Merciless villains. Blood-thirsty pillagers. Violent arsonists. Savage barbarians.
When used to describe an entire people group, those words sound awful. Yet, those words are often used to describe the Vikings, that Scandinavian people group that terrorized the rest of Europe for at least three centuries.
To go as a foreign missionary to people like that would take courage. It would take a strong sense of call. And, it would take a lot of dedication, especially if evangelistic results were meager or even nonexistent (which was the case). Indeed, dedication is something that certainly characterized Ansgar1, a missionary whom many now call The Apostle to the North.
Born in 801 A.D. in what is now France, Ansgar became a Benedictine monk. A series of visions or dreams gave him a clear sense of a missionary call. So, three years later, he went north as the pioneer Christian missionary to Scandinavia (the area today we know as Denmark, Norway, and Sweden).
Over the next 30 years, the Vikings forced him out of Scandinavia at least twice. However, Ansgar saw those events only as temporary detours. Both times, dedication to his call had him soon returning to Viking territory. One fascinating bit of trivia about Ansgar is that his name apparently meant "spear of God." Was it just a coincidence that he was sent to warrior tribes?
Evangelistic work in Viking territory was not all that fruitful. So Ansgar tried several avenues of ministry, including education and health care. He ransomed captives taken in Viking raids and campaigned against slavery while working to mitigate the horrors of the slave trade. A contemporary of Ansgar wrote that he was "accustomed to working with his hands in the fields and in the forests and was able to endure long-continued fatigue and privation."
Eventually, through Ansgar's preaching ability and holy lifestyle, he did see a few people become interested in the Gospel. A key leader or two leaned toward converting, but no Christ-ward movement developed among the general populace. At Ansgar's death, the Vikings immediately lapsed back into paganism. Even though he had built a church building or two, no viable congregations existed in Viking territory when Ansgar passed away. Indeed, there is no record of even any lasting individual conversions. However, Ansgar had been called to the inhabitants of Scandinavia and he dedicated his life to fulfilling that call.
More than a hundred years after Ansgar's death, a large number of people in Scandinavia did embrace Christ. One Viking country, Denmark, eventually became one of the first Protestant areas to become heavily involved in world evangelism. There was no hint, however, of that ever happening when Ansgar was toiling away seemingly fruitlessly.
Ansgar didn't have success in the way we sometimes measure success today. But he was dedicated. And that's the type of missionary God can use.
1*Note: Ansgar's name has also been spelled as Anskar, Anschar and Ansgarius.
Ansgar's life exemplifies the importance of a long-term perspective in world miossions ministry. Despite limited immediate results, Ansgar remained dedicated to his call to get the Gospel to the Vikings. Contemporary missionaries can learn from his perseverance, especially in contexts with slow responses to the Gospel. Success isn't always immediate, but faithfulness to the call and commitment to sharing God's love matter. Like Ansgar, missionaries must sometimes trust that their labor will bear fruit in due time, even if they don't see it in their lifetimes.
-- Howard Culbertson,
"The missionaries of old did not often get to realize the contributions that they made and yet, they were greatly motivated. Why is this, and what will it take to cause us to again become burdened for the world?" -- Christi V., Nazarene Bible College student
More 500-word mini-essays in the "Doing missions well" series published in Engage magazine