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Patrick of Ireland: an evangelical hero

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–It has been said that everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, perhaps reflecting some mysterious urge to wear green on March 17.

St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, laden with mythology and merriment, often have little to do with the historical Patrick, a missionary and early church leader. And while “Irish” revelers overlook the man behind the myth, many Christians also fail to see the importance of Patrick’s ministry.

What are evangelicals to think of Patrick? And what can be learned from his life and ministry?

New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary professors Rex Butler and Jack Allen believe Patrick is worthy of evangelical attention. Approaching him from different disciplines, Butler and Allen see in Patrick methods and heart attitudes beneficial to today’s church.

The title of “Saint” and St. Patrick’s Day activities, unfortunately, have left Patrick with an image problem among evangelicals.

“As Baptists, we need to avoid calling any historical figure by the title of ‘Saint,'” said Butler, associate professor of church history and patristics at NOBTS. “It is clear from the Bible, especially Paul’s letters, that all believers are saints in the sense that we are sanctified and set apart for God.”

The title “Saint,” when used by Catholic and Orthodox churches, is very technical in nature, Butler said. It refers to men and women “who exhibited extraordinary holiness and performed miracles during their lives.” These churches believe that “Saints” can intercede on behalf of people living today.

“Therefore, I refer to the hero of ‘St. Patrick’s Day’ as ‘Patrick of Ireland,'” Butler said.

Patrick was born into a Christian home in Britain, the son and grandson of clergymen. Patrick, though, exhibited only nominal Christian faith in his early years. Scholars are not certain when he was born, but many place his birth around 387 A.D.

The pagan Celtic tribes of Ireland lived in primitive conditions, worshipping nature, living off the land and frequently raiding Britain to steal supplies. In short, the tribes consisted of uncivilized barbarians. During one of their raids on the British Island, Patrick was taken captive and forced into slavery at the age of 16.

After living as a slave for six years, Patrick escaped and returned to Britain. It was during his time in Ireland that Patrick’s faith in Christ began to grow, Butler said. Shortly after returning to Britain, Patrick entered church ministry.

“Patrick’s life is a great example of how God uses adversity to draw us to Himself,” Butler said.

“Over time, he begins to have this deep conviction that God wants him to go back and take the Gospel to these horrible people,” said Allen, assistant professor of church planting at NOBTS. “Patrick voluntarily goes back to Ireland and he sets about trying to convert these pagans.”

For Allen, Patrick demonstrated a number of methods that could be beneficial in reaching 21st-century Western culture, particularly the post-Christian areas of North America.

At the basic level, Patrick’s methods are similar to the current idea of “missional” living in a cross-cultural setting, Allen said. Patrick went on his mission with a “long-haul” mentality and would stay as long as it took to reach a tribe. He and his group lived among the people, learned their habits, sought to fit in without comprise and lived out their faith and ethics among the people. Gradually Patrick was able to share the Gospel.

Patrick did not immediately confront the pagans about sin and overwhelm them with scriptural instruction, Allen said, and he preferred to slowly introduce the Scriptures to develop a “picture of Jesus” and then tell them about repentance.

“Over time … people were converted,” Allen said. “This takes a very long time. It’s slow at first, but these conversions tend to stick.”

Allen believes a similar approach is needed to reach the United States and Canada. He points to the growing number of lost people in cities such as Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Seattle, Portland and even Austin. People in these areas, Allen said, often are highly resistant to the Gospel and traditional evangelistic methods.

“What is getting fantastic results in Toronto and Montreal have been methods that look an awful lot like what Patrick did,” Allen said. “Our missionary goes in, lives among the people and begins to make friends. Over time [the missionary] tries to gather people and teach them who Jesus is.”

Lost North Americans share many common traits with the people Patrick encountered on the Emerald Isle so long ago, Allen said, describing post-Christian North Americans as “neo-pagans” due to their resistance to the Gospel and their commitment to nature.

Reaching the neo-pagans of North America, Allen said, will require costly commitments. Christians must find a way to plant themselves among the lost for long periods of time, and these believers must live out a consistent, vibrant faith. Many of the successful missionaries in these resistant areas are bivocational –- working alongside the people they’re trying to reach.

“We will not see large-scale systemic conversions unless we are willing to give this; in all honesty, we probably have to give it a decade,” Allen said. “We not only have to help people find Christ, we have to give them the tools to walk with Christ.”

For Butlers from a church historian’s perspective, Patrick’s ministry and mission methods reflect two distinct heart attitudes vital to the Christian life — forgiveness and perseverance.

“Despite the suffering he had endured in Ireland, Patrick was willing to forgive those who had held him captive,” Butler said. “He returned to evangelize Ireland.”

Forgiveness and the call of God landed Patrick in Ireland. But it was a rugged perseverance that kept him there for the long term, Butler said.

Patrick was not the first missionary to Ireland, Butler noted. Thirty years before Patrick launched his mission, a man named Palladius was commissioned as a missionary to the Emerald Isle, but Palladius soon became discouraged and moved on to Scotland.

“Patrick, however, persevered in his mission, preached the Gospel throughout Ireland … and established churches and monasteries,” Butler said. “Furthermore, the Irish Christians, following Patrick’s example, left their homeland to spread the Gospel in Scotland, Britain and Europe.”
Gary Myers is director of public relations at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. For more information on Patrick’s methods, NOBTS faculty member Jack Allen recommends “The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West … Again” by George G. Hunter III.