In The History of Christian Missions class at Salt Lake Theological Seminary we recently looked at Roman Catholic missions as discussed in Ruth Tucker's book, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya (Zondervan, 2004). One of the figures we read about and discussed as a class was Boniface, who worked as a missionary in Germany among Pagans in the Middle Ages. Boniface felt that dramatic action was necessary in order to communicate to Pagans at Geismar, and he decided that chopping down a sacred oak tree identified with the Thundergod was an appropriate course of action. Althought the act was defiant, there was a positive outcome in that the Pagans viewed it as a victory of Boniface's God over that of the Pagans. Boniface was encouraged by the reaction of the Pagans and it emboldened him to continue in confrontational fashion among the Pagans, resulting in his destruction of temples, shrines, and sacred stones.
As our seminary class discussed Boniface I was asked by a fellow student for my views on his destruction of the sacred symbol of the Pagans, and how this might relate to my call for greater emphasis on missional approaches in the West among emerging spiritualities. I responded by noting that although Boniface continued his ministry in confrontational fashion for some time following this event, he later questioned the validity of this aggressive approach. He later abandoned this approach in favor of building monastic communities which served as mission outposts.
Another historical consideration comes from comparison of the approaches of other Roman Catholic missionaries, Raymond Lull and Francis of Assissi, both working among Muslims. Lull engaged in a threefold approach that included apologetics, education, and evangelism. Lull's approach was aggressive, and Tucker notes that although he claimed to reach out to Muslism lovingly, "his message was often very offensive, and may have further embittered the Muslims toward Christianity." By contrast, Francis "proposed that the Muslims should be won by love instead of hate." His approach involved dialogue, relationships, and service.
How might these examples from the history of Christian missions inform our missional task in the twenty-first century? And how did I relate these examples to my response to my fellow student?
The history of Christian missions provides for us a number of examples from those who have come before us and who have ministered in a variety of differing cultural and historical circumstances. They need to be considered individually and collectively in these differing contexts, and then with appropriate adjustments, application can be made to our own circumstances.
I believe that one of the things we can learn from such examples is the need for balance. Contrary to some misunderstandings of my views, I am not opposed to apologetics or confrontation in missions encounters. Boniface provides us with one example that may have been appropriate for his cultural context. However, simply because Boniface was confrontational among Pagans at Geismar does not mean that similar approaches were appropriate at other times in his ministry, or that they should be normative for us. How the should we understand such important historical examples and formulate a strategy and application for the present day?
One of my favorite Blogs is that of Ryan Bolger. Ryan is a missiologist who teaches at Fuller Seminary. I had the pleasure of hearing him speak at a conference at Fuller in 2004. Ryan recently posted a discussion on his Blog that mentioned his teaching method in one of his classes. (See the link to Ryan's BolgBlog in the Blog links in the right hand column of my Blog.) Ryan has been teaching a class to folks that include campus ministers. They were interested in learning about evangelism strategy, but rather than teaching principles from church growth or business models, Ryan remembered that the students had recently had classes on culture and worldview. So he had them read through the Old and New Testaments looking specifically at missions texts. He then had then review church history, followed by nineteenth century missions. He then had them reflect on all of this in order to extract certain ideas and patterns. Finally, he encouraged them to make cultural adjustments appropriate for the contexts of their campus ministries, all with an eye toward developing evangelistic "strategy."
What does all of this have to do with my discussion of Boniface, and how does it relate to the development of missional strategy? My class discussion, and the study methodology Ryan Bolger urged for his students, reminds me that our study of missions will be a helpful corrective for the church in a twenty-first century postmodern context. We need to engage in fresh reflection on missions in the Old Testament with the missio Dei and the calling of the nation of Israel, and then proceed to see how the early church continued to embody and proclaim the Kingdom message. We must then proceed to reflection on the examples of those who have come before us in the history of Christian missions. From all of this we can then identify certain missional and theological principles that can then be applied (with appropriate cultural modifications) to our own ministry contexts. The insights we can gain from such reflection are applicable not only in missional approaches to emerging spiritualities, but to broader missional considerations in the Western world with the passing of Christendom culture. As Scottish missiologist Andrew Walls noted:
"It is now too late to treat Western society as in some sort of decline from Christian standards, to be brought back to church by preaching and persuasion. Modern Western society, taken as a whole, reflects one of the great non-Christian cultures of the world. There is one department of the life of the Western church that spent centuries grappling with non-Christian cultures, and gradually learned something of the process of comprehending, penetrating, exploring, and translating within them. That was the task of the missionary movement." (Andrew Walls, "Western Society Presents a Missionary Challenge," Missiological Education for the Twenty-first Century, ed. Dudley J. Woodberry et. al. [Orbis, 1996])If the Western church is willing to rediscover its missional heritage (and imperative) I believe we will have taken a significan step toward laying the groundwork for both a criteria of methodology, and specific methodologies themselves (although we need to embody being missional as the church rather than to merely implement strategy and methodology). The interface between missiology and theological reflection will enable us to sort through the issues that the experiences of Boniface, Francis and others pose for us today.