Today we celebrate my hero.
Saint Patrick is one of my heroes when it comes to assimilation.
He lived in the British Isles in the late fourth century and early fifth century, at a time when the church had already begun its descent into bureaucracy and institutionalism. As a de-churched grandson of a deacon, he led the wild life of a teenager without a personal faith in God at all.
Ireland was a wild island to the north of his ancestral home, filled with warlord tribes and with an economy that benefited greatly from human trafficking. Patrick became the victim of one tribe's raid in Britain when he was captured at age 16 and sold as a slave in Ireland.
For six years he served an abusive master, contemplating ending his own life. He also contemplated God- the same God he had heard about as he grew up in a wealthy family in post-Roman Britain. Eventually, he decided to trust Christ and give himself over to serving over time, he was afforded a dangerous opportunity to escape captivity...and he took it.
Arriving at home, he shocked his family with his survival. As he studied the Scriptures, he grew to sense a calling to take the knowledge of Christ to the place that he had been held captive .
This is how he became the self-appointed first missionary to the Celts in Ireland.
He brought with him an entourage for self protection. Upon disembarking he headed first to his masters house, hoping to bring Jesus' message along with a proclamation of his own forgiveness to him first. Possibly being an influential man, his master may have been a strategic place to start.
But when his master saw him and his entourage coming, he locked himself in the house and burnt it down fearing Patrick's retribution. When Patrick arrived at the burning house, he fell on his knees and wept for the loss of an opportunity to extend grace to this man.
God used this tragedy to start something new in the heart of this man: something that would become a movement spreading all over northwestern Europe for the next two centuries known today as the Celtic movement. This movement would turn the order the order of how people were assimilated in Patrick's time on its head.
At this time in history, the church in the fourth and fifth centuries operated like many churches in Europe and North America do today, assimilating people in this sequence:
- Believe (sign off our on creed and beliefs)
- Become (live according to our values)
- Belong (then you are "one of us" and can be treated as such)
This feature of institutional Christianity is one that should be familiar to us as participants in government and other organizations and clubs. It works like this: believe what we believe, become what we've become, and then you will belong. If you don't believe what we believe, act like we act, and look like we look, then you are not one of us.
On a tactical level it meant that to advance the Kingdom, you must start a church by preaching, baptizing your converts, having them renounce their past sinful ways, then they can become a member in good standing of The Church.
Here's what I find astounding about Patrick. In warlord riddled Ireland, he completely ignored the "believe become belong" sequence of assimilation. He instead formed monastic communities. Anyone who felt the need to be a part of such a community could belong to it as long as they worked the land with Patrick and the other spiritual leaders. They didn't have to believe what Patrick believed, just work their fair share to bring food and provisions from the land.
Chapels were built for the spiritual leaders to worship, but this was not a requirement for anyone outside the leadership. As members of these new communities began experiencing what it meant to belong and saw what their lives were becoming in contrast to those outside the community they would organically begin to join the leaders in worship and study. In other words, because they belonged first, their lives became different...and so they believed.
When people belong first, their lives become different: and then they believe
This new way of thinking (though it was Jesus' way from the beginning) began working its way through the tribal culture of the Celts in Ireland in the fourth and fifth centuries. They belonged first, became something different as a result, and so they believed. The movement spread all over Western Europe for the next two centuries until the institutional church squashed it because it's followers were not adhering to certain celebrations such as observing Easter on the same Sunday as the rest of the church, but not before leaving marks on our faith today through Patricks prayers (the Breastplate), hymns (Be Thou My Vision).
So what can we learn on Saint Patrick's day from Patrick and the Celtic movement that God birth through him?
- We can learn that it all begins with belonging. We have to not make membership a reward for good behavior and good beliefs. It's something that God does when you add somebody to the church (Acts 2:47). God adds. We can only recognize it when it happens.
- We can learn that belonging can happen when people walk through your door. A guest should feel no less like they belong then if they had attended the church for 10 years and served on the board.
Just like a baby receives special favor and attention before it has done or believed anything, a person whom the Spirit of God is drawing to himself and his body through circumstance,s spiritual longing, brokenness, intellectual interest, or even just the invitation of a friend, Is someone who belongs to God just like we do. We may not understand their place in the story yet. But just like a baby does in a family, they belong anyway.
This notion of belonging first, becoming something new in a loving environment, leads to believing in the one who made it all so. To allow this organic, God created experience to have its full expression, we have to remove the complexity and the controls that keep assimilation from happening in our churches.
Thank you Patrick. No green beer for me today. This is more than enough.
(Use the questions below to process this with your team, and consider Saint Patrick of Ireland: A Biography, by Philip Freeman and The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West Again by George G. Hunter III as resources for more in-depth thinking on this assimilation paradigm).
- What are you inspired by most from Patrick's story?
- Have you ever been a part of a community that invited you to belong first? How did that impact your development as a person or Christ Follower?
- Have you ever been a part of a community that would not allow you to belong until you believed and became a different person than you were? How did that impact your development as a person or Christ Follower?
- What is one thing you could change about your church and its assimilation process to make guests feel like they belonged in God's family?