Updated: Sep 4, 2020
For many years I have been a member of the Community of Aidan and Hilda, a Celtic Christian dispersed community, it could be called a new monastic expression of the church. I have been fascinated by the history of the Celtic Church in the UK (Aidan came to Holy Island in Northumbria in AD635) and for about the last fifteen years I have studied it in detail. My interest originally began when I first learned about their missional approach to a resistant Anglo-Saxon pagan culture and how they were able with wisdom and sensitivity to win them over to Christ in a way that connected both with the nobility and the ordinary person.
Their approach was community minded and incarnational (they lived out their faith among the people). They were famously hospitable, prayerful, hard working, practiced healing (both in spirit and body), had a high value for scripture and study, loved creation, and encouraged a rhythm of life that placed God at the centre of all they did (adopting patterns of prayer, work, rest and recreation).
They were also strongly team based (Columba arrived on Iona with a group of twelve, following the example of the 12 disciples of Jesus), recognising the gifts we all have and having a discipleship structure in place to help everyone grow in Christ. They were holistic in their approach, nurturing spirit, soul and body.
When they first arrived in a location they did not plant churches and encourage people to attend, they planted communities of disciples who lived out their faith in the presence of the people. It was how they followed Christ and how they lived that drew others to follow their example. They created disciples of Jesus rather than consumers of a certain church style. Self reflection, commitment to spiritual disciplines, openness to the Spirit were all a normal part of what it meant to be a part of their community. This lifestyle of faith and spiritual practice came from their imitation of the Desert Fathers and Mothers in Egypt who were called 'athletes of the Spirit.' Rather than put people off, this example of lived out faith, their integrity and genuine power of prayer in the Spirit, caused whole regions to accept the message of Christ.
They did this with humility. Aidan is famous for accepting the gift of a horse from King Oswin who thought it would help Aidan get around more quickly in his attempt to visit the villages around Bamburgh with the good news of Jesus. However a king's horse spoke of status and wealth, it set Aidan above the common man. The saddle alone was worth a lot of money. Aidan gave the horse away to a poor man and continued on foot. He wanted to look people in the eye, face to face. He wanted the people to meet the Son of Man as well as the Son of God, that is, the Jesus of the people as well as the One seated in heaven. Aidan wanted to connect with people at their level, with his feet firmly on the ground, showing genuine interest in their lives and concerns.
Aidan's goal was to reach local people and raise up local communities of faith. His model came from Columba who set up around 300 communities in his lifetime raising indigenous leaders to reproduce the mission which in turn spread out across Scotland, and in Aidan's case, across Northumbria and beyond.
What does this mean for evangelism in the 21st century? My view is that the Celtic Church can teach us a lot about how to communicate and incarnate the gospel to a culture that is far from Christianity. The church is often perceived as institutional and disconnected but the Celts were rooted and grounded in the community, working the land, meeting needs, living out a faith worth imitating.
Could evangelists model their approach on the Celtic Church? Yes, but only if it is team based, committed to community, and they are plugged into patterns of spiritual disciplines and growth. It means our message has to be more than a gospel presentation but a lifestyle presentation. A life that looks like the gospel, its highs and lows, its glory and its suffering. For that to be possible, the people have to be able to see our lives, know how we are in good times and bad, see our dependency on God.
I am convinced that if we are going to reach a post Christian culture, adopting a more Celtic approach is a powerful option. Of course we have to make it contextual and relevant for our own culture but the principles and practices are still applicable.
I would love your feedback and thoughts on this.