The very first Christian evangelicals were killed for their faith. The Koine Greek word for witness, “martyr,” became synonymous in their culture for inevitable death for the faith — this tradition even carries on in modern languages.
a life of fruitful ministry
However, the early saints and church fathers did not always die for their faith. Many lived prosperous lives full of fruitful evangelism as witnesses to mass conversion. Saint Patrick, for whom celebrations rage this time of year, is one such individual. While the beginning of his ministry is a sad tale of slavery from Great Britain into Ireland, he eventually led a life of fruitful ministry. After he escaped from Ireland, he studied ministry for 20 years in Britain.
“Patrick knew the Irish well enough to engage them where they were and build authentic gospel bridges into their society and culture,” David Mathis wrote in an article for website Desiring God about Saint Patrick’s life and ministry. “He wanted to see the gospel grow in Irish soil, rather than pave it over with a Roman road.”
While modern missionaries can take a page from the book of the saints, it is important to see how missions have evolved since their day. Finding inspiration in their stories can lead many to follow in their footsteps, but many lead to more pain than modern missionaries sign up for.
“Our prerogative is not safety or comfort — if we look at the original 12 disciples, 11 were martyred — so safety is not the main thing, but God promises his presence,” said Allen Yeh, professor of intercultural studies, in a phone interview. “I think there’s a lesson of perseverance.”
Enculturation is the slow adaptation of one culture into adopting the traditions of another. Saint Patrick is known for doing so with his evangelism of the Irish people, from devoting his life to them to speaking their cultural language.
“There’s something really cool about that kind of early example of enculturation,” said Greg Peters, Torrey Honors Institute professor of theology and church history. “He didn’t give up. His life became dedicated to it. There’s lots of reasons people leave the mission field, but Patrick, as a monk and a single person, I guess he had a particular lifestyle that was useful for the context.”
contextualization and power encounters
Two modes by which Patrick related to the Irish people in terms of evangelism were contextualization and power encounters, according to Yeh. He used the three-leaf clover to describe the trinity to a pagan pantheistic culture, and conversed and supernaturally battled with celtic druids on whose god would prevail.
“How did it come to pass in Ireland that those who never had a knowledge of God, but until now always worshipped idols and things impure, have now been made a people of the Lord, and are called sons of God?” Saint Patrick wrote in his confession.
As far as Irish immigrants to the United States who came from this context were concerned, they did everything they could to avoid losing their heritage. However, things grew muddier as they identified parts of Irish culture they wanted to preserve and celebrate.
“People come and settle in the same area and they want to not lose their Irish identity, so what do you do? You work hard at [identifying] what is [our culture] and how do we celebrate that? Viola: you have Patrick,” Peters said. “It became ‘We’re Irish and we’re not in Ireland, let’s rally around Saint Patrick and greenness.’”