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The Celtic Way of Evangelism

February 11, 2009 Length: 20:41

What can we learn from Catholics in Ireland? Fr. Gabriel explains the Celtic way of evangelism, which he believes is directly applicable to the Orthodox Church.

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This is Father Gabriel Rochellel coming to you again from the Mesilla Valley with more musing on mission.

Our National Church mostly follow the Old Calendar but our missions follow the New Calendar because it may be less confusion to people. I myself still love the old calendar for a number of reasons but that’s not why I’m talking about this day anyway. But we are in a Theophany season in the new calendar, the time when we claim the creation for God, through claiming the water, and a time when we go around and do house blessings for those who are in our parish.

And it got me to thinking on a number of levels. Though on the first level I want to say that I’ve never believed that you could talk anybody into anything, or that you should. It goes against my grain…I hope it goes against your grain as well.

Nobody ever really brow beat anyone into the faith. Nobody ever really browbeat anyone into the idea of picking up on a particular philosophy or a particular sense of history…all you can do is open up topics with people and hope that you may somehow trigger an interest within them that over the course of time will lead them to some consonance if you will, with your voice, some cohesion with your way of understanding.

So I’ve never believed you could really talk anybody into the faith and the whole idea of reasoning faith…reasoning faith…what an interesting idea…it doesn’t work in the longhaul because reason is what probably screwed up the Western Church anyway.

I don’t believe with Emmanuel Kant, that you could draw a line between reason and faith, but at the same time I know that the appeal to reason moved faithful people from deep faith to pietism to rationalism and eventually to subjectivism and then eventually to nothing.

Jaroslav Pelikan of blessed memory, fifty years ago, wrote a little book called “From Luther to Kierkegaard” in which he adopted this proposition and demonstrated it historically.

The appeal to reason is an appeal to discern things in such a way that reason becomes the dominant motif of faith and so therefore faith becomes a matter of subjectivity…and so the end result is a kind of religion that you make up yourself, even if it follows the pattern of Christian theology it still misses the sense of mystery or overwhelming that characterizes a Faith that’s born of, and nurtured through experience.

What you come to know in these vehicles like the blessing of homes, like the great blessing of water of Theophany, like the Eucharist, like the Word when it’s truly and properly interpreted in the Eucharistic assembly…what you come to learn through these things is this mystery, this overwhelming, the experience of faith is what reason eventually interprets. Faith is not a mental structure that reason builds. That’s why the participation in Church is so important and so central the true Orthodoxy…which is all about experiencing God via right praising…to use that interpretation of the word “Orthodoxy.”

And so this leads me in turn to say something about a book that has been very influential in my thinking. It’s by George G. Hunter the Third, and it’s called the Celtic Way of Evangelism, subtitle, “how Christianity can reach the West…again.”

This book was published in the year 2000 by Abingdon Press, Tennessee and I’m sure it must still remain in print. Hunter is the dean of the E Stanley Jones School of World Mission and Evangelism, and professor of Evangelism and Church Growth at Asbury Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, a seminary of the Methodist Church.

Hunter’s book is facinating to me because he speaks about the whole notion of that you find in celtic Christianity a building up of communities on three levels: on the level of work, on the level of study, and on the level of worship.

He says that these became islands of peace which attracted people to them. When Christianity first moved again if you will, a second time into Ireland it established its presence on the basis of communities. We think so often of just St Patrick, but St Patrick was never just alone. St Patrick went with a community to re-establish Christianity and on the basis of that people were able to look at it and to see at work, to see how people interacted like in the book of Acts where it says “see these Christians how they love one another” and that became such a hallmark of the early Church faith. And this is love made as an action, it’s not a sentiment, it’s not an emotion, it’s the kind of love that responds to neighbour’s needs, even before perhaps a neighbour has expressed it.

So this is what Celtic evangelism in his broad stroke model is all about. Moving into an area and establishing a community of work, study and worship that will demonstrate Christianity as an island of peace, or to use an old phrase, that I’m sort of still fond of, “Christianity establishes liberated zones.”

Liberated zones. Places where people can come and grieve, and exhale, and be free, and become more fully themselves than they are in the other areas of life which are more restricted and are not liberated.

Hunter speaks about these communities of work, study and worship as addressing what he calls the middle of life, which is to open the heart by way of contemplation, to open up your life through the way of blessing. He mentions in this collections like the Carmina Gadelica, a collection that was made in the 19th century of little praises that people would use to bless their work day, bless their animals, to bless their way through life, to bless their food.

So much of this is lost in our day. You’re lucky if the people in your parish actually will say grace and then return thanks. You know that usually went, what happens is that we shrink down to that and then even that gets lost so that the reclaiming of the creation and the claiming of our everyday lives for God gets lost because we lose this sense of blessing, this sense that what we’re about is asking a blessing from God on the workd we’re about to do. And this is the way of opening the heart, this is the way of opening the heart if you will, through action and there’s also the way of opening the heart through contemplation.

So belonging is central in this understanding of the growth of the Christian mission, belonging and fellowship are primary, out of these emerges ministry. And then lastly in this model people will latch on to what it is you are doing and make a commitment to it .

Hunter is somewhat harsh on the Western Church because he says that “the other way around was the way Western Christianity functioned for so many centuries.” First you had to make the commitment, then you entered into some sort of ministry in the Church, and by that I don’t mean ordained ministry, I mean the ministry that we all carry. And then lastly you develop a sense of belonging or fellowship and what Hunter is saying is we have to invert that paradigm.

