“Patrick’s mission was unprecedented and widely assumed to be impossible.”
This is the real Saint Patrick you’ve never heard of. Before green beer, leprechauns, parades, and four-leaf clovers, there was a faithful Christian leader who ushered in a second-era of church planting that wouldn’t be seen again for centuries.
The reality is that apart from Patrick’s confession, there is very little historical record of what the real Saint Patrick accomplished in his day. However, scholars have dug and discovered a story that is nothing short of inspiring.
The storyline of the real Saint Patrick, in summary, goes like this:
Patrick was born into a wealthy family in northern England. His ancestors were celts, but his family had long-been Romanized. His grandfather had been a Roman Catholic priest, his father was a deacon.
At the age of sixteen, Patrick was captured by Celtic pirates and taken to Ireland where he would work as a slave for six years. Patrick’s nominal Christianity inherited from his family became very real to him during his enslavement. His life was transformed by prayer and faithfulness to the gospel message he had learned as a boy.
Patrick received a vision at the age of twenty-two calling him to barter his way onto a ship and escape his bondage for freedom. The story here is unclear, but it is likely that he trained for ministry in both France and England, and perhaps even Rome. Eventually, Patrick made his way back to England and became a faithful parish priest for many years.
Then, at the age of forty-eight (well past the life expectancy of the day), Patrick receives another vision. In it, he sees the Irish people who had captured him as boy and they’re calling him to come back to them. Patrick understands this to be his “Macedonian call,” and he doesn’t ignore it. He gains the initial approval he needs to be sent on-mission to Ireland, though later he would face massive opposition. In fact, even the initial approval he receives is with strings attached–no funding would come from the Roman Church. He would have to use his own family’s inheritance.
Which he does.
Leaving for Ireland with a team of priests, seminarians, and a few women, Patrick begins a very strategic mission. His team would win the approval of the local leadership, or at least the permission to begin a ministry, and would then pray for and help the local tribesman. This evangelistic engagement would continue until there was enough support in the community to build a church. These churches would be cultural centers where local people would be able to use common resources such as access to mills and to education. What was different was that there was no requirement that people first be baptized before they could access these resources. They were free and open to all.
Once the faith had grown up enough indigenous leaders, a team would be sent down river to the next settlement and the process was started again. Patrick utilized this team approach to evangelism and church planting for the entirety of his twenty-eight year ministry in Ireland.
And the results were staggering.
Based on the best data and historical records, here’s what we know about the results of Patrick’s mission:
- 700 (or more) churches were planted
- 1000 (or more) priests were ordained
- 27%+ of Ireland’s tribes became substantially Christian in his lifetime (none were Christian before his time)
- Patrick was the first public figure to speak out against slavery, and Irish slave trade ended within his lifetime (or shortly after)
- There was a significant decrease in murder and intertribal wars as a result of Patrick’s mission
By all accounts, Patrick accomplishes something incredible. Within a full generation, Ireland became a predominantly Christian nation. But what’s more staggering about this expansion of the gospel is the way Patrick does it.
Here’s what we can learn from the real Patrick’s example:
No person is a lost cause.
The fundamental Roman assumption at the time was that the Irish Celts could not become Christians because they were barbarians. And let’s clear something up: a barbarian was anyone who didn’t live in a city and didn’t speak the common language. George G. Hunter III described it this way: “a population, by definition, had to be literate and rational enough to understand Christianity, and cultured and civil enough to become real Christians if they did understand it.” We wouldn’t phrase it this way anymore, but we often function out of the same sorts of biases. Christians continue to use labels to assume people are a lost cause: “liberals,” “hicks,” “millennials…” whatever people group might be assumed to be anti-Christian or post-Christian. Patrick refused to apply any label to the Celts and believed that all people are both in need of Jesus and are capable of being transformed by him.
Patrick was able to put together an effective evangelistic strategy because he understood the Celtic people. He (literally) spoke their language. He knew what they valued as a culture. Patrick was able to present the gospel in a way that aligned with the best of celtic culture and stood in opposition to its worst. For example, the Celts were passionate about nature, family, and oral tradition. Christianity connected well with these shared values. But the Druid cult treasured secret knowledge, which the masses despised. Christianity eschewed secrets, revealing the mysteries of God and the universe to anyone who wanted to know. It’s important for the leaders and church planters of today to know your cultural context. What does your community value? What does it aspire to be, at its best? How can the gospel align with these things, indeed, become the fulfillment of these values? Know your culture. Speak its language.
Success requires risk.
If you want to change the world, it’s going to cost you something. If it was easy, it would have happened already. The reason why the change hasn’t occurred is because there’s massive opposition to the change. In Patrick’s case, he was opposing the status quo–which was to only build churches in Roman cities. If it had been a common practice to go on mission trips to Ireland, it wouldn’t have been such a big deal. It wasn’t a common practice. It was controversial and widely opposed. Patrick had to leverage his own money and his reputation in order to accomplish the mission God had given him. It’s very likely that you’re going to have to put something on the line if you want your God-given mission to be successful. Be willing to risk capital and even your reputation for the cause of the gospel. It’s very often the only way the true change, deep change is accomplished.
Teams are critical.
The primary reason that Patrick’s mission had exponential success is because he understood and believed in the power of teams. He took a team with him to start the first church in Ireland, and he had a very specific strategy for training new leaders and launching them to plant more churches. Arguably, Patrick’s church planting movement is second only to Paul’s. In less than three decades, Patrick was responsible for the planting of hundreds of churches. By the end of his life, all of his efforts were consumed by the administration of these church and traveling to them for problem-solving. If you want to have an exponential impact, you have to be willing to share the stage with others. You might be able to have an important impact on your own, but it will always pale in comparison to the gospel impact that can be accomplished when you empower others for ministry.
It’s never too late to pursue a bold vision.
Patrick was forty-eight when he started his mission to the Irish people. Forty-eight. Even by today’s standards, people feel that by the time they’re nearly fifty, they should have had their midlife crisis and be building towards legacy. They’re making the push for the final third of their career and looking to leverage what they’ve built to that point. In Patrick’s day, most people were dead at forty-eight. The thought of starting something this massive, this taxing, this risky would have been considered foolish. But God blessed Patrick with another twenty-eight years of life. Never think that your time has passed, and that you’re too old to chase a vision God places in your heart. As long as you’re breathing, it’s a good time to do the thing God puts in your heart to do. Never give up.
The real Saint Patrick is an incredible historical figure, one of my favorites, and one of the most influential church planters that ever lived.
The best resource on this is George G. Hunter III’s book called The Celtic Way of Evangelism. The opening quote in this article comes from that book, as well as many of the other facts found in this post. Please get yourself a copy. You won’t regret it.