climbing back onto the down escalator they had been on for decades pre Pandemic. This longstanding downward trajectory has most certainly generally been given a Covid-induced fresh impetus in terms of loss of service attendees and income. The opportunity provided by the forced closing down of the demonstrably missionally ineffective pre-Covid ‘business model’, together with its failed missional strategies, for a rethink seems to have been squandered, with a few admirable exceptions.

However, it is one thing to paint a picture of the problems, which are dire, but another to propose the way forward. Nevertheless, we must ask the question is there another way?

I have frequently bemoaned the fact that in terms of church and mission, churches are in bondage to a ‘Do it as we have always done it’ attitude. By this what is usually meant is how things were done in the 20th century, or at least the latter part of it, that is in the lifetime of most current attenders.

One of the problems with that is that there has actually never been a time when we ‘have done it as we have always done it’. So, here’s a shocking statement, for me anyway! I agree, we do indeed need to go back to ‘how we used to do it’. However, by that I don’t mean go back to the 20th century, or indeed to any of the Christendom centuries. Rather go back much further, to the time of the 5th and 6th centuries’ original mission to what we now call the countries of Western Europe, a time when the land was occupied by a multitude of Pagan tribes. This is now the society into which 21st century Australia (and the West generally) has now descended, as the forces of ‘Identity Politics’ shred the Bible based cultural operating system that previously shaped our society into a mosaic of competing neo-pagan tribes.

It is little more than futile vain hope that any improvement in missional effectiveness can be achieved unless and until the ‘Church’ grasps and acts on the blazingly obvious fact that 21st mission to western society has to be Pagan Mission. Clinging to ‘Church’ structures and missional practices that were developed in, and for, a socio-spiritual culture, namely Christendom where mission was little required, and that is now a completely foreign land in almost every way, is a cause already lost. 

Almost every week I come across some new piece of data relating to ‘Church’ generally or individual ‘churches’ (more so post Covid) that reinforces the reality, denied and/or ignored by most (except by the statistics that is), that-

‘Unpalatable though it may be, and much as many seem to wish to ignore or deny it, the current local church paradigm in the West has not been for over 20 years, is not, nor can it be made to be, capable of achieving trend-reversing missional goals.’

So what is needed?

What is required is, I would propose, to go on a journey to another foreign land beyond that of Christendom, actually back to the future, that is to journey back much further than the Christendom years, to a land ‘where the pagans live’ for some clues as to how we should ‘do mission’. I call this approach ‘The Irish Way’ because the primary exemplar of how to do pagan mission in the western world is Patrick (ironically an Englishman!) who become patron saint of Ireland and whose missional methods to the pagan tribes of the northern British Isles were copied by many missionaries in the centuries that followed him. Patrick’s missional approach resulted in one of the greatest and most fruitful missionary movements in the history of the West.

There are I think three key characteristics of the ‘Irish Way’ highly relevant to our mission to today’s western society.

1.  Teams

One of the most common mission strategies used today by local churches and their leaders is to attempt to train individual congregational members to be ‘lone ranger’ evangelists and then send them out into the community. This is usually coupled with an ‘In-Drag’ mindset, that is the expectation that converts made by the evangelist will be drawn into the normal Sunday services. Not so Patrick! His strategy was to send not individuals, but to send out Teams and plant them in society to live among the pagans, and where they stayed! While theologically these were ‘churches’ they were very small, only a few people, nothing like the common understanding of ‘Church Plants’ of today.

The author John Finney is quoted as saying that the Celts believed in-

the importance of the team. A group of people can think and pray together. They inspire and encourage each other. The single entrepreneur is too easily prey to self-doubt and loss of vision’.

2. Communities

The ‘Irish Way’ was to use communities as vehicles for mission. As George Hunter says-

‘Celtic Christians usually evangelized as a team by relating to the people of a settlement, identifying with the people, engaging in friendship, conversation, ministry, and witness with the goal of raising up a ‘church’ in measurable time’.

Here is a model for us today, that of the Missional Communities needed in our own neo-pagan mission. Such communities are to be-

‘Live Christian communities embedded or constructed in, and for, places where non-Christians already meet on a regular basis, or in which they are comfortable to gather’

3. Visible

The Missional Communities established by Patrick, and those who came after him, lived in the midst of the pagan villages, thus they were observable by the villagers on a regular basis such that they were able to see ‘Live Christian communities’ in action.

Contrast this with today’s churches (and most Church Plants) that generally hide themselves behind walls, mostly in large buildings when they gather, separated and hidden from the lives of those we are commissioned to reach.

As Michael Moynagh asks-

‘How can the congregation represent the gospel to people if it is not present in their daily lives?  How can outsiders understand what communal life with Jesus might mean if they cannot see what is involved?  How easily can evangelistic and other outreach events ‘lead back to the believing community’s if the latter is some distance away?  Church is often invisible to people through the week’[1]

This is the very antithesis of Patrick’s highly successful ‘Go and Stay’ pagan mission strategy.

******

To Summarize-

The ‘Irish Way’ is to send out small teams to establish Christian Fellowships (Missional Communities) in the Pagan communities of the Lost. These meet in Public and Visible places where they can be observed by and build relationships with those around.

This not Rocket Science and has been shown to be very effective in terms of missional fruit in pagan societies such as the one into which the West has descended.

And there is a very large bonus! The ‘Irish Way’ is very cheap. This unlike the large, inflexible, generally missionally ineffective, very expensive and simply unaffordable, Christendom model edifices still being built.


[1] ‘Being Church/Doing Life’ M. Moynagh p.35

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