The “Not-so-Great Man” Theory of Missions History


What makes history… history. One can look at it as repeating cycles of human drama. It can be seen as class struggle, social and/or technological progress, paradigm shifts, or clashes of civilizations or ideologies. But one popular one is the “Great Man” Theory. In the words of Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), The history of the world is but the biography of great men.”

I honestly don’t know the context of his quote so I can’t say whether I agree with his overall thesis. However, I know that there are many people, including a disturbingly large number of (commonly American) Christian leaders who have embraced the “Great Man” Theory of History, where history is essentially understood as driven by a few individuals that are rather… exceptional. It is hard not to see the ubermensch of Nietzsche or the “fountainhead” of Rand in this sort of thinking.  It can be seen, on the face of it at least, to support a certain individualistic, libertarian ideal. However, if the historical trajectory of mankind was driven by a few exceptional individuals, that puts remaining billions  as passive participants in the grand workings of a tiny tiny minority. In effect, the greatness of a few is predicated on huge flocks of sheeple.

And we see this in missions history. I have enjoyed using Ruth Tucker’s book in teaching Missions History (From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya) because it is so readable… and since we are designed to learn through narrative, life stories of a few often really help us learn faster. But I must admit that one negative aspect of a biographical approach to Missions History is that it gives a very false impression that the Church expanded through a very few.

When I was young, I came to believe that the great churchplanter of the first century was St. Paul. It made sense, since the book of Acts placed such a strong focus on him. But eventually, I started thinking:

  • Did Paul plant the church of Jerusalem?  No
  • Did Paul plant the church of Antioch?  No
  • Did Paul plant the church of Alexandria?  No
  • Did Paul plant the church of Rome?  No
  • Did Paul plant the churches of North Africa, Italy, Babylon, and numerous other places where they sprang up in the decades following the entry into the church age? Generally No.

In fact, Paul was involved in a relatively small percentage of churchplants during his lifetime. This doesn’t lessen his impact. Frankly, his impact was more in the words he wrote than what he actually did.  It took me awhile, but I eventually realized that Luke’s biographical approach to explaining early church history, while being ideal for the sake of memory, can mislead when read by people who are prone to idealize and idolize. This is true today as well. It is easy to place people like William Carey, Hudson Taylor, Cam Townsend, Lottie Moon, David Livingstone and many more on pedestals and see them as worldchangers, while the rest of us take up space.

In some ways, perhaps they were worldchangers. But I think in most cases, it wasn’t so much what they did but what they represented. People like William Carey and Lottie Moon (for example) did not radically transform the places they were. However, their words and actions inspired people to go, to send, and to support. In effect, it was in many ways the little people who changed things, by placing meaning to the activities of these two. If the many ignored these few, nothing of impact would have happened.

It is actually surprising, when looking at missions history how the most successful growth eras of the church happened at times when there were really no active (or at least famous) missionaries. One example would be in the first 3 centuries. Even though there were apostles (recognized churchplanters) active into the 2nd and even 3rd centuries, they rather quickly moved out of the limelight, and commonly did not appear to be prime movers in the growth of the church during this time. I will quote here Von Harnack here (I had used this long quote before… but it fits here quite well… you can read the longer version of this quote HERE.)

“The most numerous and successful missionaries of the Christian religion were not the regular teachers but Christians themselves, in virtue of their loyalty and courage. How little we hear of the former and their results! How much we hear of the effects produced by the latter! Above all, every confessor and martyr was a missionary; he not merely confirmed the faith of those who were already won, but also enlisted new members by his testimony and his death.

… Nevertheless, it was not merely the confessors and martyrs who were missionaries. It was characteristic of this religion that everyone who seriously confessed the faith proved of service to its propaganda. Christians are to “let their light shine, that pagans may see their good works and glorify the Father in heaven.” If this dominated all their life, and if they lived according to the precepts of their religion, they could not be hidden at all; by their very mode of living they could not fail to preach their faith plainly and audibly.

… We cannot hesitate to believe that the great mission of Christianity was in reality accomplished by means of informal missionaries. Justin says so quite explicitly. What won him over was the impression made by the moral life which he found among Christians in general. How this life stood apart from that of pagans even in the ordinary round of the day, how it had to be or ought to be a constant declaration of the gospel—….      We may safely assume, too, that women did play a leading role in the spread of this religion (see below, Book IV. Chap. II.). But it is impossible to see in any one class of people inside the church the chief agents of the Christian propaganda.”

“Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries” by Adolph von Harnack.  Volume 3, Chapter 1

The first few centuries was a time of huge growth of the church. That huge growth came from not-so-great men and women faithfully doing their little things that led to great things in the church. If one chooses to say that they acted on the inspiring behavior of a few… I am open to granting that this may have at least a small factor. However, again, it was the people who chose to be inspired rather than be disinterested. And really if one thinks about it, I really don’t think a slave in a house in Thessalonica (for example) lived an inspirational life of hope and love around others in the household because some pillar of the faith inspired emulation at some point in time. I believe this person did it first of all as an act of faithful reverence to the one who expressed love first giving true hope.

Many of the major missions movements and major times of church growth were not driven by towering characters. Few can name any Nestorian missionaries from the first millenium. Fewer still can name monks who shared their faith during the great movement eastward of the Russian Orthodox expansion a few centuries ago. Such ignorance may be because of our own prejudices, but then the fact that we have certain “superheroes” of the faith may just as clearly demonstrate prejudice. The growth of the church in China during the Maoist regime reminds us how mission professionals are not really needed for God to do great things.

Missions History does not need superstar Christians. In fact, it seems like sometimes the decline in the Christian church (such as in North Africa in the first Millenium, and Central Asia in the early part of the second) are, in part, a failure of the gospel message to truly bridge the gap of the professional to the common (or the elite to the illiterate).

I can’t speak to History in general, but I think it is pretty clear that in Missions History, we need less “Great Men.” Our bookstores and conferences are littered with them. We need far less of them and more “Not-so-great” men and women. They are the ones who will turn the world upside-down.

——————————————-

This is part of my haranguing in support of “Small” or “Weak.” It must be a weird thing with me.  For some other posts in that line, you can look at:

                              Dream SMALL!!

                             Praying for Weak Christian Missions

                              The Power of Weakness — Part 1        (Parts 2 and 3 follow Part 1)

 

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