Patrick of Ireland is one of my heroes of the history of Christian missions. He was a man that was more than the myth surrounding him. Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day has become a tradition in our culture and in other cultures which is an excuse for partying, drinking green beer, and having parades. Like the way we celebrate Christmas, the celebration has gone far afield of the person we celebrate. Patrick was a real person with a real missionary burden for Ireland and we should remember him for more than shamrocks and snakes. Missionaries can study his methods of evangelization and missions and learn from them, putting some of them into practice in our evangelization, missions, and church-planting efforts. The aim of this article is to help us do just that, focusing on a few highlights of Patrick’s ministry in Ireland.
Perfect Love Casts out Fear
These words written by the apostle John in his first epistle were evident in the life of Patrick. Patrick was captured at about age sixteen by a group of Irish pirates in southern Britain and carried to Ireland as a slave. Of that time, Patrick says in his Confessions that he was carried into Ireland as an unbeliever, “and there the Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief, in order that, even so late, I might remember my transgressions and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my insignificance and pitied my youth and ignorance. And he watched over me before I knew him, and before I learned sense or even distinguished between good and evil, and he protected me, and consoled me as a father would his son.” (The Confessions of Saint Patrick, 2).
After he miraculously escaped from his captivity and returned to Britain, Patrick’s love for the Savior and for the people of Ireland compelled him to return in later years. In a dream, he read a letter which began “The Voice of the Irish,” which compelled him to return saying, “We beg you, holy youth, that you shall come and shall walk again among us.” Any missionary understands the anxiety that accompanies answering the call. Any God-called missionary also understands the perfect love which overcomes that fear.
The Gospel Contextualized
Patrick preached the gospel in a way that the Celts in Ireland could understand it and receive it without changing the essence of the message of the gospel. The gospel was shared in their native language in a way that addressed their hearts and touched their lives. He knew and loved the people of Ireland and his love for them attracted them to the Savior. This is in large part the cause of the effectiveness of Patrick’s evangelism. The Holy Spirit used Patrick’s love of the people of Ireland and his efforts to reach their hearts to call many to salvation. Effective missionaries are always going to be praying for ways to reach the hearts and minds of their target culture with the life-changing gospel.
Church in the Community
As Patrick did church planting, he focused on community. He and those who worked with him would evangelize Celtic areas of his day and establish churches set in communities, at the same time establishing lay leadership among those who were converted. The churches Patrick planted were heavily connected with the community in which they were found. This is largely a result of the effective evangelism of each community that took place. As missionaries plant churches or lead churches where they live, the goal should always be to establish churches that are well connected to the community where they are planted and are impacting those communities with the gospel. Missionaries should also seek to develop and equip local leadership as quickly as possible.
Casting the Vision of Missions
Patrick also focused his efforts on mentoring other church planters and missionaries under his influence. Some of those who followed in Patrick’s footsteps included Aidan, Boniface, and Columbanus. These later followers of Patrick’s methods took the gospel to other parts of Britain to pagan groups like the Picts and Anglo-Saxons and beyond. God uses faithful missionaries, using effective missionary practices, to call other missionaries into the field and to replicate those God-blessed methods.
There are many aspects of the ministry of Patrick of Ireland that can be drawn upon to learn effective missionary methods. This article has covered a few of them. To learn more about Patrick’s missionary methods, I would direct you to The Confession of Saint Patrick and The Celtic Way of Evangelism by George Hunter (Abingdon, 2000).