At the mention of the name Francis of Assisi, images of a peaceful, eccentric, medieval monk who loved to talk to animals may come to mind. But he was also a Christ-loving, innovative missionary to Muslims during the Crusades. Here’s how that matters for missions today.
Background, Conversion, Monastic Calling
Francis of Assisi was born in 1181 into a wealthy family. As a young man, he dreamed of becoming a knight and warrior, and he engaged in clan warfare in his home region in central Italy. While his hometown of Assisi was embroiled in civil war in 1202, Francis was captured and imprisoned for an extended period of time, which ultimately led to his conversion. He renounced his family’s wealth and his aspirations for glory in battle, and he became a monk.
Francis’s call to monastic living and service were shaped by three aims: (1) bringing renewal to the church, (2) caring for the poor, and (3) imitating Christ in simplicity and voluntary poverty. Indeed, the monastic order he founded (the Franciscans) emerged in protest to Europe’s developing cash economy. His ministry began in earnest when he heard Jesus’s words found in Matthew 10:7–10 read in church, and he simply had to follow.
His Missionary Engagement
Francis and his community of monks engaged in cross-cultural mission work very early in their history. Unlike the medieval era Roman Catholic Church, Francis was burdened to reach Muslims during the Crusades. In 1219, his dream of preaching the gospel to Muslims was realized when he traveled with the so-called Christian armies to Egypt. There, he walked across enemy lines and met with the Egyptian Sultan Malik al-Kamil, prayed for him, and proclaimed the gospel. In the years that followed, Francis continued ministry to Muslims in Syria while also reaching out to dispersed Muslims in cities such as Jerusalem, Antioch, and Acre.
His Missionary Thought
Francis’s greatest example in the Christian life and mission was Christ himself. Christ was a Good Shepherd who laid down his life for others, a servant who washed his disciples’ feet, and a poor man who also cared for the poor.
Striving to imitate Christ in his work among Muslims, Francis aimed to become what I call a “peaceful martyr.” For many years, he had longed for martyrdom—to witness unto Christ through suffering and even death. Upon learning of the death of five of his order’s monks who had been sent to Morocco to preach, Francis praised their martyrdoms and declared that he now truly had five brothers. Though he longed for martyrdom, his posture toward Muslims and non-believers also reflected the peace of Christ the servant.
“He presented a Trinitarian God; an incarnate Christ who was crucified, buried and risen; and a Holy Spirit that made the virgin birth of Christ possible, and he called for his Muslim listeners to repent and believe this message.”
Francis instructed the brothers to serve among Muslims in peace and humility and to avoid arguments and disputes. He illustrated these values through his own encounter with the sultan as he refrained from attacking Islam or the prophet Muhammad. Instead, he focused on proclaiming the gospel and praying for the sultan.
Though Francis demonstrated a peaceful posture, it would be a mistake to describe his communications with the sultan or others as interfaith dialogue. Instead, he presented a Trinitarian God; an incarnate Christ who was crucified, buried and risen; and a Holy Spirit that made the virgin birth of Christ possible, and he called for his Muslim listeners to repent and believe this message.
Lessons from Francis of Assisi
Lessons on mission from Francis of Assisi begin with the fact that suffering should be expected and accepted as part of God’s plan. Following the murders of three Baptist medical workers in a hospital in Jibla, Yemen, in 2002, then-IMB president Jerry Rankin boldly and simply conveyed this value during a press conference broadcast live on CNN: “Our personnel as Americans and Christians are well aware of the risk of living and serving in a place like Yemen . . . We would not choose to end our ministry and service because of risk and danger to our personnel . . . If we would, we would probably be ending our [work] in many of the countries throughout the world.”
“Lessons on mission from Francis of Assisi begin with the fact that suffering should be expected and accepted as part of God’s plan.”
Second, Francis’s example of peaceful martyrdom, or what David Bosch called “bold humility,” should be emulated, particularly in contexts of potential hostility and violence. David Shenk, a Mennonite missionary for more than five decades in Somalia, Kenya, and other parts of the Muslim world, has perhaps best modeled this value in contemporary mission.
In his 2014 work, Christian. Muslim. Friend, Shenk emphasizes a posture of peace, friendship, and deliberate hospitality toward Muslims, combined with boldness for communicating the essentials of the gospel, including the centrality of the cross, which can often be a stumbling block for Muslims. While living in a challenging Muslim environment in Somalia, Shenk remained quite open about his missionary identity, simply identifying himself as a messenger of Jesus the Messiah.
Third, the servant nature of Christ emphasized by Francis should be celebrated by the church. In his 2010 groundbreaking work, To Change the World, James Davison Hunter questions the “change the world” discourse of churches and mission organizations. Hunter urges Christians, who already experience God’s presence in worship, to humbly pursue a faithful presence in their communities and make disciples (p. 253). Returning to Francis’s emphasis on Christ as Servant, this faithful presence approach necessarily involves service as well as proclamation.
Francis’s peaceful approach to Muslims stood in stark contrast to the medieval church’s posture. Through service, peace, and proclamation, he became a prophetic voice. May we, like Francis of Assisi, seek to love marginalized peoples and reach them with the gospel.
Ed Smither serves as professor and dean of intercultural studies at Columbia International University. Ed spent fourteen years serving in intercultural ministry in North Africa, France, and the United States. He earned a PhD in historical theology from the University of Wales-Trinity St. David and a PhD in intercultural studies from the University of Pretoria in South Africa. His most recent books include Brazilian Evangelical Missions in the Arab World, Rethinking Constantine, and Mission in the Early Church. Ed is married to Shawn, and they have three children.