Patrick's Way of Evangelism

As a young man in a fundamentalist Bible college I was exposed to a practice that perhaps can best be described as “hit-and-run evangelism.” The idea was to secure a profession of faith anyway you could.

The technique did not require you to know anything about the person you were talking to. All you needed was the Romans Road or the Four Spiritual Laws or the Wordless Book of Colors and a truckload of self-confidence that broke all the rules of human communication.

Practicing this form of evangelism could be challenging for an adolescent who was still adjusting to the number of zits popping out on his face. So, you could be talking to someone about the Beatles’ White Album or math homework or Joe Namath and the Jets when you popped the question, “By the way, if you died tonight do you know where you would spend eternity?”

The great models of this sort of evangelism were pastors and evangelists who shared their own stories of winning people to Christ by crawling under automobiles with unsuspecting mechanics to get them to agree with each point of the Romans Road. All you needed to do was get the person to “pray this prayer after me”—right now, right here, and be saved. This method was as easy as one, two, three, and then repeat after me.

When I became a Presbyterian roughly two decades ago, it soon became obvious to me that this “hit-and-run” style of evangelism had some poor theology undergirding it—primarily Arminian presuppositions.

Besides being theologically suspect, this model of evangelism was also thoroughly modern because it assumed there was a particular “technique” that could be executed with guaranteed results. The Industrial Revolution and the Scientific Method taught us that if you just used the right method or formula it would produce a desired outcome because it was systematic and repeatable.

In his book, The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West Again, George Hunter says that for a thousand years no outside religion had penetrated Ireland. The Romans regarded the Irish as barbarians because they were illiterate, ill-disciplined, and practiced human sacrifice. Ireland consisted of numerous tribes ruled by kings and Druids.

The Irish, or the Celts, as they were known, were also fierce warriors. They stripped for battle and rushed their enemy naked with swords and shields screaming, some said, as possessed demons. Just as the Pharisees regarded tax collectors as unclean sinners the Romans saw the Irish as deplorable people.

Even after Christianity became a recognized religion in the Roman Empire there was still great reluctance to evangelize this isolated island of about half-a-million souls; that is, until Patrick.

Patrick of Ireland’s way of evangelism was entirely different than what I was taught in Bible college. He did not possess a “technique” but a way of life. His “way” was modeled after Matthew throwing a dinner party for his tax collecting friends (Mark 2:13-17). The Pharisees could not for the life of them understand why Jesus wanted to spend time with deplorable people. They assumed Jesus preferred the company of publicans and sinners. They failed to realized Jesus’ mission as the Great Physician—that he mixed with deplorables not because he approved of their sin, but because he wanted to heal their souls.

Born in Roman colonized Britain during the fifth century Patrick’s father had served as both a deacon and a civic official. However, when Patrick was sixteen he was kidnapped by a raiding band of Irish pirates and sold as a slave to a Celtic tribe. He was held captive for six years until he escaped and made his way back to his homeland.

Patrick later returned to the people who had enslaved him to spread the gospel. He now knew their language and their customs and used his understanding of the Irish in a strategic and organic way.

Patrick did not evangelize Ireland by himself. His way of evangelism was not that a drive-by shooting, but of one community engaging another. He would take a dozen or more people made up of ministers, seminarians, laymen, and laywomen and set up house outside of a pagan village.

Patrick’s band of Christians would meet the people, engage in conversation, teach and preach, answer questions, pray for the sick and the possessed, and even mediate tribal conflicts. Most importantly, they shared meals together. They did this over a period of weeks and months. In other words, they shared their very lives with them.

And what a difference it made. What many of us fail to understand about the evangelizing of the Irish is that it is one of the most remarkable success stories found in church history. Ireland converted to Christianity in a relatively short period of time, and then sent missionaries throughout Europe to spread the gospel.

In his book How the Irish Saved Civilization Thomas Cahill documents how if it were not for the Celtic Christians much of the great heritage of Western Civilization would have been lost during the Dark Ages.

Arthur W. Hunt III is professor of communications at The University of Tennessee in Martin. He is the author of The Vanishing Word: The Veneration of Visual Imagery in the Postmodern World (Crossway, 2003) and Surviving Technopolis: Essays on Finding Balance in Our New Man-made Environments (Pickwick, 2013). Hunt and his wife are members of Covenant Presbyterian Church, Jackson, TN. 

Related Links

"Evangelism: Personalized and Spatially Aware" by Justin Poythress

"A Resolution for the Church" by Zachary Groff

"Affliction Evangelism" by Aaron Denlinger

"Defending Door-to-Door and Open Air Evangelism" by Al Baker

Joyfully Spreading the Word, ed. by Kathleen Nielson & Gloria Furman

Evangelism, ed. by Jeffrey Stivason

Arthur Hunt