It seems to me that to a certain extent Orthodoxy has always inverted the paradigm, we always say to people things like “Come and see,” which has become an absurd cliche I know, but none-the-less it remains true.

We want people to come and experience the faith as we experience it, and over the course of time maybe they might say “well, how do we get involved in your work with soup kitchens or with clothing for the poor or whatever it is that you’re doing,” and then lastly they’ll make that commitment. They’ll cross the chalk line in the Catacomb, repeat the Creed, and become part of the community through Baptism and or Chrismation.

Seems to me that this in an incredibly interesting way of looking at Christianity and I’m glad that Hunter wrote this book because this is something that I’ve been thinking about for a number of years, particularly when I was trying to teach courses in ministry in the Lutheran seminary many years ago.

That it seems to be that the Church is a kind of community of identification, it’s a community of memory, it’s a community of fellowship. And if it’s not that then it just falls down and becomes another institution along side every other institution in society and it has nothing really unique to offer to people, except what is called ‘relgion.’

Hunter goes on in this book to say a few more things and before I call a halt to my own time on this today, I want to say a few things about these, about his other notes. He says that Celtic Christianity perhaps more so than any other form, certainly any other form in the West, used the imagination, used story, used visual arts as a means to entice people, to enchant people, to draw them in, to give them the allure of Christianity. That from the very beginning of the Church in the Celtic lands people were using their imagination, they were imagining God and it’s no secret that the Celtic Church there was a kind of predisposition to the understanding of the Trinity so that when the missionaries did come along and Patrick whether or not he used the shamrock as a model, who knows. That probably itself is a legend that’s meant to inspire us and get our imaginations going, but whether or not he used that, never-the-less there was a kind of predisposition to an understand of God, the Blessed Holy Trinity, so that the Celtic peoples simply absorbed this and expanded their imagination and their story and utilized their visual arts as a means to communicate this one to another and to anyone else who interested who came in from the outside world.

And so there is a kind of sense of which, as Hunter says “this form of Christianity, this approach to mission is always culture friendly, you are always looking for connections in the culture in which you find yourself settled in a mission circumstance and so we’ve begun to look around to see if there is any way in which we can use Spanish and Mexican tilework or textiles as a means of praising God through our congregation. Is there some reason why we can’t find a new mode of iconography that comes closer to in some ways to the work which is done by Indian and Spanish people in this area?

We have a great festival annually, there’s Our Lady of Gaudalupe, who one realizes is not accepted at this point by the Eastern Church but this is an incredible festival of the Blessed Virgin Mary that’s really a key to Hispanic understanding in this part of the world.

Can we some way hook into this and utilize these culture friendly resources in order to get and communicate our own vision of Christianity?

And the last thing that Hunter says in this book that I want to mention is that he’s saying that you have to remember that anywhere you go in this land of our anymore that you’re working with what he calls the new barbarians. These are people who have no memory whatsoever of what it means to be Christian. Who see a Baptismal font and wonder why this large bowl is in the middle of the Church. These are people who don’t know what the word Gospel means or that even that it’s contained in a book. There is very little memory and in fact we’ve turned a corner, there’s alot of hostility now for reasons that are unclear. Well they’re not completly unclear, but they’re for another time in this podcast series.

That we are in a period of animosity against Christianity so we have to work with as he calls it “the new barbarians.”
There’s a new movie out by Bill Maher who I guess is a comedian since I haven’t had a TV for fourteen years I don’t know who he is. But he has a new movie out that is called, and I suppose you pronounce it this way, “religulous.”  The proposition being that relgion and I think all religion in this case not just Christianity is ridiculous, and he sets about to prove this as a kind of documentary.

Well, I ‘ve been invited to come comment on this movie at a local art theatrehouse where it’s going to show for a week and I said certainly I will. That will come up later in the month, but I want to be in a place where people are athiests, I want to be in a place where people are hostile to Christianity, I want the opportunity to try to bend their perception and even if it’s only through seeing me as an ordinary human being who is yet at the same time attempting to be faithful Christian.

So that work with the new barbarians seems to be is really central to what George Hunter is talking about in his book on the Celtic way of evangelism.

I want to finish with a quote from Peter Berger the great sociologist of religion, in his Social Construction of Reality, this is directly from Hunter’s book and is therefore his interpretation of what Berger is speaking about in his Social Construction of Reality.

“There are three major insights that especially validate the Celtic way,” and I would say at the same time especially validates the Orthodox way…

“First, a person’s view of reality is largely shaped and maintained within a community within which one has been socialized,” sounds like the Church to me folks…

“Second, in a pluralistic society the possibility of conversion, that is changing the way one percieves a central reality is opened up through conversations with people who live with a contrasting view of reality, hence the need to engage the new barbarians” to use that term from Hunter.

“And thirdly, one adopts and internalizes the new worldview through resocialization into a community sharing that new world-view.”

It seems to me friends that that is what the task of mission is all about. I stumble around, I confess that I am constantly stumbling around and bouncing off all sorts of things trying to find entries, trying to find ways to engage in this kind of communication with the society in which I find myself. And I’m going to keep doing it because it seems to me that there is something so precious, so important, so central, so radically life-changing in the Christian Faith that it has to be put out there once again in a way that we can engage people who can be come receptive to its message and accept it even as they begin to accept us. And maybe that’s enough for one week to think about.

I encourage the book upon you, George G Hunter III, “The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity can reach the West…again” published by Abingdon Press in 2000. Good stuff, Good words, Good thoughts, and until the next time, God bless you and may you be blessed with the waters of Theophany even as your houses undergo blessing during this great season of the Church year.


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