Civilizing and Christianizing

I've finally picked up George Hunter's The Celtic Way of Evangelism. I've been hearing about the book for years and finally have both the time and a copy.

The book examines the Celtic practice of communal evangelism.

The story starts with Patrick, a young Briton who was kidnapped by Celtic pirates and enslaved for the better part of his youth. After escaping from slavery, a series of twist and turns lead Patrick into the priesthood and back to Ireland.

Patrick, more easily recognized as St. Patrick, was what Hunter calls "history's first missionary bishop." Patrick returned to Ireland with a small contingent of priests, seminarians and women to plant and build churches among "the barbarians."

This idea of "barbarians" is quite challenging. The barbarians were contrasted to the Romans. To be a barbarian is to be non-Roman. And since Christianity was the Roman religion, the church at the time of Patrick assumed that "Christianizing" and "civilizing" went hand in hand.

In fact, many assumed that a people group had to start becoming more civilized before God's gospel could make any progress with them. In other words, barbarians cannot become Christians until they become more Roman.

That's an easy idea to scoff at. It echoes the practices of the church in the 60's, where older Christians refused to let people come to their churches until the guys cut their hair, the girls grew their hair out and everyone dressed up. We would never do that, right?

I wonder who our community considers barbarians. Who would have to "clean up their act" before they could participate in our community? How much of the cleaning up of the act is an actual pursuit of Christian discipleship and how much of it is really just adjusting to fit into our "Christian" subculture?

I also wonder about the effect this dynamic has on our understanding of discipleship. When someone first becomes a Christian, what do we do? Do we help them develop a deeper relationship with God or do we start trying to "civilize" them?

I find it very challenging that, when Paul talks to new Christians and the churches he takes care of, he talks much more about multi-ethnicity, evangelism and the church than he does about anything approximating a daily Quiet Time. And sure, he talks about avoiding drunkenness and pursuing sexual purity, but those conversations take a back seat to his teaching on prayer, evangelism and remaining faithful in the face of suffering. Why don't my priorities match his?

I think that, while I resist the impulse to "civilize" people before I'll share the gospel with them, my instincts are to rapidly assimilate people into the "Christian" subculture.

[I put the quotes around the word 'Christian' because not everything in our subculture is essentially Christian. This thought clicked for me the first time I heard the FIF song "Oh Canada"]

I have a hunch that our communal witness would be more effective if we were able to separate "civilizing" and "Christianizing".

That's part of the Celtic Way of evangelism.


  1. Sounds like a great book.

    You mentioned Christians not being ready to welcome others into our "subculture." I would argue, maybe unsuccessfully, that the culture that pervades in the church is one that has been preserved over generations and is the result of winnowing over centuries. The culture that pervades the church should be (and I would argue that it is) the culture.

    The subcultures are outside of the church. That said, it does seem to me that there is a pretty determined effort in some young, evangelical circles, to belong to yet another subculture, marked by hairdos, piercings and tattoos. I doubt if you see this much in your group, but it is out there. The idea seems to be that the scruffier I look, the freer I am and the more like Jesus. It passes for cool right now, but it is just as much a churchy subculture as the beehive hairdo and accordion look was in the 1960s. It is to "Contemporary Christian" music what leisure suits were to Southern Gospel in the 60s.

  2. Larry, I think you hit a nail on the head, again.

    There is an intense inclination to create or attach to subcultures. Young evangelicalism is not immune to this inclination. I know I'm not. I desperately and at times unhealthily want to belong somewhere.

    I think it might even be impossible for us to be cultureless. The challenge may be to balance the gospel's exclusivity with God's cultural inclusivity.

    That said, I'd probably have to disagree with the notion that the culture that pervades the church is "the culture" and all others are subcultures. From my vantage point (and I could be way out in left field here), it looks like there are real alternative cultures to the culture of the church (broad and winding ways, so to speak). Not all cultures fit under our umbrella (that gospel exclusivity again). And within the culture of God's universal church, I see a ton of diversity (denominations, generations, ethnicities, etc...). It'd be so helpful to have Venn diagrams here, wouldn't it?

    Now, you could have been arguing that all other cultures are sub-cultures, as in "all other cultures fail to live up to and accomplish God's intent in his design for culture." That idea would echo Irenaeus' notion that Christ's life revealed true humanity to us, revealing that we all (in our brokenness) life sub-human lives. If that's what you were going for, I can totally see it. There's a great book that recently came out (Culture Making by Andy Crouch) on this topic.

  3. I'm not nearly that deep on the subject, Steve. Just kind of going on my own observations. I think there is some value and some truth in saying that the culture that pervades the church is "the culture." To show some limited erudition here, let me quote Russell Kirk, who points to the relationship between the words "culture" and "cult." The word cult here is not used in the pejorative sense as "some wild-eyed cult," but in the sense of a worshiping community. Thus, there would be Christian culture, Muslim culture, etc. I think also of the observation of our Lord who said that we are the salt of the earth. The best teacher I ever had told me that one meaning contained in that verse is that we, as Christians, act to preserve what is good in the world, as salt was used to preserve food in Jesus' day. Those ways and ideas that are preserved become the culture. We make culture. The reason I think this is worth thinking about is because I, as a dinosaur, see kids in church who are all about t-shirts and "in your face with Jesus" and feeling themselves in some sense superior to the staid old fogies in the back pews. ("The things they do look awful cold, and I hope I die before I get old.") The old fogies who are still there have often learned a lot of lessons that the young have not. This, of course, was life in the secular world in the 60's, but now it is being repeated - in not nearly as creative a way, I'm afraid - in the church.
    You're right, of course, that there is great diversity among churches. But, at the heart of matters, whether you are in a Catholic or Orthodox or Pentecostal service, if it is a true service, there are recognizable constants - humility, chastity, repentance, wonder, honesty, compassion, hope, respect - and these are the makings of a way of life and a philosophy of life and a culture. Someone could argue that this mixture of ideas and sentiments are the culture that still pervades, however badly it has been battered in modernity.