Youth Ministry and the Celtic Way of Evangelism

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Every once in a while, you read a book that completely floors you. I’m talking choking, gasping for air, because the wind was knocked out of you. The Celtic Way of Evangelism was one of the books. It has dramatically changed the way I think about church and ministry. I’ve re-read the book several times–because that’s what you do with good books–and continue to find fresh insights and applications for ministry. I’ve even attempted to structure our youth ministry based on the findings of the book.

The Celtic Way of Evangelism is the story of St. Patrick and his missionary work in Ireland. For years, the dominant–and church approved–way to evangelize was to take the world by storm, that is by force. Rome had a rock solid format for finding converts. They’d show up at a new place, share the gospel, and then invite the audience to respond.

If the hearers accepted the good news, they were welcomed into the fellowship. They became family members and were granted access into a new community. If they rejected the appeal, they were shunned and the proselytizers moved on to the next captive audience. Rome had a pattern that went like this: First you believe, then you belong, and then you become. In other words, first you accept Christ (Believe), then you experience fellowship (Belong), and then you enter into discipleship (Become).

Hundreds of years later, this is still a highly popular ministry appeal and one that is perpetuated in many churches and youth ministry circles. Perhaps it’s a tad bit more subtle, but the result is the same. Do you believe what we do? If the answer is no, then true fellowship cannot actually occur. You have to believe before you belong.

Patrick and his cohorts, though, had a different model in Ireland. Instead of following Rome’s rigid blueprint of Believe, Belong, and Become, they went in an opposite direction. The missionaries began to establish communities and invited all people to share in the community life. When those outside the faith came and participated in the community, they were made to feel that they belonged, regardless of what they believed.

Belonging came first.

Evangelism was not a one-way presentation, but a conversation.

The Celtic way was Belong, Believe, Become.

Typically, coming to faith is not a sudden decision made without thought or consideration or interaction. It is usually born out of inclusion in some kind of fellowship. Relationships pave the way for people to make decisions. Belonging precedes belief.

This is especially true in youth ministry. Before students decide if they want to be like Jesus, they are first asking if they want to be like you and your friends.

A mantra that we’ve attempted to share over and over again with our students, is that people belong before they believe and before they become. Therefore, we’re trying to create the kind of gathering where people from all walks of life feel welcome and safe to express their opinions and beliefs, even if they don’t line up with ours. If relationships are the pathway to belief, then we know these take time. We’re okay with that. In fact, we’re also okay with the fact that we’re called to serve and love others, regardless of the faith decisions they make.

In other words, we don’t serve to get people “saved”; we serve because we’re saved. We serve and include others because all people matter tremendously to God, whether or not they make a faith decision.

So, how does this pan out in youth ministry? A couple of ways.

For starters, if we are going to operate as a community that helps people belong, then the goal is not behavior modification. Our job is not to “change” students or enforce a moral code they live by. With that being said, though, we have certain standards we abide by as a community. Anyone is welcome to come and share, but they are also asked to participate in community life.

It’s kind of like if I invite someone over to dinner. I’m more than happy to share and host them, but there are certain ways we do things in my house because it’s my house–we pray before we eat, we respect one another, etc.

The same concept applies to the church. When we gather together we sing songs, we read God’s word, we pray.  Everyone is invited to share in those practices with us. The expectation is that all participate in community life.

Secondly, we understand that we are people in process. Since belonging happens before believing and becoming, we operate with grace. Sometimes we mess up. Sometimes things are, well, edgy. You can’t expect someone to conform to a way of living when it hasn’t touched their heart. Can you be okay with actions and attitudes that are not so church-friendly? If you want to create a culture of belonging, then you will be.

Finally, if we are truly a community that is seeking to help others belong, then we’ll be okay with a blurry faith. Students are give ample opportunities to serve in various roles. You want to play in the band? Fantastic. You want to serve? Awesome. You desire to do these things, but haven’t made a firm or obvious commitment to Christ, or maybe you’re not sure exactly what you believe at this point in time? That’s okay too.

Others have said much of the same thing since the Celtic Way of Evangelism. One thinks of Rick Warren or Andy Stanley and their deep and wide approaches to ministry. But there is something profoundly powerful about actually painting this vision.

We try to have events that are simply for the purpose of belonging. Others are opportunities to believe or become. And still some are a combination of a few. Our teaching calendar reflects this same pattern.  A great resource to find out more about this structure is the blog Average Youth Ministry. Ben Kerns is super cool and has some amazing insights. Check it out.

I’ve learned over the years that the greatest way to share Jesus is not by any message or program or event. It’s actually in creating an environment that is open and safe, free and fun, where life is shared along with opinions. We walk life together and find Jesus walking right along with us. The gospel isn’t shared as a one-way presentation, but as a dynamic conversation, where we journey forward together in fellowship.

So. Are you more in line with the Celtic Way or the Roman Way? And what might it take to tweak your current structure and approaches to ministry?

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