Located in the very heart of modern-day Germany, in the province of Hesse, is a small humble town of only 15,000 inhabitants. In the middle of that town stands an imposing old cathedral built in the 12th-14th centuries of reddish stone. Situated in front of that cathedral is the statue of a man in a monk’s garb on a stump of a freshly felled oak, with a huge Saxon ax in his hand.
The humble town is Fritzlar, called Gaesmere in ancient times. It is known in Germany as the birthplace of two beginnings: Here began the Christianization of Germany, and here’s where the German Empire was born as a political entity. The statue is that of the Anglo-Saxon monk and missionary Wynfrith, also known as St. Boniface, the patron saint of Germany and the Netherlands. And the stump is the remains of the tree that belonged to the highest German god, the Oak of Thor. The Oak of Thor was the center of the pagan religion of the local tribe of the Hessians, and the most pagan Germans at the time.
In 723, on his way to Thüringia, St. Boniface stopped at Gaesmere. He had worked for five years as a missionary in Frisia, Hesse, and Thüringia, and he had some limited success. Unfortunately, as his biographer Willibald relates, those Germans that converted were never too stable in the faith; while giving lip service to Christ, they would secretly go back to their pagan ways, bringing sacrifices to the pagan gods, practicing divination and incantations, etc. Boniface decided to deal with the problem once and for all by attacking at the very center of their pagan religion. One morning he appeared at the Oak of Thor with an ax in his hand, surrounded by a pagan crowd who cursed him and expected the gods to intervene and kill him. He raised his hand against Thor and delivered the first blow. According to Willibald, immediately a strong wind came and blew the ancient oak over. Seeing that Thor failed to protect his holy tree and to kill Boniface, the Hessians converted to Christ. This event is considered the beginning of the Christianization of Germany. From Hesse, word spread, and other German tribes turned to Christianity. Boniface went to many places, destroying the altars and high places of the pagans, proving the superiority of the risen Christ over the blood-thirsty German deities. By 754, when he was martyred by a group of pagan Frisian warriors, Boniface was the archbishop and metropolitan of all Germany, with several bishoprics and other mission sites established by him, and all German tribes with the exception of the Saxons and the Frisians were converted to Christ.
What made Boniface expose himself to the wrath of the pagan Hessians and risk being slain by them for violating the central shrine of their religion?
The first five years of failures obviously taught Boniface a lesson: No matter how many personal conversions a missionary is able to produce, if they do not challenge the central idol of the culture, the new converts will fall away and go back to paganism. Every pagan culture has its central idol or idols. That central idol defines and determines every relationship, every practice, every institution, every word and sentence, every legal rule, every scientific and educational standard. The new converts, even while professing faith in Christ, are forced to define and determine all their relationships and practices according to the central idol in their society, and that is their main battle, their main source of stumbling blocks to fall away from the faith. The contradiction of believing in Christ while living according to an idol’s prescriptions for a society is the greatest struggle for those new believers.
Therefore, a missionary who doesn’t do his best to challenge the central idol of a culture is producing future apostates, not true believers. Boniface learned it the hard way. Therefore, he changed his strategy. He wasn’t a missionary to the individual souls of the Germans anymore; he was a missionary to Germany herself. And he challenged the central idol of Germany. To save his spiritual children from apostasy, he had to take on the chief adversary: Thor himself. Instead of breaking the twigs one by one, he laid his ax at the very root of the German pagan culture. And the result was the turning of whole tribes to Christ.
