In the Roman form of evangelism, an individual is presented with a logical argument, asked to believe, and is then required to learn the behaviors of the existing church before s/he is accepted as a member, before belonging. The strategy sidesteps relationship and, unfortunately, has been the predominant form of evangelizing for centuries. The Celtic way of evangelism, on the other hand, values community and relationship. It is through belonging and practiced behaviors that individuals begin to believe. The church today has much to learn from the Celtic model, as this paper will attest to through my personal experience as well as contrasting examples of mission organizations.
The church in which I grew up operated in the Roman way. The logical argument was largely concerned with the afterlife, the presentation based on Pascal’s wager: whether or not there is a God, if you believe in Him, you come out on top at death. But if you don’t believe, you risk that God exists and will condemn you to Hell for the remainder of linear time. Belief was to be professed before an individual was permitted to take part in behaviors such as Communion, before an individual truly belonged in the community. For many, this type of church has its appeal: it requires simply a statement and a tithe, without any need for actually living as though God exists.
I left the church as a young adult, or perhaps the church left me. It wasn’t until college that I was casually invited to another. I declined at first, but eventually started listening to the podcast, then attending sporadically. It was when I joined a small group that I really began to transform. I felt I belonged with this group, which led to a change in behavior (going to church every Sunday; prayer, kindness, and honesty; participation in Communion), which formed beliefs. My involvement in the church community escalated at that point: I led small groups for young adults and mentored girls in the youth program. I became the evangelizer, but had adopted the Celtic model from the church. I was already friends with many un- or ex-churched individuals and began to regularly invite them to come to church and/or Sunday brunch. Humans really are natural evangelizers, when we find something life-giving we just want to share it with everyone we love. When friends came to both service and brunch, the meal was an opportunity to connect the teaching to their lives. Often, nonbelievers already have Christ and it’s a matter of pointing him out in their lives. Other times, they have problems that are addressed by Christ and our God, it’s a matter of making the connection. Those who hadn’t come to the service easily noticed the difference it made in all areas of our lives.
American interaction with other countries through mission trips have much to learn from the Celtic model. Today there are multiple medical missions that know the level of care they provide is insufficient—one visit and one bottle of pills isn’t going to help anyone they see—but they use it as a lure so that their volunteers may present the “gospel” and convince as many individuals as possible to pray the prayer. They believe themselves to be aligned with the Celtic practice of giving away information and medicine for the purpose of loving neighbor, but they miss the mark in that for these organizations, such charity is only a means to an end. That’s not good news, and it sends conflicting messages about who God is and what the church is about.
On the other hand, there are also medical organizations who function with a Celtic model. I’ve traveled twice with First-Hand Aid from Grand Rapids, Michigan, to Havana, Cuba, working as a translator. The same man, Marc, has been running this organization for over a decade, establishing medical programs in the same hospitals and communities, and working with many of the same people throughout that time. Although the organization isn’t Christian, Marc is, and the relationship and trust he has established with many individuals has opened the door to conversations about what it means for him to follow Christ and who his God is. In a culture where religion is at best a joke, Marc has loved people in such a way that they can’t help but be intrigued about his God.
God’s command was to love one another, and Jesus reaffirmed it as the second most important to follow. Presenting logic arguments, pressuring for conversion, or using medical care as a trap to get a prayer from a non-Christian are not ways to love another. Love requires relationship, trust, community, the mess of interaction and knowing one another. As George Hunter reminds us, “There is no shortcut to understanding the people.”
This piece was originally written as an assignment for Celtic Spirituality with Tom Cashman. Students were asked to write on a way that Celtic values are applicable today using personal examples.