Lessons from Lull: How to be a missionary in 1285 (and today)

I doubt you have ever heard the name Raymond Lull (or Ramon Llull). You may have heard of William Carey, we like to think of him as the first modern missionary. Few people, however, know the name Lull.

But Raymond Lull is a big deal.

Lull was doing missions before it was cool again. Way before. Five centuries before William Carey ignited a missionary movement, Lull was watching the Crusades and thinking there had to be a better way. Stephen Neill records, “If some Christians held that the only good Saracen [that’s a Muslim] was a dead Saracen, there were others who thought otherwise, and believed that through clear and faithful preaching of the Gospel even Saracens [again, that’s Muslims] could be won to faith in Christ” (Neill, 114). Neill highlights the counter-cultural efforts of Lull when the majority of Christians around him chose hate instead of love for these foreigners. For our purposes, there are two major points I think we can glean from Lull’s missionary efforts back in the 1200s that are as relevant today as they were then.

Christianity’s True Strength

First, Lull realized the true power of Christianity was not coercion, force, or political influence. The Crusades entangled Christianity, politics, economics, and cultural exclusivism into a cultural amalgamation that co-opted the cross for gains in these other realms. The cross became a banner for all manner of unholy enterprise. For Lull, Christianity’s true strength was in its message and its Messiah. That message was not one of cultural conquest but one of great sacrifice. Christ was the victor, indeed, but he conquered by laying down his life for others.

Like the crusaders, Lull knew such a message required confrontation with the Muslim world at their borders. However, this confrontation should not, and could not, come by the sword. Instead, Lull became the first missions theorist, developing specific missionary methods to spread the gospel among Muslims. Lull suggested three things must be done in order to share the gospel. (Remember, this was way back in the 1200s!) First, Christians must develop a comprehensive understanding of Saracen languages, so that they can truly understand how they think and how to communicate naturally with them. Second, Lull pushed for the development of written materials that could demonstrate the truth of the Christian religion with clear reason. Finally, Lull’s third requirement (and perhaps the hardest) was a willingness to be a witness among the Saracens, even if it cost someone their life (Neill, 116-117).

Three Requirements for Effective Missions

Lull’s three requirements for effective mission are as true today as they were during the Crusades. In order to spread the gospel, we must know and understand how people talk and think. We must do the work of translating the gospel into this different language and worldview. Finally, we must be willing to embed ourselves right in the middle of their culture, even at the cost of great sacrifice. With all of our talk of missionary methods, these basic tenants must undergird all that we do.

What is more, these requirements are not just true for that missionary appointee selling their house to move overseas. They are true for all responsible for sharing the gospel with the lost. The heart of good Christian witness is learning with humility from the people you desire to reach, and then faithfully sharing the gospel message with them in a way that they can understand. This is best done when we embed ourselves in their cities, neighborhoods, networks, and lives. Lull was onto something.

Of course, Lull’s suggestions for missionary methods have particular significance for the contemporary church in North America. We often find ourselves surrounded by a cultural Christianity hostile toward people different from us. Christianity being co-opted for political gain is not an unknown concept to us. We listen as some (not all) claim the appropriate Christian response to non-Christians is an antagonistic relationship. I have heard no faithful Christian call for crusades, and it would be dishonest of anyone to say so. Nevertheless, it would do us well to remember our strength is in our message and our Messiah.

What is more, that message is meant to be shared. God is bringing the world inside our borders. Perhaps we should learn a lesson from Lull, who sought first to understand those different from him, so that he could share God’s good news clearly while being among them.

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