Boniface wasn’t the first to understand this important principle. The earliest church, as recorded by Luke in Acts, was not concerned only about fixing the personal morality and the private religious life of the new converts. The early church was not persecuted for producing worshippers of Christ, neither was it persecuted for the individual moral purity of its members. It was the bold and uncompromising declaration that “there is another King, one Jesus” that earned the Christians the privilege to feed the lions and to become living torches for the Emperors’ parties. The Christian Gospel was specifically directed against the central idol in that society—the cult to the Emperor—in its declaration that Jesus Christ was the King of kings and the Lord of lords. Only in the context of such a comprehensive challenge against the central dogma—or idol—of the social order can an individual soul find the emotional fuel and the strength to remain faithful to their Lord and Savior in their practical daily life; and only in the context of a comprehensive worldview as opposed to the dominant worldview of the culture can a believer find his place in the Kingdom of God as a civilization alternative to the wicked parody of civilization he has around himself. A Christian with a theology for the salvation of his soul only, without a theology for the reformation of his culture to challenge the idols of the day, is a Christian living double life: His spirit will serve God while his body and mind and money and work and relationships will serve the idols. Eventually, if he is not equipped with the knowledge that will close this gap, he will be severely tempted to let his spirit follow his mind and body and money and work and relationships, and he will submit to idols.
That’s what happened to St. Boniface’s spiritual children after his first five years on the field. He learned his lesson, and so he acted accordingly.
Very few missionaries today understand this important truth of foreign missions. Missions today are not comprehensive missions to the nations; they are missions only to “save souls.” You will be hard pressed to find any mission organizations that train or encourage their missionaries to identify or confront the central idols of a culture. Very few precious missionaries ever confront cultural idols; most are only focused on the mantra of “saving souls.” As if it’s possible to separate the soul of a man from his culture, from his relationships, and from the legal, economic, and political reality of his culture.
Societies today have their sacred oaks. The more developed and advanced a society is, the more sophisticated and refined its idols are, and more subtle and more devious their hold on men’s souls is. Societies like Europe, Latin America, or East Asia—and even the United States—don’t have official sacred shrines anymore. They have replaced them with a more sophisticated idol: the idol of the welfare state. It has no sacred oaks, no visible and material shrines, no official sacrifices or divinations or incantations. But it has its invisible sacrifices and shrines. Whole cultures that pretend to be “rationalistic” and “scientific” are caught in the nets of this most irrational of all idols in history; its power is so strong over the minds of men that in those societies there is no opposition to it. Even when the socialist welfare state proves completely incapable to deliver even a single one of its promises, the men and women of these societies still keep laying their trust and hope at the feet of the idol, not even thinking for a moment that their faith is misguided and deceitful.
And yet, we seldom see missionaries who challenge that central idol of societies. No wonder Europe—where it has taken the strongest hold on society—is believed to be “the graveyard of missionaries.” Missionaries would go and do evangelism, plant churches, convert souls, and establish regular services. And when they went back home, it was only a matter of a couple of years before those churches disintegrated. And no wonder: A new convert worships Christ on Sunday morning, but then starting from Monday morning through Saturday night his life is shaped, defined, and controlled by the idol of the almighty welfare state. And because the missionary is usually silent and never challenges this central idol, the new believer has no ideology, no worldview, and no alternatives, and he is left without any means to oppose that control.
Eventually, like St. Boniface found out, the god of Monday morning takes over, and the God of Sunday morning remains only an empty religious shell. A believer left without means to defend his faith against a powerful idol will eventually give in. And when thousands of missionaries in a culture see the fruit of their diligent work destroyed, they declare that culture a “graveyard for missionaries.”
But such description is wrong. No culture is a “graveyard for missionaries.” The fault lies with the missionaries themselves. The truth is, they never even started the real missionary work. A missionary is not a missionary until they set their ax against the roots of the culture’s sacred oaks. They are not a missionary until they have issued a challenge against the central idols of that culture. A mission that only addresses the individual soul and never the society in which that soul operates is an exercise in futility. Only a comprehensive challenge, a message that proclaims Jesus Christ as Lord over everything—including rulers and powers—can win a nation for Christ.
That is a lesson that modern missionaries need to learn.
St. Boniface’s strategy to destroy the shrines of the pagan gods cost him his life. Thirty years after felling the Oak of Thor, the aged archbishop was attacked by pagan Frisians, whose shrines he had destroyed a few days earlier. His biographer claims that they only wanted the treasures he carried in his chests. When they opened the chests, however, they discovered only the books he carried with himself.
But we’ll leave books and missions for another article.