The Mission of Saint Patrick

The Mission of Saint Patrick

Don’t forget to wear your green today. It’s Saint Patrick’s Day.

Before thumbing your nose at all the carousing and empty revelry that much of the day has become, it’s worth taking at least a brief glance at the inspiring Christian origin of, and missional impulse behind, what we now mark as Saint Patty’s.

While the day has become a celebration of all things Irish, the original feast was about gospel advance. It was not about parades, but pioneering the church among an unreached people. It was not about lifting Lenten restrictions on eating and drinking, but bringing God’s amazing grace to a pagan nation.

The Gospel to the Irish

The March 17 feast day (declared in the early 17th century) remembers Patrick as the one who led the fifth-century Christian mission to Ireland. Unlike Britain, the Emerald Isle was beyond the bounds of the Roman Empire. The Irish were considered uncivilized barbarians, and many thought their illiteracy and volatile emotionalism put them outside the reach of the gospel.

But Patrick knew better. In a strange and beautiful turn of providence, he had spent six years among them as a captive, learned their language, and developed a heart for the Irish. Like Joseph sold into slavery to one day save Egypt and his brothers (Genesis 50:20), so God sent Patrick into slavery to ready Ireland for a coming salvation.

The Surprising Turn

Patrick was born in the late fourth century — the best speculations say around 385 — in what is now northeast England. He was born among the Celtic “Britons,” to a Romanized family of Christians. His father was a deacon, and his grandfather a priest. But his parents’ faith didn’t find a place in his heart early on. In his youth, according to George Hunter, “he lived toward the wild side” (The Celtic Way of Evangelism, page 13).

But God arrested him with severe mercy. He was kidnapped at age 16 by Irish raiders and taken back to Ireland, where he served as a slave for six years under a tribal chief, who was also a druid. While a slave in Ireland, God opened his eyes to the gospel of his childhood. It was as a captive that “he came to understand the Irish Celtic people, and their language and culture, with a kind of intuitive profundity that is usually possible only, as in Patrick’s case, from the ‘underside’” (14). When he eventually escaped from slavery, he was a changed man, now a Christian from the heart. He studied for the ministry, and led a parish in Britain for nearly 20 years.

Reclaiming Retirement

That could have been the end of the story. But at age 48 — as Hunter notes, “already past a man’s life expectancy in the fifth century” (15) — Patrick had a dream, which proved to be his own version of a Macedonian Call (Acts 16:9). An Irish accent pleaded, “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.”

Having known the language and the customs from his captivity, and long having strategized about how the gospel might come to the Irish, he now answered the call to return to the place of his pain with the message of joy. The slave returned to his captors with good news of true freedom.

Back in Saint Patrick’s Day

But this would be no ordinary mission. The Irish Celtics were considered “barbarians,” as the Romans were prone to consider anyone not Roman. The Irish may have had a few Christians among them, but they were an unreached people with no thriving church or gospel movement.

Patrick would take a different and controversial approach to the prevailing missionary efforts of the post-apostolic early church. Instead of Romanizing the people, and seeking to “civilize” them with respect to Roman customs, he wanted to see the gospel penetrate deeply into the Irish culture and produce an indigenous movement. He didn’t mean to colonize the Irish, but to truly evangelize them.

Understanding the People

Hunter tells the story in the first chapter of his book on Celtic evangelism.

The fact that Patrick understood the people and their language, their issues, and their ways, serves as the most strategically significant single insight that was to drive the wider expansion of Celtic Christianity, and stands as perhaps our greatest single learning from this movement. There is no shortcut to understanding the people. When you understand the people, you will often know what to say and do, and how. When the people know that the Christians understand them, they infer that maybe the High God understands them too. (19–20)

Patrick knew the Irish well enough to engage them where they were, and build authentic gospel bridges into their society and culture. He wanted to see the gospel grow in Irish soil, rather than pave it over with a Roman road.

Their belief that Ultimate Reality is complex, and their fascination with rhetorical triads and the number three opened them to Christianity’s Triune God. Christianity’s contrasting features of idealism and practicality engaged identical traits in the Irish character. No other religion could have engaged the Irish people’s love for heroism, stories, and legends like Christianity. Some of Christianity’s values and virtues essentially matched, or fulfilled, ideals in Irish piety and folklore. Irish Christianity was able to deeply affirm, and fulfill, the Irish love for nature and their belief in the closeness of the divine. (20)

A Group Approach to Ministry

A notable part of his strategy was that Patrick didn’t go solo to Ireland. He went with a team. Just as Jesus sent out his disciples together (Luke 10:1), and Paul and Barnabas went out together (Acts 13:3), so Patrick assembled a close-knit crew that would tackle the work together, in the same location, laboring for the founding of a church, before moving on together to the next tribe. It was, what Hunter calls, a “group approach to apostolic ministry.”

We don’t have record of the details of Patrick’s ministry teams and strategies, but Hunter says, “from a handful of ancient sources, we can piece together [an] outline of a typical approach, which undoubtedly varied from one time and setting to another.”

Patrick’s teams would have about a dozen members. They would approach a tribe’s leadership and seek conversion, or at least their clearance, and set up camp nearby. The team “would meet the people, engage them in conversation and in ministry, and look for people who appeared receptive” (21). In due course, “One band member or another would probably join with each responsive person to reach out to relatives and friends” (22). They would minister weeks and months among them, eventually pursuing baptisms and the founding of a church. They would leave behind a team member or two to provide leadership for the fledgling church and move, with a convert or two, to the next tribe.

With such an approach, “The church that emerged within the tribe would have been astonishingly indigenous” (22).

Priority Time with Pagans

While Patrick’s pioneering approach is often celebrated today — and perhaps a model in some respects of the kind of mission well-suited for an increasingly post-Christian society 1500 years later — most of his contemporaries weren’t impressed. “The British leaders were offended and angered that Patrick was spending priority time with ‘pagans,’ ‘sinners,’ and ‘barbarians’” (24).

But Patrick knew such an approach had good precedent. The one who saved him while a nominal Christian and an Irish captive was once called a “friend of tax collectors and sinners,” and said, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).

Something Worth Remembering

Instead of acquiescing to the religious establishment, he took the gospel to the uncouth, unreached Irish. And instead of coasting to a cushy retirement, he gave 28 years to the nation-changing evangelization of Ireland.

According to tradition, Patrick died March 17 — many think the year was 461, but we don’t know for certain. While today’s celebrations will leave much to be forgotten, for those who love Jesus and the advance of his gospel, there are some good things to remember about Patrick.


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David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is executive editor at desiringGod.org and an elder at Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis. He has edited several books, including Thinking. Loving. Doing., Finish the Mission, and Acting the Miracle, and is co-author of How to Stay Christian in Seminary.