March 17th is St. Patrick’s Day, and we should honor this early missionary. A few years ago, Carrie Kelly wrote an article for the Intersect Project entitled “The Man Behind the Myth: 5 Things You Can Learn About St. Patrick.” Kelly’s article is worth the read, and I encourage you to check it out. I also do not want to lose sight of the fact that Patrick’s legacy is first as a missionary. I want to show you here five missionary lessons that you can learn from Patrick’s life.
- Spiritual development often comes at unexpected times and in surprising places.
Patrick was the son of a deacon and the grandson of a priest. He was taught the Bible and the gospel from an early age, but it was not in the church or even at home that he began to understand his sinfulness and need for a Savior. After he was captured by pirate raiders at the age of sixteen and sold into slavery, he began reflecting on his life and praying. Patrick wrote, “And there also ‘the Lord opened my sense to my unbelief,’ so that, through late in the day, I might remember my many sins; and accordingly ‘I might turn to the Lord my God with all my heart,’ who ‘has looked upon my lowliness’ and taken pity on my adolescence, on my ignorance, and kept safe watch over me before ever I knew him, yes, even before I had wit enough to tell good from evil. It was he who strengthened me, consoling me just as a father comforts his son.”
- He knew he was called to GO, but his family wanted him to stay.
After Patrick’s miraculous escape from slavery and return to Britain after nearly a decade away, his family understandably wanted to keep him close to them. They begged him never to leave again. Patrick, however, was already feeling the Spirit’s calling. After having a dream of a man delivering a letter from the Irish people begging him to return, Patrick recounts, “I was utterly pierced to my heart’s core, so that I could read no more.” Patrick knew that he must GO, even though staying would have been more comfortable for him and his family.
- Patrick did not rush his return.
Patrick was keenly aware that he was not prepared to return to Ireland immediately. He was full of zeal and energy, but he also understood that he needed training. His only area of expertise was in herding pigs and serving as a slave. He knew that when he returned, for him to be successful, he would need to engage the political and religious elite of Ireland. Patrick soon departed for the prominent monastery of Auxerre in Gaul (modern-day France). At least another fourteen years passed before Patrick was able to make his way to Ireland. He knew that God was working in this time of preparation. Patrick had learned to wait on the Lord and to prepare well for the task the Lord had given him.
- Patrick was outwardly-focused and utilized contextual strategies.
Ireland was not an unengaged pioneer when Patrick returned to Ireland. Missionaries had already been sent to Ireland, and some Christians were present. The missionary sent just prior to Patrick was informed by Pope Celestine that his first priority was the welfare and orthodoxy of Irish believers and not the conversion of Irish unbelievers. Patrick had no intention of following this model. Patrick quickly engaged the pagan local rulers and nobles. Patrick understood that the only way that Christianity could take root in Ireland was by reaching these leaders. A church could not be planted in a territory unless a noble accepted Christianity and permitted a church to meet on his land. Most earlier converts were slaves, farmers (who did not own their own land), and herdsmen. While all people are in need of the gospel, and no one should be overlooked, Patrick understood that this small band of believers could not sustain themselves or multiply over time. Patrick knew that making new disciples and utilizing contextual strategies were essential to the long-term health and growth of the Irish church.
- Patrick relied heavily on the Bible.
Patrick lacked a classical education which proved a challenge for him. Even after completing his theological education, his Latin was far from spectacular. Despite his limitations, Patrick has been described as a “man of one book.” In the two very short works that we have from him, Scripture floods the page referencing 54 books of the Bible. Barely a sentence goes by without some reference to Scripture even in his autobiographical Confession. Patrick may not have known much about Greek and Roman classical literature, but he knew his Bible intimately. Patrick knew that his life was not about himself but about the giver of all life. His commitment to and reliance on Scripture served him well.
We cannot know the full scope of Patrick’s ministry, but we can be fairly certain of this: Patrick served faithfully as a missionary to the Irish people for approximately sixty years. He likely baptized over one thousand people in that time. He left behind a thriving, multiplying indigenous Irish church. Today, his legacy can still be felt as it inspires people to commit themselves to the Lord’s call to GO!
Matthew Hirt is a Ph.D. student at SEBTS in the Applied Theology/International Missiology Program. He currently serves as the Associate Pastor at Bethel Baptist Church in North Vernon, IN. Twitter: @matthewhirt