Gospel & Culture blog
By Kenneth Nehrbass
About the only thing people know Saint Patrick anymore is that he drove off all the snakes from the island. That was an easy feat for him, because there weren't any to begin with. I can relate to this, because I lived on another green island where there were no snakes-- it would be kind of hard for the snakes to make it across the channel from Europe. But Patrick's accomplishments were actually far more significant than that (and maybe even harder to believe).
Saint Patrick's life played out like an action film, and in fact, his life story was told in a major motion picture by Fox family films; and you can watch for free on youtube. Patrick was born around the year 389 in Britain. Patrick reports in his Confessions that as a teenager, he was capture by Celts and sold into slavery to an Irish farmer. Later, he was sent on a ship to France to take up work feeding dogs. He given his freedom there and returned to Britain. Back in Britain, Patrick had a call in his dreams to return to Ireland and proclaim the gospel, much like the Apostle Paul experienced the Macedonians calling him to come to their land (Acts 16:6-10).
Once in Ireland, Patrick began focusing on reaching tribal leaders first. This became a long-standing missiological strategy of focusing on elites (though other missionaries deliberately focused on the masses). Patrick's mission strategy was incarnational, attending to issues of justice. He freed numerous slaves. He planted around 200 churches, and baptized between 100,000 and 200,000 people. Many of these folks remained animistic after conversion. So in a twist of irony, the Celts who dragged Patrick to Ireland as a slave were actually forging the way for the conversion of the island. As Joseph later told his brothers, who sold him into slavery in Egypt, "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives" (Gen 50:20, NIV).
—Some of these Celts became monks (then separate from Roman Catholicism). These monks went out as missionaries over the next few centuries to Britain, whose churches had been destroyed by Saxons after the Roman Empire disintegrated. Eventually they turned the island of Iona into a missionary sending base. So Celtic Christianity became a hub of literacy, Christian thought, and education. Patrick's missiology was not a "mission station" mentality; it was a strategy of raising up leaders from the start, who would multiply church growth.
Did Patrick really use the three leaf shamrock to illustrate the Trinity? Does that sort of analogy lead to heresy? Or are shamrocks a "redemptive analogy" that God place specially in Ireland to reflect his Triune nature? I don't know- but the legend of Patrick's shamrock illustration does bring to light how missionaries have been contextualizing the gospel for centuries.
For the best scholarly treatment of St Patrick, I would direct you to Ed Smither's paper on Patrick: Bishop, Missionary, Monk, or All of the above?
When I type "how do i convert to..." in Google suggest, the first suggestion is .pdf. It appears more people are curious about converting their word documents to Acrobat Reader than those who want to know how to follow Jesus. Islam and Judaism come up in the Google Suggest; but Christianity doesn't even appear. Are more people wondering how to convert computer files than how to convert to Christianity? Are people more interested in converting to Judaism and Islam than to Christianity?
We know that Islam is the fastest growing religion, and will soon catch up to Christianity. Pew says that there will be 2.76 billion Muslims by 2050, and 2.92 billion Christians by the same time. Obviously, the growth in both cases is mainly biological (Christians have babies who become Christians, and Muslims do the same)- so this is not primarily conversion growth.
While "nones" (those who have no affiliation) are a growing demographic in Western nations, the number will barely rise globally. 79% of millennials say they are not affiliated with any religion, according to this study from Pew. That's compared to 54% of those born before 1946.
I suppose a main question that arises from the Google Suggest is whether one can learn how to convert through a google search. If you finish the search "how do i convert to Christianity" it sends you to a 10 step wikihow with reasonable advice: get a Bible, get into a church, accept Jesus.
Christians should speak differently than the world does, right? Our priorities are different; our beliefs and even our values are different. Christians were different from their Jewish and Greek peers in the first century, just as the Israelites were different from the nations around them in the OT days. Talking differently is a significant way to signal that we are set apart. Early Christians developed a highly specialized vocabulary to describe uniquely Christian ideas like regeneration, election, justification, and so on. Nowadays, Christianese has regional varieties (we "love on" people in the south more than we do on the West Coast) and nuances
Unfortunately, talking differently can also create a barrier. Most training in evangelism and missions says that we should identify with the people we're trying to reach, not let our differences be stumbling blocks (oops, another Christianese term). People will only understand us if we use a language they understand. I remember telling a pre-Christian friend that "God convicted me" about something, and he had no idea what I meant by "convicted." If people outside the church don't understand our "hedges of protection" and "fleeces before the Lord," can we even be certain that people in the church know what we're talking about when we throw around these terms?
The "Dictionary of Christianese" database contains about 200 entries like "check in your spirit" (pictured above, and in the title of this blog) and "missionary dating". Each entry has a definition as well as cleverly designed images and well-researched examples on the origin and historical use of these terms. The database gives an early example of "frozen chosen" in print:
There are undoubtedly many other examples of Christianese, and the dictionary's compiler, Tim Smith, would surely covet your prayers as he continues research on Christian jargon.
Perhaps you feel convicted (a word that hasn't been added to the dictionary yet) about your use of Christianese. Is it missional to talk in a way that seems strange to your ? WWJD?
Maybe this is a good thing to discuss the next time you have koinonia with your life group (still to be added to the dictionary). What is your experience with Christianese?
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Associate Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor