Christian Missions through the Lens of the 14th Century


waterhouse_decameron-728x300One of my favorite stories is from the Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313 – 1375). In the story, Giannotto was a Christian merchant, a good man, who was a close friend of Abraham, a Jew, who was also a good man. Giannotto wanted Abraham to become a Christian and pleaded for him to convert. Abraham was unconvinced, but being a person of means, he decided to travel to Rome. There he would observe the pope and cardinals in action. If the leadership of the Christian faith could convince him of the superiority of Christian to Judaism, he would convert. Otherwise, he would remain a Jew until death. Giannotto was not comforted in this, knowing the rumors of misbehavior there.

Months later Abraham returned telling Giannotti that he has decided to become a Christian. Giannotti, surprised, asked what had convinced him to convert. Abraham explained that during his time in Rome, he saw the leaders of the Christian faith involved in lust, gluttony, drunkenness, greed, simony, and all manner of sin and corruption.

But, Why would such behavior convince Abraham to convert? He reasoned that Christianity had such high standards and was seen as being so holy and growing. Clearly, these standards and success did not come from its leaders, so it must come from God.

Boccaccio was a humorist, but humor that strikes home is grounded on an underlying, even subversive, truth. What is the underlying truth? In the 14th century, the Christian faith, the Christian religion, was really about Christ, about God. It wasn’t about pope, cardinal, bishop, or monk. That underlying truth remains true today. Christianity is not about the big stars of Christianity, the big speakers, the big authors, the big leaders. Christianity was, is, and will be about Christ.

Okay, most Christians would admit that this is true (I think) but in Missions, we really need to embrace this. If Christianity is about Christ, then

  • It is not about us.
  • It is not about our being perfect, not about being all-wise, and not about being all skilled.
  • It is not about programs, theologies, worship styles, music,
  • It is not about degrees, certifications, ordinations, gifts, fame, or positions.
  • It is not about sinless, dynamic “super”-Christians.

If someone decides to become a Christian because they are impressed by you or your character, or your style, or anything to do with you (or someone else), that person is not ready to become a Christian. A person ready to become a Christian is one who sees Christ hidden behind the doubtful garments of Christianity, and the perfection of God that is seen best in contrast to the honestly revealed flaws of Christians rather than their holy facades.

But that is theory. In practice… how does one really point people to God. Clearly, we don’t try to sin or be flawed, to make God look good (I hope). Honesty, integrity, and humility seems to be a good place to start. Pointing people to God rather than cool books, revivalists, apostles, prophets, pastors, mega-church leaders, specialists, musicians, or other religionists seems to be a start as well.

And expressing love (in our own flawed, inadequate way) as God called us to do is another key. After all, in the story of Gionnotto and Abraham, the start was Gionnotto who was an honest, kind, concerned friend of someone culturally and religiously very unlike himself. That is a very good foundation to build missions from.

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