Contextualization: An Evangelism Lesson from Saint Patrick

I’m a wee bit Irish so I get excited about cabbage and Shamrock shakes in the month of March. But, if you think today is only about the green fun, then read on!

Saint Patrick stood out in his time for his “contextualization” of the gospel. By that I mean he preached the gospel in a way that made sense to the people of Ireland.

The gospel itself doesn’t change; but we can and should be changing how we present the gospel.

I don’t talk with my toddlers about the gospel in the same way I talk to my neighbors.  I doubt I’d talk to people in Texas the same way I’d talk to people in Massachusetts. And, I’d almost certainly approach people in Kenya differently than I would approach people in Germany.

Honestly, not a lot is known about Saint Patrick though legends abound. It’s unlikely he drove the snakes out of Ireland and who know about his affinity for shamrocks. What we do know from his short biography, The Confessions of Saint Patrick, is that he was kidnapped and taken to Ireland at the age of 16. There he spent several years tending sheep. Patrick eventually escaped, but came back later to bring the gospel to the Irish.

It was his knowledge of the Irish culture that paved the way for the gospel:

“Indeed, the fact that Patrick understood the people and their language, their issues, and their ways serves as the most strategically significant insight that was to drive the wider expansion of Celtic Christianity and stands as perhaps our greatest single learning from this movement. There is no shortcut to understanding the people. When you understand the people, you often know what to say and do and how.” (from The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West…Again)

This may seem obvious, but culture plays a huge role in how we share our faith. This of course doesn’t mean we need to be kidnapped like St. Patrick to be successful at learning a foreign culture. But, it often involves effort!

In his book Being the Body, Chuck Colson writes:

“We must enter into the stories of the surrounding culture, which takes real listening. This means we build relationships with people who don’t believe, and we connect with the literature, music, theater, arts, and issues that express the existing culture’s hopes, dreams, and fears. This builds a bridge by which we can show how the gospel can enter and transform those stories.”

In other words, we must be willing as the apostle Paul said to be “all things to all men” (1 Cor. 9:19-23).

Learning how to contextualize the gospel properly may take work, but hopefully isn’t as elusive as looking for a leprechaun!

(Note: This article originally appeared on EvanTell’s blog here.)