Patrick: Saint and Small Group Pioneer

by think on March 15, 2010

St. Patrick

Patrick may or may not be a saint. It’s above my pay grade and out of my evangelical comfort zone to determine that one. He was certainly a godly man, a relational genius, and ministry innovator. One thing he wasn’t, was Irish.

Patrick was born in Britain late in the fourth century AD. Captured by Irish raiders when he was 16, he was held in slavery by a Druid master. After six years as a shepherd he escaped and returned to his family in Britain, entered the priesthood, and became a Bishop in the Roman church. And that’s when he returned to Ireland.

Patrick longed to share the love of Christ with the Celtic people he lived among for years, yet his ecclesiastical superiors weren’t interested. Ireland was an unclaimed niche, so to speak, since the Roman church considered the Celts “barbarians”… unable to understand Christianity, and therefore “unreachable.” Patrick knew otherwise, and developed an organic approach to evangelism and discipleship that ultimately changed an entire people.

The traditional church model of Patrick’s day is familiar:

Present the Christian message
Invite people to decide to believe in Christ and become Christians
Welcome them into the church and its fellowship

Presentation, Decision, Assimilation. It’s the church growth consultant’s theme song, if you’re singing from the Attractional Hymnal. But Patrick saw things differently:

Establish community with people (invite them into fellowship)
Engage in conversation, ministry, prayer, and worship
As they discover that they believe, invite them to commit

Preceding by centuries the postmodern rediscovery that “belonging comes before believing,” Patrick and his teams leveraged relationships in a way that would have been unthinkable to the traditional religious establishment:

  1. Instead of organizing isolated, clergy-dominated monastic communities that emphasized solitude, Patrick planted lay-led relational communities adjacent to well-traveled routes and population centers. He invited all – farmers, craftsmen, families and children, to live, learn and “nourish” each other in a highly relational approach to life.
  2. Soul friends (1:1 with peers) and small groups (of 10 or fewer) were critical and unprecedented components of Patrick’s approach. While solitude and whole-community activities played a role, it was the relational (peer and groups) aspects that encouraged hospitality in welcoming strangers and enabled “the ministry of conversation” to facilitate spiritual transformation.
  3. The Celtic Christian’s lives were marked by prayer… praying without ceasing was their lifestyle. “Pre-Christians” among them observed their minute-by-minute reliance on God. The proximity inherent to small groups made such observation unavoidable.

It’s beyond our scope to outline Patrick’s use of group dynamics, team ministry, and apprenticeship as he planted an estimated 700 communities among the Celts, but George G. Hunter III already did that in the book that informed this post. I urge you to read The Celtic Way of Evangelism (Abingdon Press, 2000). If you still think that small groups were invented in the 60’s, or are simply an optional “method” that has seen it’s day, you might be surprised.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Nikki Colwell March 29, 2010 at 1:27 pm

What an awesome model for small groups! Thanks so much the work you put into sharing this information. Hope you enjoyed your visit to Friendship this past weekend!


Kevin Davis March 29, 2010 at 2:20 pm

Love it too Nikki. Not sure if ole’ St Pat would approve, but millions of peeps still build community around a pint in his name to this day. I love that there is nothing new under the sun – St Pat was trying to figure it out in his day and we’re trying to figure it out in ours.


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