Historical Lessons from the Mission of God

Posted: April 3, 2013 in Church History, Mission of God, Missions
Tags: , ,

This post is a reflection on a guest lecture by Dr. Ed Smither in my class “The Mission of God” at Columbia International Seminary, taught by Dr. Mike Barnett. Dr. Smither has a special interest in the history of missions in North Africa, and wrote his Ph.D. on Augustine as MentorYou can (should) check out his blog: www.edsmither.com. I don’t believe I can post his entire lecture – although I’d love to. I would like to post his “summary of strategies” used by early missionaries, though.

1. Proclamation (full-time, bishops, monks, lay people)
—2. Favor with kings and political leaders
—3. Monastic mission centers.
—4. Suffering (Ignatius, Polycarp, Scillitans, martyrs of Lyons, Perpetua and Felicitas, Cyprian)
6. —Scripture translation (Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Gothic, Latin)
—7. Holistic mission (healing, spiritual warfare, caring for the poor)

I was most intrigued by some of the lessons learned during early Christian mission, shared by Dr. Smither. That period of history has always interested me, especially when considering the growth of the church. Two lessons especially resonated for me: the use of miracles and other power encounters, and the fact that everyone was involved in the proclamation and spread of the gospel.

Gregory Thaumaturgos, Martin of Tours, Augustine of Canterbury, Boniface – all used miracles and power encounters. Some, like Boniface, saw this as a strategic method of winning pagans by demonstrations of the power of God. I got the impression, though, that many of the others treated miracles and other manifestations of God’s power as normal expressions of their faith.

Dr. Smither summarized this as “holistic ministry,” and this does serve to underscore the importance of modern holistic ministry. In spite of my fundamentalist background, I have come to realize just how important are the manifestations of God’s power today, and how important it is to meet people’s physical needs, even while maintaining the preeminence of proclamation. Our international fellowship in Lublin began just after a miraculous healing of a Hindu American student – as a result of this very non-charismatic Baptist praying over his comatose body. (You can read that story here). It’s exciting to hear and read about God’s power manifested in the early centuries of the church, as well, and to understand that God has always been working in similar ways throughout the history of the church.

The other amazing lesson came from the way God used all kinds of people to advance His Kingdom. Usually the merchants and soldiers went first, but the priests and monks were close behind. Slaves played a key role as well, especially in taking the gospel to countries that we would today call “creative access nations.” Everywhere these Christians went – they took their faith, talked about it, and people converted.

As a “professional” missionary, it was nice to see that other “professionals” had blazed a trail as well – priests and monks. However, it was both encouraging and humbling to realize that the pioneers were usually business people. As they conducted their business, they travelled. As they travelled, they told others about their greatest treasure. Sometimes the professionals would follow and help deepen the faith of people who had already heard, but usually when a missionary monk went somewhere – the gospel had gone on ahead already. Dr. Smither called this a proclamation strategy – by bishops, monks and lay people. And it still takes everyone proclaiming the gospel to adequately reach a people for Christ. The full-time missionaries are invaluable, but so are the people involved in business as mission, the NGO aid workers, the Christian international businessmen and even the soldiers who still share the gospel.

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