Is missionary work really harder now than it was in the middle ages?


I just finished reading Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization. It’s a popular history book, that is it’s fun and easy to read rather than serious and scholarly. I really enjoyed it, but at the same time, feel that I must be bit skeptical about the optimistic nature of the story it tells. Despite the modern lingo and distance, it still strikes me as a hagiography. Yes, without the miracles found in the Voyage of Brendan the Navigator, and with more grounded references to the rest of Europe during the middle ages, but still a story camping out on all the good and especially cool things about the main characters. St. Patrick and St. Columcille’s faults are mentioned in passing and brushed aside while their accomplishments are amplified and celebrated.

I got the same feeling as I do reading Philip Jenkin’s history books. It’s all Christians doing awesome stuff all over the world that we forgot (or forget) about. The obvious next question is of course, how can WE Christians find such fabulous success in our own ministerial endeavors in the hostile modern West? All we can see are hurdles, road-blocks, and enemies on our way to accomplishing anything that looks even remotely like the spread of Celtic monasticism or the evangelism of the fierce Picts. And yet, fierce they were. Were they a tougher nut to crack than our own mixed neighboring cultures? Those early Scots that the monks at Iona reached out to where men who stripped off all their clothes, painted their bodies and ran screaming into battle, then went home and participated in orgies and human sacrifice. And here we are trying to preach to folks who cover their bodies with tattoos, work in the tech industry and then come home, order food in, and watch pornography. We both speak of Jesus. The former group listened intently, the latter will have none of it. Or so it seems. I ask again, is our missionary task now in the 21st century really harder than theirs was in the 6th century?

This is not a rhetorical question. I’m really asking. When you read traditionalists decry the creep of modernism, it seems like maybe things really are worse off for us – it really does. But I am skeptical of this complaint too. Is the literacy of pagans really so bad? What if the problem is with us. What if we have simply become too worldly and are of little interest to those we are trying to convert? The monks at Iona were not exactly trying to blend in, and people flocked to them in droves. It’s almost like we are hoping for a too-integrated society of – one where new converts drop their twenty-something sins in the trash and transform overnight into denim-skirt wearing homeschoolers with twelve children singing hymns around the dinner table. That stuff takes time – LOTS of time. Why do we get so frustrated when their steps toward Christ are slow or partial? Patrick, in preaching the gospel and establishing many churches, was apparently successful in eliminating human sacrifice and much petty local war, but not sexual promiscuity. Does that mean he was a failure? It would seem so by our current measures.

I think it’s possible that all of this puzzlement with history can be chalked up to the compression of time in our observation. We look at our own life in chunks of just a few years, but when studying the past, we will frequently make a strong narrative connection between people and events that are suddenly a century apart but on neighboring sentences on the printed page. How are things in our age? Someone studying us centuries from now will be able to write a saner story than we can. We are too excited about our brief triumphs and far to disillusioned and depressed about our setbacks. The government tightens the screw on us in some oppressive way and we are downtrodden and about ready to throw in the towel. But viewed from afar, that event may not even be worth mentioning in an account. Whole chapters would instead be devoted to the heroes in our midst, whom we likely don’t even recognize.

The above is largely speculation. I’m just trying to process it all. “Yes what happened back then was maybe cool, but now everything sucks and the Devil is #winning!!!” is not a convincing summary of our age (or any age) to me. I seek a better explanation – one that shows throughout how Jesus is King.