The Preacher's Toolbox: The Celtic Way of Proclamation

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Underlying the particular strategies of these missionaries was a more fundamental approach to proclamation, one contemporary preachers need to reclaim.

St. Patrick did not just make famous three-leaf clovers, green beer, and a classic Lutheran Satire video. He also launched a missionary movement to the Celtic people which continues to bear fruit more than a millennium later. At the heart of this movement, for Patrick as well as its other leaders, was the distinct approach it took to communicating the Gospel.

In his book, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, author George Hunter draws out the relevance mission work in fifth-century Ireland has for twenty-first century America. Patrick was bringing the good news to people regarded by Rome as barbarians. The Irish were emotive and intuitive, with a wild and earthy spiritualism, who had practically no knowledge of the Bible, much less theology. They were seemingly unreachable.

Today, we are faced with what Hunter calls “new barbarians.” He means it descriptively, not pejoratively. Familiarity with the faith is on the wane, and biblical literacy has eroded. Postmodern people are much more open to supernatural realities than their Enlightenment forebears, but not in any recognizably orthodox sense. Contemporary unbelievers, especially among younger generations, are seemingly unreachable.

All the more reason, then, for us to hearken to the wisdom of the intrepid missionaries who managed to convey the Gospel in a similarly inhospitable culture. With creativity and verve (as well as verse), Patrick, Columba, Aidan, and others translated the good news in such a way that it gained a hearing where many believed no such hearing could be had. They employed techniques like the imaginative retelling of biblical stories and the use of symbolic and concrete images to convey abstract ideas. However, underlying their particular strategies was a more fundamental approach to proclamation, one contemporary preachers need to reclaim.

They employed techniques like the imaginative retelling of biblical stories and the use of symbolic and concrete images to convey abstract ideas.

The Excluded Middle

Drawing on a seminal essay from anthropologist Paul Hiebert, entitled “The Flaw of the Excluded Middle,” Hunter explains how human cultures live at three levels. The bottom-level accounts for the basic skills and knowledge of human subsistence. In the ancient world, this meant things like how to plant a crop, clean a fish, or build a fire. In contemporary context we might add things like getting (and keeping) a job, using a computer, or the loose collection of skills which used to be called home economics.

The top-level deals with ultimate concerns: The realms of the sacred and transcendent. Then as now, this includes the big questions of identity, security, and meaning; where we have come from and where we are going. The top level comprises the topics customarily covered by religion and theology.

Finally, the middle-level includes anxiety about the near future, apprehension about the present, and uncertainty about the past. The middle level addresses issues such as strained relationships, trouble at work, or making tough decisions. According to the anthropologist Hiebert, it is with this middle level that people, including Christians, will turn to folk remedies, superstitions, and rituals.

Hunter notes that churches in the West have typically focused their efforts and energies on the top-level, and understandably so. God is in the business of claiming His creatures for Himself, conforming them to the likeness of His Son, and finally renewing them and all creation. If those are not top-level matters, I do not know what is! “The problem,” writes Hunter, “is that Western Christianity usually ignores this middle level that drives many people’s lives much of the time.” As a result, we end up with what Hunter calls “split-level Christianity,” in which people attend church on Sunday to ensure their place in the afterlife but attend to the horoscopes on Monday to make sense of their present life.

The early Celtic Christians did not need to read the horoscopes. “Their Christian faith and community addressed life as a whole,” Hunter writes, “and may have addressed the middle level as specifically, comprehensively, and powerfully as any Christian movement ever has.” Patrick and company did not dilute the message of the Gospel. To the contrary, they went deeper into it, proclaiming how Christ was present and active with people as they coped with poverty, enemies, evil forces, and the vulnerabilities of mortal life. By meeting people in the middle-level worries which tended to occupy their lives (and, indeed, even at the bottom-level ones) early Irish preachers demonstrated how “in Christ all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17).

Preachers today would do well to follow the Celts example. Too many churches have seemingly ceded the middle ground to pop-spirituality, self-help books, and social media influencers. To reclaim that middle ground, though, we need not relinquish top-level matters such as justification, forgiveness, or eternal life. We must simply connect the dots between the vital truths of faith and the quotidian realities of life. Show how Jesus invades every aspect of existence.

Bringing Down the Goods

Patrick himself was not especially eloquent. As Thomas Cahill writes, “Patrick’s whole life [was] shadowed by his ignorance of Latin style, and his consequent inability to communicate with distinguished men on their own level.” Yet, just as He had with those “unlettered, common” apostles, Peter and John, God used Patrick to proclaim the Gospel to ordinary people.

This continues to be the privilege of the preacher. Like big brothers helping in the kitchen, we reach up to the top level, where the really delectable stuff is shelved, the goods of forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. Then, we get to bring down the goods to the level where people live, where they can be nourished by the Bread of Life. It is even better than a green Guinness.