Evangelism is more about belonging than believing

I just finished reading George Hunter’s The Celtic Way of Evangelism. I’m taking on faith that the author knows what he’s talking about when he talks about Celtic Christianity—because I know very little about it outside of this book!

He argues that Patrick, Columba, Aidan, and their successors were far more successful at evangelizing the Celtic peoples of Ireland, England, and Scotland than those missionaries following the “Roman model.” In general, the Roman model assumes a “one size fits all” way of doing evangelism. It says that people must become “like us” first, before they’re ready to receive the gospel. Consequently, it often ignores large groups of people who don’t look and act the way Christians are supposed to look and act.

The Roman model also places a greater emphasis on reason than relationship. It is more about one-way communication than two way conversation.

Even though the Roman model of evangelism doesn’t work as well as the Celtic model, it still predominates in Western Christianity, be it Protestant or Catholic.

One of the author’s main insights about Celtic evangelism is that belonging precedes believing. In other words, non-Christians are invited to participate in the life of the community. They are given opportunities to explore the faith. They ask questions. They experience authentic Christian people living out their faith. Over time, they discover that they, too, believe the gospel and make public their decision to be a Christian.

The primary task of evangelism, therefore, is help “people to belong so that they can believe.”

I wonder how well Vinebranch’s recent experience with Coffeehouse fits this model. In a small way, wasn’t it an easy and non-threatening opportunity to help people “belong”? It gave outsiders a chance to experience a small measure of Christian love and hospitality. They didn’t have to know anything church etiquette, doctrine, or liturgy in order to enjoy good music, good food, and good coffee. And I think we made everyone feel welcome.

Following the Celtic model, however, we’ll also need to provide further opportunities for these same people to participate in worship, future service projects, or small group activities. Will we do that? Since we didn’t try to gather anyone’s personal information—how do we comfortably do that?—we’ll need our members to invite people back.

We have much to learn, I’m sure, but it’s a start.

George Hunter III, The Celtic Way of Evangelism (Nashville: Abingdon, 2010), 45.

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